Giving the final toast at the Royal Academy annual dinner in 1870 – celebrating a recent move to our galleries in Piccadilly – Dickens delivered the following speech to an audience of 200, that included then Prime Minister William Gladstone, the Prince of Wales Albert Edward and RA President Sir Francis Grant.
Mr. President, your Royal Highnesses, my Lords and Gentlemen, I beg to acknowledge the toast with which you have done me the great honour of associating my name. I beg to acknowledge it on behalf of the brotherhood of literature, present and absent, not forgetting an illustrious wanderer from the fold, whose tardy return to it we all hail with delight, and who now sits or lately did sit within a few chairs of or on your left hand. I hope I may also claim to acknowledge the toast on behalf of the sisterhood of literature also, although that “better half of human nature,” to which Mr. Gladstone rendered his graceful tribute, is unworthily represented here, in the present state of its rights and wrongs, by the devouring monster, man.
All the arts, and many of the sciences, bear witness that women, even in their present oppressed condition, can attain to quite as great distinction, and can attain to quite as lofty names as men. Their emancipation (as I am given to understand) drawing very near, there is no saying how soon they may “push us from our stools” at these tables, or how soon our better half of human nature, standing in this place of mine, may eloquently depreciate mankind, addressing another better half of human nature sitting in the president’s chair.
The literary visitors of the Royal Academy to-night desire me to congratulate their hosts on a very interesting exhibition, in which risen excellence supremely asserts itself, and from which promise of a brilliant succession in time to come is not