George Augustus Sala's first encounter with Charles Dickens was at the age of nine in 1837. His mother was working at the St. James's Theatre, King Street as an understudy in The Village Coquettes, an operetta written by Dickens and composed by John Hullah. The young Sala was given free reign in the Green Room and at the conclusion of the first performance he saw his mother talking to "Boz, with his long hair and ultra-fashionable clothes" (Straus 23). Madame Sala and Dickens would become firm friends on the strength of this engagement and Sala's meeting with Dickens spurred him on, along with his brothers and his sister, to privately dramatize Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. At the same time as proving their passion for the theatre, the family would display their love of the visual by "setting to work copying as well as we could George Cruikshank's illustrations to 'Oliver' and Phiz's etchings to 'Pickwick' and 'Nickleby" (Life 1: 89; Straus 41). In fact the early portion of Sala's career was dedicated to the visual and not to the written word.
At the age of fifteen in 1843, Sala was given a letter of introduction to Cruikshank. When the young man was told to return after he had mastered etching and drawing on wood, Sala's mother decided it was time to put her friendship with Dickens to good use. While reading Punch Madame Sala had come to the conclusion that "even John Leech's graphic humour was not vastly superior to her son's" (Straus 41). She wrote to Dickens reminding him of the "old St. James's Theatre days" and asked whether he could see her son, who wanted employment as an artist. Dickens duly met Sala and her mother at Euston Station, approved of the young man's graphic productions, and secured an introduction to Mark Lemon, then editor of Punch. Sala was rejected once again and for the next seven years he eked out a living as a scene-painter, illustrator and engraver. One of these productions was a crude depiction of Dickens at his study for a book entitled The Battle of London Life; or Boz and his Secretary (1849) written by the dissolute theatre-goer, Thomas O'Keefe.
The next meeting between Sala and Dickens proved momentous for both men. It would be the catalyst for Sala's career as a professional journalist and Dickens would discover one of the indispensable contributors to his weekly periodical, Household Words.
"The Key Of the Street"
Sala's description of a night in August 1851 would lead to his submitting an article to Dickens in which he reminded him that he had known him as a boy. P. D. Edwards believes that "it was characteristic of Sala to aim straight for the top, and of Dickens to respect a young man for doing so" (Edwards 9). Anne Lohrli contrasts the way Sala used his old association with Dickens as a means of seeking employment with another volunteer contributor, Adelaide Anne Procter, who "tactfully submitted hers under a pseudonym" (Lohrli 27). In fact, Adelaide Procter allowed her poems to be published for almost two years before Dickens discovered that she was the daughter of his friend Bryan Waller Procter. But Sala's paper was accepted not because of his old connection with Dickens but on its literary merit.
Sala's article, "The Key Of the Street," was duly read and accepted by Dickens. To his astonishment, he received not only a congratulatory letter from the editor, but also remuneration in the form of five pounds. Sala would have been even more astonished had he known the consequences: his rejection of the visual for the verbal and an association with Dickens's weekly journal that would last for the next five and a half years, during which time he would contribute 160 essays. Of the 375 writers who wrote for Household Words, only Henry Morley exceeded Sala's total.
On the night in August 1851 when Sala inadvertently locked himself out of his flat, he was forced to wander the streets of London with only ninepence in his pocket. …