Charles Dickens, Jr.: "Hermits, Ancient and Modern"

Eldest son of the prolific English writer, Charles Dickens Jr. (1837-1896) served as editor of his father's literary serial All The Year Round: A Weekly Journal, upon his father's death. He stopped working as editor in 1888, though his name adorned the masthead until the serial folded upon his death. No article in the serial identifies its author. Contributors ranged from known (Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade, Edward Bulwer-Lytton) to obscure Victorian writers. In the March 24, 1894 issue (v. 74, p. 282-285) is this summary little essay on hermits.

Hermits, Ancient and Modern

At first sight you might be inclined to question the existence of the modern hermit. The Census returns, with all their queer farrago of occupations and callings, make no mention of his peculiar way of life. Nor does the hermit, as such, appear in any of the directories, Metropolitan or provincial. But he exists all the same, and in considerable numbers; and not only he but she, for the hermit may be of either sex. The hermit is one who goes out into the wilderness to live alone, so the ancient fathers tell us, and nowhere is it easier to carry out the eremitical plan than in the wilderness of a great city such as London. The difficulty, indeed, with anyone of narrow means and possessed of no great wealth of friends, is to avoid falling into the ways of the recluse. The necessity of earning daily bread keeps most people in the kind of stir that averts positive stagnation, but when this is removed by some slender kind of provision, the tendency to a life of seclusion is even encouraged by the roar of traffic and the passing of busy crowds.

And we shall not be surprised to find hermits in Drury Lane; there was one not many years ago, a fresh-looking rustic, after the fashion of the farmer of Tilsbury Isle,

In the throng of the town like a stranger is he,

who lived in a garret for years, and died there in absolute solitude and seclusion. Early in the morning a few years ago, you might have met a pleasant-looking dame, in black, with the bonnet and shawl and general costume of A.D. 1830, and a little troop of dogs kept strictly in order, who would disappear in one of the narrow courts behind St. Martin's Lane, where she lived as much apart from all the world about her as the most rigid votaress of old times.

But what would you have said to the sight such as might have been witnessed not so long since, of an elderly lady encamped in the back garden of a large house in a pretentious neighbourhood, surrounded like Robinson Crusoe with goats, and dogs, and cats, but with hardly as good a shelter from the weather? As it happened, the drill-ground of one of our volunteer regiments abutted on the encampment; and the genial young fellows made great friends with our lady anchorite, who was excellent company, by the way, and full of anecdote. They built her a capital little hermitage of boards they fetched and carried for her, and made quite a pet of the old lady -- and even proposed to adopt her as the titular mother of the regiment. But one day the myrmidons of the law descended upon the little settlement, and the poor old lady was driven out to seek shelter where she could.

Another London hermit was an Irish gentleman of good family and of some means, who lived in a narrow cul-de-sac out of Holborn, in the midst of a swarm of poor Irish, his countrymen. Poor as they might be, they none of them lived so frugally as the "jontleman" who was known to be one of the "rale ould sort," and was respected accordingly, and who, indeed, made himself useful among the community, writing letters, and occasionally settling trifling disputes, while he was exonerated from any share in the free fights that decided more knotty causes of controversy. At his death it was found that he had led this penurious life in order to speculate more freely on the Stock Exchange, which he had done for twenty or thirty years with such mixed success, that though he left no debts, neither was there sufficient to pay his funeral expenses.

Some twenty years ago there lived in a little Welsh town on the sea-coast, in the upper room of a humble cottage, a scholar and divine, once a fellow and tutor of his college, who on some evil report affecting his good name, had abandoned all his appointments and disappeared from the knowledge of all his old associates. He led a blameless life, associating only with the very poor, and living on the frugal fare appropriate to the hermit's cell:

A scrip with herbs and fruit supplied,
And water from the spring.

But the Welsh have a natural tendency to a life of seclusion and meditation, and stories are told of some of their bards who spent the greater part of their lives hardly stirring from the box bedstead built in the thickness of the wall, which would well represent the couch hewn out of the rock of the earlier anchorite.

Yet another Welsh anchorite of recent times had the curious notion of sleeping all day and roaming about during the night, and this in a country village where there was nothing going on after nine p.m.

The champion hermit of the century, however, was Lucas of Radcotes Green, near Hitchen, a sketch of whom formed the framework of an early Christmas number of "All the Year Round," entitled "On Tom Tiddler's Ground." Lucas's forbears were wealthy West Indian merchants settled at Liverpool, who had acquired a small landed estate in Hertfordshire. Here the hermit lived the life of any other country gentleman of moderate means till the death of his mother, to whom he was warmly attached, in 1849, when he was nearly forty years old, an event which seems to have wrecked him altogether. The pleasant, modest country house and its lawns and gardens were given up to neglect and decay, while its owner bestowed himself in a wretched outhouse, with a blanket for all his apparel by day or night -- and a very dirty blanket at that, fastened at the neck by a wooden skewer -- and for a couch only a heap of ashes. Yet he does not seem to have courted notoriety, but rather to have had it thrust upon him. But he had neighbours in the literary world, and soon obtained a notoriety to which he did not seem averse. Anyhow, he was not infrequently interviewed in succeeding years; but he was an awkward subject -- "erode experto" -- as he seemed to have an insatiable curiosity as to the circumstances of his visitors, and assailed them with a crossfire of questions, while he was impenetrably reticent as to his own way of life. When all was done he would give you a glass of sherry, which tasted of soot, and hob-a-nob cheerfully with you, and discuss the affairs of the day, but his own affairs, never; which was disappointing. He was visited by great numbers of tramps, to whom he seems to have been kind on the whole, giving always a glass of gin, and occasionally a shilling to the respectful vagrant.

Altogether the poor man does not seem to have harmed anybody, and it is possible that in leading this wretched life, he had some notion of an expiation for his own sins or those of another, which, if mistaken, was not altogether unworthy. Anyhow, Lucas lived this way for five-and-twenty years, and was at last, in 1874, found insensible and half-frozen on the top of his ash-heap, and taken away to die elsewhere.

When Lucas was a boy an old lady was still living who carried the eremitic record to well into the previous century. Old Mrs. Lewson, of Coldbath Square, who died 1816, is said to have been born A.D. 1700 -- but this is probably a mistake -- in Essex Street, Strand; whence she removed on her marriage early in life to a wealthy but elderly husband, to the then rural neighbourhood of Coldbath Fields. Left by her husband's death a young and wealthy widow, it was perhaps some unlucky affair of the heart that first inclined her to seclusion. Anyhow, she lived a voluntary prisoner in her own house all the rest of her life, retaining still the garb of her early years, when George the First was King,

With ruffs and cuffs and fardingales,

even to the days of the scanty skirts and clinging robes of the Regency.

Contemporary with Lady Lewson, as she was always called in the neighbourhood, was Lord Byron, the uncle of the poet, who, after killing his neighbour Chaworth in a brawl at a London tavern, retired altogether into seclusion at Newstead, varying the monotony of existence by training the crickets of his lonely hearth -- so the story runs -- and with such success that they would dance around him in a ring. When the old lord died, tradition adds, the crickets left the house "en masse." Naturally Lord Byron's humbler neighbours set him down as a magician and the crickets as evil spirits, who had gone to attend him in another place.

For the notion that the secrets of nature could be best worked out in age and seclusion, with spells and meditations deep and subtle incantations, long commended itself to popular belief. And Milton seems indefinitely to share it when he invokes for his old age

The hairy gown, and mossy cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every star that heaven doth show,
And every herb that sips the dew.

Milton's aspirations for the peaceful hermitage have been shared by many others. Even the genial and social Sir Walter Scott had imagined for himself a lonely cell by St. Mary's Lake near the " bonny holms of Yarrow." And Wordsworth himself would have been no bad tenant for the hermitage on St. Herbert's Isle, in Derwentwater, that St. Cuthbert had once visited, who himself loved so dearly a solitary life.

In the "Black Dwarf," too, Scott has pictured that morbid sense of physical imperfections which leads so many to a life of practical seclusion. On the other hand, in the jolly hermit of "Ivanhoe" he brings the hermitage pleasantly into connection with vert and venison, and the jolly companions of the merry greenwood.

The genuine mediaeval hermitage was more often found in the city than in the forest. Victor Hugo gives us a description of one in the heart of Paris, the cell of Madame Roland, of Roland's Tower, who, for grief at the death of her father in the crusade, shut herself up for the rest of her life. "And here for twenty years the desolate damsel awaited death as in a living tomb, sleeping on a bed of ashes without even a stone for a pillow, clothed in a dirty sack, and subsisting on the charity of passers-by." Could it have been that our Lucas had read the famous romance of Victor Hugo, and had modelled himself after Madame Roland?

Hugo pictures another Parisian anchorite, "who during thirty years chanted the seven Psalms of penitence from a heap of straw at the bottom of a cistern, and even more loudly than ever at night; and to this day you may think to hear his voice as you enter the Rue du Puits-qui-parle." This kind of hermitage, by the way, can be paralleled in England, for at Royston there is a hermitage cut out of the chalk thirty or forty feet below the surface, accessible only by a narrow shaft, so that the voice of the penitent would literally cry from the depths.

There were hermitages, too, attached to most of the principal churches. St. Paul's had one, if not more, and doubtless the Abbey too. A cell attached to the Church of St. John's at Chester was reputed to have sheltered the unfortunate Harold, who, according to this tradition, recovered from his wounds, and lived as a humble anchorite for many years of the Conqueror's reign.

A still earlier legend is of Guy of Warwick, who. returning as a palmer from the Holy Land, assumed the hermit's frock, and lived for years all unknown in a lonely cell adjoining the gate of his own castle. Here he lived on alms daily supplied to him as one of a company of thirteen poor men -- a medieval thirteen club -- at the hands of his faithful wife, who regularly entreated their prayers for the safe return of her dear lord. The dour old Guy remained unmoved, and it was only in his last moments that he revealed himself by sending to his wife the ring she had exchanged with him at her bridal.

Then there is the ballad of the Hermit of Warkworth, in which the hermit is represented as sheltering young Percy, Hotspur's son, who, disguised as a shepherd, has won the heart of a noble damsel to whom the hermit presently unites him. And this is the true role of the hermit in romance, as witness Friar Laurence in " Romeo and Juliet," whereas Goldsmith in doubling the parts of hermit and lover, as in Edwin and Angelina, suggests a hermitage "a deux" which, however pleasing, seems to contravene the rules of the game.

As for the hermit in his religious aspect, we shall find him of most respectable antiquity. In the early centuries of our era the Thebaid of Egypt was almost crowded with them, and women as well as men embraced a life of seclusion, which was not, however, without its social features. So that to be quite alone one had to climb to the top of an obelisk or pillar like the famous Stylites. Saint Anthony, too, was one of the hermits of the Thebaid who found the company to be met with rather oppressive. But the tradition of this mode of life seems to have been handed down to the Celtic Church, and its religious settlements seem to have been rather clusters of anchorites than monasteries of the more regular pattern.

But, indeed, the hermit belongs to all the religions of the world. He is in full swarm among the disciples of Buddha. The Brahmana consider the ascetic life as the final and necessary stage of existence; the Mohammedans have their solitary dervishes. And where there is no particular religions sanction for the life, people take to it of their own accord. All of which only shows that in the general current of social and gregarious life, there are numerous eddies and backwaters, which draw insensibly towards solitude and seclusion.