Dickensian enterprise

Posted by HC in Art / Books / People on 25 August 2008

It’s striking how often any thing grim about social life in Victoria’s reign is called “dickensian”. That was the word Michael Holroyd used to describe the actor Henry Irving’s “drudgery” as a clerk in his early days. (This was in a doubtless fabulous work on the actor by Britain’s greatest literary biographer, just published.) Actually, what was more striking was Holroyd’s evidence of a rather joyful dickensian entrepreneurship.

Holroyd describes how Irving rose at 5am to swim in the Thames before work. The day done, he attended a “school of arms” in Chancery Lane. Reminiscent of something very similar portrayed in Bleak House, it taught him how to swashbuckle. (By the way, he might have attended to the kind of dancing class also found in Hard Times.) And then to elocution class (attended then and for decades since by most British people keen to get ahead). £100 allowed him to invest in the costumes and kit which equipped him for life on the stage.

The point is that he was just a clerk, but - like millions of his countrymen – he had the imagination and the means to better himself. In my talks with corporates, I call this self-entrepreneurship. It’s not a pretty neologism, but the idea is that one invests in oneself both as a person and a sort of mini-business. Samuel Smiles would have understood.   

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