“I and my fellows are ministers of Fate”: Dickens and his beloved Ariel, Priscilla Horton
This post has been contributed by Katie Bell. Katie is a PhD student at the University of Leicester. Her thesis is titled “The Diaspora of Dickens: Death, Decay and Regeneration”, the focus of which is the intertextuality of Dickens’s works and 20th century American texts of the Southern Gothic genre. The American authors examined in her thesis are William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. She is based in the United States where she is also a volunteer docent for The Wren’s Nest, the home of Atlanta author Joel Chandler Harris most famous for his “Br’er Rabbit” tales. She can be found on Twitter @decadentdickens.
When Dickens turned eighteen, he applied for and received a reading ticket for the reading room of the British Museum. Michael Slater writes that it was here that Dickens “embarked on a course of miscellaneous literary and historical reading,” which included the works of Shakespeare (32). It is easy to see that Dickens was a Shakespeare superfan: he named his house in Rochester Gad’s Hill after the place where Falstaff commits the robbery which begins Henry IV, Part I. He utilized “Familiar in his mouth as household words,” from Henry V, as the subscript for his periodical Household Words. His second periodical All the Year Round is taken from a line of Othello, which he slightly altered, and in his early twenties, Dickens also wrote his own version of the play as a burlesque opera which he titled O’Thello. Knowing this, it will not be surprising that Dickens, an aspiring actor himself, would befriend the actress Priscilla Horton (1818-1895) in the 1830s. Born in Birmingham, Horton became famous for her role as Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which William Charles Macready (a close friend of Dickens) produced in 1838, most likely in Covent Garden, London. Ariel is an elemental spirit being who Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, rescues (and then enslaves) upon his arrival on a deserted island. Ariel is referred to in the play as a mostly gender-neutral character (the pronoun “he” is used only a handful of times) and, up until the twentieth century, Ariel was typically played by female actresses. Perhaps this gender relationship can be best understood with comparison to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Although Peter is born a human boy, he does possess fairy-like qualities including his ability to be non-gender specific. Thus, Peter has always been played onstage and in film by females, most famously by Mary Martin. As we see, gender constraints do not apply to those in the fairy world, like Peter and Ariel, who are free to change gender forms, or even be gender neutral.
The height of Horton’s career was performing in fairy burlesques in the 1830s, the modern-day equivalent of which would be musical theatre parody and pantomimes. Shakespeare’s plays were an exceedingly popular subject for burlesques in the nineteenth century, and Horton excelled in her roles in these types of parodies. However, she was also lauded in dramatic roles such as Desdemona in Othello and Ophelia in Hamlet. Horton continued acting after her marriage to Thomas German Reed in 1844, but the apex of her career was achieved in these comedy fairy burlesques. On 26 October 1838, Dickens penned a poem “To Ariel” in honour of Horton’s depiction of Ariel. One can conjecture that Dickens must have been very taken with Horton’s performance to have penned such an impromptu poem for her. This work appears in Horton’s autograph book, now part of the Rare Books Collection at the Philadelphia Free Library. Other poems and autographs can be found in this book, but Dickens’s is of interest, firstly because he penned this “fan” poem at such an early stage in his career (he was in the midst of writing Oliver Twist), but also because he included a small illustration at the bottom of the page, presumably of himself, hastening to Ariel’s summons. One would read from his poem that he was indeed infatuated with Horton’s performance:
Some saints there are who roar and cry,
And rave and scream and bawl,
To force some spirit throned on high
To bless them with a call;
But though they sue on bended knee
That spirit’s deaf and dumb.–
Oh Spirit if you called on me
How very soon I’d come!
The picture at the bottom of the poem is of a man with a rather shocked expression, his hair billowing up behind him and his hands outstretched. He looks as if he may be staggering backwards at the sight of something truly extraordinary: Priscilla Horton’s Ariel?
I was lucky enough to be able to view the original manuscript of this poem while researching at the Philadelphia Free Library this year, and I noticed that in the little man’s hands, there appears to be a mark that runs lengthwise, beginning at the figure’s hands and extending down to his thigh. To the naked eye, it looks as if an object once may have been “held” by the figure: a flower perhaps, or a lady’s hairpin? Might something have been affixed to the page? We may never know, but it does bring more meaning to the picture itself to realise that the figure could have been holding an actual souvenir (a token of Ariel’s) instead of merely falling backwards in awe. It certainly is a fascinating piece of work, as it demonstrates Dickens’s ability to create an impromptu cartoon sketch (even if the poem were pre-drafted, the figure most certainly was not), his appreciation for the theatre and his love of Shakespeare. While Priscilla Horton may not be remembered by the average modern theatregoer, she was certainly appreciated by those of her time who attended her performances, including Dickens and his circle of friends. Dickens was the “inimitable Boz” and, as is the case with unparalleled people, he would have only upheld the most extraordinary as part of his circle of artists. Priscilla Horton made that cut.
 Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing. Yale University Press, 2011, p 39.
Autograph album of Priscilla Horton. Manuscripts. Free Library of Philadelphia: Philadelphia, PA. https://libwww.freelibrary.org/digital/item/31683. (accessed Feb 23, 2017)
Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing. Yale University Press, 2011.
Smith, Harry Bache. A Sentimental Library: Comprising Books Formerly Owned by Famous Writers, Presentation Copies, Manuscripts, and Drawings. Harvard College Library: Cambridge, MA. Private Printing, 1914, p. 78.