Born in London in 1793, William Charles Macready was one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of his generation, thanks to a forty year career that began on stage in 1810 and also saw him manage both the Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres in the 1840s. Such a career naturally positioned him at the heart of England’s literary and artistic circles, resulting in friendships with many luminaries of the era including William Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle, and Charles Dickens, and it was the latter he had invited to dinner on 16th August of 1840 along with Dickens’ wife and mutual friend John Forster. That night, Macready, a committed diarist, recalled an argument that had ruined the evening for all.
The Diary Entry
Went to dine with Dickens, and was witness to a most painful scene after dinner. Forster, Maclise and myself were the guests. Forster got on to one of his headlong streams of talk (which he thinks argument) and waxed warm, and at last some sharp observations led to personal retorts between him and Dickens. He displayed his usual want of tact, and Dickens flew into so violent a passion as quite to forget himself and give Forster to understand that he was in his house, which he should be glad if he would leave. Forster behaved very foolishly. I stopped him; spoke to both of them and observed that for an angry instant they were about to destroy a friendship valuable to both. I drew from Dickens the admission that he had spoken in passion and would not have said what he said, could he have reflected; but he added he could not answer for his temper under Forster’s provocations, and that he should do just the same again.
Forster behaved very weakly; would not accept the repeated acknowledgment communicated to him that Dickens regretted the passion, etc., but stayed, skimbling-skambling a parcel of unmeaning words, and at last finding he could obtain no more, made a sort of speech, accepting what he had before declined. He was silent and not recovered—no wonder!—during the whole evening. Mrs. Dickens had gone out in tears. It was a very painful scene.
The Diaries of William Charles Macready, 1833-1851, edited by William Toynbee, were published in 1912. Long out of print, they can now be read online.
- William Macready at the Oxford DIctionary of National Biography
- Macready’s diaries became a stage show in 1979, starring Frank Barrie. The play was called Macready! (the exclamation mark was in the title; it’s not that I find it amusing) and became hugely successful internationally. In 1982 that show was adapted for television.