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Charles Dickens

By Joanne Long

In 2007, Dickens World opened in Chatham, Kent, near where Charles Dickens lived when his father was a Naval pay clerk. There you may see a slide show of Dickens’ travels at Peggotty’s Boat House, allow the children to play in Fagin’s Den (socks only), have a meal at the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, and escape from the hulks with Magwich on the Great Expectations Boat ride. The website of the theme park advertises its educational programs, its shop, its use as a filming site, its availability for birthday parties and its special theatrical productions: last October, for instance, La Traviata in the courtyard and for Halloween, Ivy Paige’s Scandalous!, a “Victorian Burlesque Show.”1

Would Dickens approve? Who can say? Simon Swift, reviewing Dickens World, recalled the “lucrative industry in unofficial souvenirs” in Dickens’ day, including “Pickwick hats and Samuel Weller corduroys.”2 It is likely that Dickens would have wanted to control this “lucrative industry” as he wanted to control his own publishing enterprises. Dickens was the pre-eminent novelist of the Victorian era, “Boz the Inimitable,” and he was also a shrewd and highly successful editor and publisher of weekly magazines, a showman who toured England and America performing public Readings of scenes from his works. Dickens used every available form of publication in a period of rapid expansion of both literacy and modes of production: his novels were first published either as monthly illustrated numbers or as weekly installments in the magazines he ran, and they were also immediately republished in book editions, both expensive and cheap. He was a fierce proponent of copyright law, and who can blame him? As he published the first monthly number of Nicholas Nickleby in 1838, there was the simultaneous publication of Nickelas Nickelbery, one of a number of imitations of Dickens’ novels published by Lloyds, including Oliver Twiss and David Copperfull, and Lloyds was not alone. On Dickens’ first American tour in 1842 he shocked and angered his audiences by his outspoken complaints that American publishers pirated his work. The public Readings, which he first performed as charity events, became a serious source of income later in his life. When he returned to America for a reading tour in 1867, among the souvenirs on offer was the “Dickens Collar,” “ornamented with two rosebuds and the likeness of the author on the tips.”3

The breadth of Dickens’ career, his early fame, his prodigious industry and the meticulousness with which he cultivated the work of the writers he published in his magazines, his fame and public stature in Victorian England and America, all these have left behind a world of objects of interest to collectors. The enormity of his publishing success was almost unmatched, except by Harriet Beecher Stowe with Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, though that was Stowe’s only work sold on a Dickensian scale.4 Chapman and Hall, the publisher of The Pickwick Papers, printed 1000 copies of the first number in March 1836; when the serialization came to an end in October 1837, 40,000 copies were being printed of each new number and back numbers were being re-printed simultaneously.5 These “numbers” were somewhat fragile, 32 pages of text with several engravings, bound in heavier paper wrappers, a form of initial publication Dickens used for all but a few of his novels.

When Dickens was publishing Dombey and Son in 1846-48, he also issued a Cheap Edition of his novels, dedicated to “the English people,” again to be produced in affordable weekly and monthly formats, with new illustrations and new prefaces by Dickens. Dickens’ weekly All the Year Round (published from 1859 to Dickens’ death 1870, then by his son to 1895), began at 100,000 copies a week in England, and rose to 300,000 copies a week in the decade that followed.6 Here we can see again Dickens’ use of simultaneous publishing formats to reach as large an audience as possible: Dickens planned that each number of his new journal would begin with an installment of a serialized novel; he launched All the Year Round with his new novel, A Tale of Two Cities; besides the weekly edition, he also published A Tale in monthly numbers and again in book form once the serial ended. So while the weeklies and numbers were in some sense ephemeral, they were published in such numbers that they have survived, happily for us.

And the initial publication in numbers was only the start for any work. What with multiple formats of publication, American publication, international publication, pirated publication, parodies and imitations, selections and abridgements, every work of Dickens was circulating broadly and simultaneously for many years - they did not go out of print in his time and have not done so yet. Add to these Dickens’ work as an essayist, playwright and librettist, the dramatizations of his stories, the publication of his many speeches, the advertising for his novels - posters for Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel, were on “omnibuses and...steamboats…and at railway stations” and handbills were “wrapped around gas-lights.”7 Add to these again the tickets and posters and playbooks for the public readings, the hundreds of photographs and untold numbers of other illustrations of him published in his lifetime, the newspapers articles and reviews, letters, biographies and all the other forms through which Dickens’ celebrity as the most popular and successful writer and entertainer of his age was recorded and enlarged, and it is clear just how it was that “Dickens had a kind of total and continual existence for the readers of his age.”8 In all this we find much scope for a collector.

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But why should we care now about any of it? To ask this another way, what is there in Dickens’ greatness beyond celebrity, both for his original readers and for us? Alfred Heacock Whittaker, whose collection we are celebrating, was so impressed by reading Dickens as a young man that he dedicated his medical career to addressing the same problems that Dickens took as the themes of his work: “the plight of the working man, public education, social reform, and the health of prisoners.”9 Dickens was the comic genius of urban life - “What inexhaustible food for speculation do the streets of London afford!” says Boz in “Shops and Their Tenants,” one of the “Sketches” published in the Chronicle starting in 183310- - with the power to bring characters brightly before the reader through gesture and voice, as in this toast to Mr. Minns by his cousin Buddens:

“Gentlemen,” said Buddens, “my cousin is a man who - is a relation of my own.” (Hear! hear!) Minns groaned audibly. “Who I am most happy to see here, and who, if he were not here, would certainly have deprived us of the great pleasure we all feel in seeing him.” (Loud cries of hear!)11

But from the start, entwined with moments of exuberance, are scenes of pathos; in “The Hospital Patient,” a young woman is asked to testify from her deathbed against the man who beat her:

“Oh, no, gentlemen,” said the girl, raising herself once more and folding her hands together; “no, gentlemen, for God’s sake! I did it myself - it was nobody’s fault - it was an accident. He didn’t hurt me; he wouldn’t for all the world. Jack, dear Jack, you know you wouldn’t!”

Her sight was fast failing her, and her hand groped over the bedclothes in search of his. Brute as the man was, he was not prepared for this.12

Fraught as such scenes are with melodrama, in this and others, such as “A Visit to Newgate” we see what Thea Holmes sees in Dickens: “something greater than pity and horror: the imaginative insight into the causes of crime which was later to inspire his relentless exposure of social evils.”13

Dickens was somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-four when he wrote these scenes; Sketches by Boz, published in 1836 when he was just twenty-four, illustrated by George Cruikshank and immediately successful, was a collection of the Evening Chronicle articles he had been writing for several years while he was also a political reporter for the Morning Chronicle.14 From our perspective as from the perspective of his Victorian audience, Dickens’ life looks to have been that of a man hugely successful from a young age, as it certainly was. But his childhood was not entirely easy, a fact known only to a very few of his friends during his life, and in it we can see events which go some way to explain the sources of his outrage at social injustice, and also his great drive to succeed.

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Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812, the son of John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow, the second of eight children. His father was a clerk in the Naval Pay Office. The family moved quite a bit in Dickens’ first five years: from Portsmouth to London to Sheerness in Kent, then to Chatham, near Rochester, Kent, where they lived until Charles was ten years old. In Dickens, A Biography, Fred Kaplan sees the landscape of Rochester, “the narrow streets of the old cathedral town, the magnificent ruin of a once mighty fortress, the naval dockyard at Chatham, then the glittering river Medway, which gradually widens and disappears into its estuary,” where “the “hills across the river... glitter peacefully, quietly,” as “the primal home of Dickens’ imagination... forever associated in his mind with a time in which he felt young and loved.”15 Peter Ackroyd complicates this picture by reminding us that Chatham was “a rough and dirty place, the haunt of the sailors and soldiers who were stationed there at a time when the Napoleonic Wars had just come to an end, leaving the inheritance of wasted lives, maimed bodies, popular discontent and a repressive domestic government,” a place where “the numerous frowsy drinking places were matched only by the number of equally frowsy brothels.”16 These contrasting emphases highlight what we see in the work of Dickens: the delight in nostalgia, the belief in love as a moral force and capacity, the cruelty of disease and disorder, the destructiveness of heartless public policy.

John and Elizabeth Dickens were sociable and loved company and music. Elizabeth claimed that she was out dancing the night before Charles was born. Dickens described himself as a bright child who loved reading and pantomimes and putting on plays, and as he grew up he was surrounded by friends, treated by an older cousin to trips to the theater, and happy at school. In his picture of the unhappy David Copperfield confined to his room by his stepfather, sitting on his bed “reading as if for life,” Dickens gives us a sense of his own early love of stories: “From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.”17 Dickens’ recall of his childhood home in later years suggested a photographic memory, so clearly could he recall the scenes of his past.

When Dickens was about ten years old, his father was transferred to London; the pattern of small debts paid off by quarterly earnings which had characterized the tight finances of the Dickens’ household in Chatham became harder to maintain in London, where prices were higher and John Dickens’ pay lower. Among other unaffordable luxuries was schooling for Charles, though his sister Fanny was sent to the Royal Academy of Music. David Copperfield, which Dickens called his “favorite child,” is a portrait of what Dickens saw himself to be, and in the narrative of David he portrays a distressing period in his own youth when John Dickens could not pay his bills and was imprisoned as a debtor in the Marshalsea prison. Like David, young Charles was sent out to sell the household goods, his beloved books among them. And like David, he was sent to work at a warehouse pasting labels on pots of boot blacking, a period of his life he confided only to John Forster, his close friend and first biographer, in an account he sent Forster just before he began work on David Copperfield:

It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me, that, even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me - a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally - to suggest that something might have been spared, as certainly it might have been, to place me at any common school. Our friends, I take it, were tired out. No one made any sign. My father and mother were quite satisfied. They hardly could have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at grammar school, and going to Cambridge.18

John Dickens was released from debtors prison after fourteen weeks, having received a small legacy on the death of his mother, but Dickens was not able to say afterwards how long he worked at Warren’s Blacking. Eventually he was sent to school again, to Wellington Academy, where he studied for two years. His father again falling into debt, Dickens began at fifteen to work as a junior clerk for a law firm, as did David Copperfield; and like David, when he was eighteen Charles began to learn short hand so he could record testimony in the law courts. At the same time, he also began a period of dedicated reading at the British Museum and other libraries, which he continued for several years.19

Though Dickens was poor and lonely during some of these years - his family moved into the Marshalsea when his father was imprisoned, leaving him to lodge nearby - it was also during this time that he came to know London. He went for breakfast and dinner into the prison and came to know the stories of the prisoners. Curious and restless, he walked everywhere, and as a delivery boy for the law offices, he was sent everywhere. He saw everything, the prisons, the markets, the docks, the courts, and he later said, the theaters: “I went to some theatre every night, with a very few exceptions, for at least three years.“20 There is some evidence he in this period took part in some productions, as he certainly did later in his life. His training in shorthand taught him to listen carefully to and transcribe phonetically the voices and accents and idioms he heard on all sides, as Peter Ackroyd has pointed out, and he was popular wherever he worked for his story telling and his mimicry.21 Monotonous though his working life was, his genius was preparing itself.

With his shorthand skills he became a court transcriber and parliamentary reporter, and it was in his work for the newspapers that his life as a writer began to take shape. The Sketches, published in the Chronicle and later collected into his first book, illustrated by the celebrated caricaturist George Cruikshank, had as their subjects the many scenes of the London Dickens was learning to negotiate as a young man, the life of the lower middle-class neighborhoods in which his family lived: in “Gin Shops,” for instance, he notes that an “epidemic began to display itself among the linen drapers and haberdashers. The primary symptoms were an inordinate love of plate- glass and a passion for gas-lights and gilding.”22 He records this bit of dialogue in “The Pawnbroker’s Shop,” a sort of place he knew well as a child:

“What have you got here?” inquires the shopman, unpinning the bundle – “old concern, I suppose – pair o’ stay and a petticut. You must look up somethin’ else, old ‘ooman; I can’t lend you anything more upon them; they’re completely worn out by this time, if it’s only by putting in, and taking out again, three times a week.”23

“The Prisoners’ Van,” “The Steam Excursion,” “Private Theatres,” ”Public Dinners,” - these became the stuff of his novels. “Gin Shops” owes something to William Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” in its emphasis on the poverty and disorder of neighborhood of the shop, though the illustration by Cruikshank looks rather at the gentility of the shop. In “Gin Lane” Hogarth asserted that gin was socially destructive (the accompanying print “Beer Street” showed an orderly and prosperous urban scene).24 While Cruikshank was a Temperance campaigner, Dickens focused rather on poverty as the cause of disorder: “Temperance Societies, ” he wrote, should “suggest an antidote against hunger, filth, and foul air.”25

In Sunday Under Three Heads, “writing in a hot rage,”26 Dickens strenuously argued against a proposed Sabbath Bill that would have closed shops, bakeries and markets on Sundays, and disallowed cabs, boats, and other modes of transportation, as well as games such as cricket. Focusing on the needs of workers who had only Sunday as a holiday, and railing against both the hypocrisy that exempted the servants of the rich from the prohibition on work and the fanaticism of those who would impose their religious views, Dickens laid out a secular vision in which “Sunday might be looked forward to, as a recognized day of relaxation and enjoyment, and when every man might feel, what few men do now, that religion is not incompatible with rational pleasure and needful recreation.” He demanded that museums and libraries and “repositories of scientific and useful inventions” be open on Sunday so members of the working class would have access to learning and reading, as they did in the Mechanics institutes being established throughout Britain.27

Dickens’ confidence in his powers, business sense, and literary ambition are all on display in the story of the way The Pickwick Papers came together. Dickens was approached to provide text to accompany a monthly series on Cockney sporting life by the popular illustrator Robert Seymour. But Dickens immediately negotiated for a broader canvas for himself, and rather than supplying a bit of story for Seymour, he insisted that the illustrations arise out of his text. On Seymour’s death by suicide after completing the second number, another artist was tried but Dickens rejected his work. Dickens himself recruited Hablot Knight Browne, who became “Phiz” to Dickens’ “Boz,” a collaboration that lasted for thirty years, until Dickens turned to Marcus Stone for the illustrations to Our Mutual Friend.28

Browne created the “look” of Dickens, and filmmakers such as George Cukor in his 1935 David Copperfield took the décor for the sets directly from his illustrations. Dickens directed Browne carefully, selecting the scenes to be illustrated and going over the work in progress; yet in another sense the original illustrators, especially Cruikshank and Browne, were also Dickens’ first interpreters, in the visual allusions and the styles they employed, and also in details that created emblematic commentary; in “I return to the Doctor’s after the party,” for instance, young David Copperfield looks on as the very young Annie Strong sits at the feet of her elderly husband; Doctor Strong, portrayed in text and picture as gentle and kind, reads a newspaper and does not see his wife’s distress.29 Dickens, Browne and their audiences were coming to the novels with both the Hogarthian pictorial tradition of narrative through emblematic gesture and detail, but also a popular visual culture that new print technologies were vastly expanding, in periodicals, penny presses, political broadsides, advertising placards, religious tracts, crime stories and more. Dickens’ narrative style is visual at heart: the child with almost photographic memory is the writer who creates his characters in movement, through gesture and idiom, using the techniques of both the stage and print culture. Dickens also loved music and fairy tales, loved always the books he read as a child, read all the writers and thinkers of his day, educated himself through years of intensive reading at the British Library, read Shakespeare and other dramatists, saw and acted in plays—that Dickens’ imagination ranged so widely through popular forms should not blind us to his powers of synthesis and literary control.

Pickwick was a wild success. The country went mad for Boz. Dickens was twenty-five years old, in love (again, he fell in love several times in these years) and about to be married to Catharine Hogarth. And professionally he was almost unimaginably productive. The serialization of Pickwick began six months after the publication of Sketches, running monthly from 1836 to 1837; he began to edit Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837, where Oliver Twist was serialized 1837-1839; Nicholas Nickleby went into serialization in 1838; The Old Curiosity Shop, succeeded by Barnaby Rudge, appeared weekly in Master Humphrey’s Clock, which Dickens ran between 1840 and 1841. When he left for America in January of 1842, he was thirty years old, had published six books and seen some success with his two comic plays, The Village Coquettes and The Strange Gentleman. He and Catherine had a family of four children (eventually there would be ten) and a big house near Regent’s Park.

The first of Dickens’ novels, beyond the Sketches and The Pickwick Papers, was Oliver Twist. In it he shifted away from the picaresque comedy of Pickwick. Subtitled “A Parish Boy’s Progress” and recalling both John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Hogarth’s narrative series The Harlot’s ProgressThe Rake’s Progress and Industry and IdlenessOliver Twist took aim at the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, by which to qualify for poor relief families had to leave their homes and move into the workhouse, a target for Dickens for the rest of his life. While in some sense Oliver enacts an idealized national migration of the poor moving from rural to urban poverty (idealized in that Oliver is returned to the upper-middle class world his unmarried mother had fallen out of), Dickens presents the criminal world of London with documentary accuracy, melodramatic moral resolution, comedy, and revulsion tempered with empathy. Oliver himself is the first of the numerous child characters who seem to embody Dickens’ own childhood sense of abandonment; like Oliver, Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop and David Copperfield can be seen in the figure of “a poor houseless, wandering boy, without a friend to help him, or a roof to shelter his head.”30

Dickens’ fame and popularity grew with each book, both in Britain and abroad. Nicholas Nickleby (the first number of which sold almost 50,000 copies on the first day of publication31) begins as an exposé of the educational and social sadism in Yorkshire boarding schools, turns to farcical comedy when Nicholas joins a traveling theatrical troupe, and achieves a comic resolution in which Nicholas enters the world of commercial work, a balancing of social critique and genial comedy central to Dickens’ enterprise. In a charming exchange of letters between Dickens and a little boy, Hastings Hughes, who has told Dickens how to reward and punish the characters at the end of Nicholas Nickleby, we see Dickens’ generosity: “I have carefully done what you told me in your letter about the lamb and the two ‘sheeps’ for the little boys.”32 There is the famous story of the crowds gathering on the pier in New York, waiting for the last number of The Old Curiosity Shop, calling out to a ship, “Is Little Nell dead?” Dickens’ readers wrote to him, begging him not to kill Little Nell off. According to Kaplan, the novel “brought him and his readers to a pitch so intense that it became the Victorian touchstone for the empathetic novel in which author and reader create a community of shared feeling... culminating in widespread public mourning for the main character,”33 seen by another critic as “a movement in the history of modern sensibility.”34 Dickens himself wrote to several correspondents about the pain he felt in writing: “I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it.”35

The pace of writing remained intense: The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, whose central character is caught up in political riots, were published weekly in Master Humphrey’s Clock, the first of several Dickens magazines, between 1840 and 1841. Dickens and his wife Catherine toured America for five months in 1842, in an exhausting round of lectures, dinners and tours of prisons, factories, and Congress, visiting western cities and southern plantations. Especially in the chapter “Slavery,” but also in comments about the press, public manners, and the pursuit of money, Dickens alienated his American audience, as did his next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, in which to pump up lagging sales, Dickens sent his main character to the swamps of Eden, Missouri. Disappointing early sales were compensated by the success of A Christmas Carol, the first of the five Christmas stories, which helped financially: Dickens always did need money to support his ever-growing family. In Martin Chuzzlewit Dickens drew some of his most memorable characters - Pecksniff the “moral man,” “fuller of virtuous precept than a copybook,” and Sarey Gamp, the nurse, who is always “dispoged” to take a sip from the “bottle on the chimley-piece”36 - and he gained firmer thematic integration with stronger satiric bite. He wrote to a friend that he was “powdering away at Chuzzlewit, with all manner of facetiousness rising up before me as I go on.”37 In the end the sales of Chuzzlewit followed only those of Pickwick and David Copperfield.

In this period, with the massive Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849-50), and Bleak House (1852-53), Dickens more and more explored the psychological experience of his characters. Marriage became central thematically; the choices and sufferings in marriage of Edith Dombey and Lady Dedlock, his most successful portraits of women, mirrored the mid-century critique of marriage law of feminists such as Caroline Norton. In David Copperfield, his "favorite child" and most autobiographical novel, Dickens showed the tyranny of Mr. Murdstone, David's stepfather, whose "firmness" destroys David's mother; the vulnerability of his aunt Betsey Trotwood, separated from but inseparable from her drunken and violent husband; the strains and misunderstandings in the May-December marriage of Annie and Dr. Strong, observing which David comes to understand the way in which his own early marriage to Dora, "the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart," cannot survive: "There can be no disparity in marriage, like unsuitability of mind and purpose." With his own developing sense of purpose in his fiction, Dickens was able to bring some of the pain of his upbringing into artistic balance: Mr. Micawber replays the story of his own father's imprisonment for debt, in a comic key. And in Copperfield as in other works Dickens orchestrates the multiple plots that were for Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian formalist filmmaker, among Dickens' narrative techniques that translated so vividly to cinema. 39

Uriah Heep, the “umble” workhouse boy, is the villain of David Copperfield, but we may have some sympathy for him in his explanation of his villainy: “they used to teach at school (the same school where I picked up so much umbleness), from nine o’clock to eleven, that labor was a curse; and from eleven o’clock to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness, and a dignity… You preach, about as consistent as they did.’”40 But overall Dickens’ targets were the governmental and industrial institutions and attitudes that devalued individual human connection. Mr. Gradgrind’s educational methods and Mr. Bounderby’s views of labor in Hard Times, the Court of Chancery and hypocritical philanthropists in Bleak House, the Circumlocution Office and the Marshalsea prison in Little Dorrit, the prison hulks of Great Expectations - Dickens’ characters are pressed under the weight of institutional and societal indifference and hostility. Bradley Headstone, the School Master of Our Mutual Friend, with “his decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent white shirt, and decent formal black tie, and decent pantaloons of pepper and salt, with his decent silver watch in his pocket and its decent hair-guard round his neck,“ “who had acquired mechanically a great store of teacher’s knowledge,”41 is both an agent and victim of a school system that devalued imagination; his story ends with his descent into murderous obsession.

A Tale of Two CitiesGreat ExpectationsOur Mutual Friend. Madame Defarge, Pip and Miss Havisham, Boffin and Silas Wegg. The novels become darker, but their inventiveness does not falter. Besides his own novels, in All the Year Round Dickens was publishing Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell, Edward Bulwer Lytton and Charles Reade, and of course many others whose names are now unknown. He was a conscientious and exacting editor, and his letters to writers are full of advice which may sometimes have been hard to take: to Miss Emily Jolly, whose stories he later published, he wrote about the “attendant atmosphere of truth” necessary to the presentation of her heroine’s “passionate nature” that “would, in a manner, oblige the reader to believe in her. Whereas, for ever exploding like a great firework without any background, she glares and wheels and hisses, and goes out, and has lighted nothing.”42

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Dickens wrote this letter to Jolly at a difficult time in his life. While his career was successful artistically and financially, he was unhappy in his domestic life. The refrain from David Copperfield, “There can be no disparity in marriage, like unsuitability of mind and purpose,” became ever stronger. In 1858 he separated from his wife; they had been married twenty-two years and had ten children. Divorce was out of the question, both for its legal difficulty and expense and because Dickens feared it would alienate his audience, but he could not contain the rumor and scandal, which went so far as to suggest an incestuous relationship with his sister-in-law. Against the advice of his friends he published a public letter in Household Words, because, as Peter Ackroyd says, “All his life he had depended upon an audience for applause and praise - ever since the days when his father put him on the table of the Rochester tavern - and now, in this grave crisis, he had to maintain contact with that audience; he had to speak to it; he had to persuade it. For, if he were to lose his hold upon it, he would lose hold of everything.”43

Dickens’ love of theater and sense of civic responsibility had led him over many years to participate in a great variety of theatrical performances, for a variety of charitable causes. He did numerous readings of works such as A Christmas Carol beginning with a series of performances in 1853 to inaugurate Birmingham’s Industrial and Literary Institute. It was during rehearsals for The Frozen Deep, written with Wilkie Collins, for the benefit of the widow of Douglas Jerrold, that he met Ellen Ternan, the young actress with whom he fell in love in 1857. At this time he began to think of performing for paid audiences, both for the huge profits and as a distraction from his unhappiness. Taking A Christmas Carol and the other Christmas stories, the death of Paul Dombey from Dombey and Son, the trial from The Pickwick Papers, Mrs. Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, he opened in London in 1858 and then toured provincial cities. The “Charles Dickens Show” was “the greatest one man show of the nineteenth century.”44 Other tours followed in 1859-60 and 1861-62 and 1866, then a tour in America in 1867-68. In his “farewell tour” of 1869 he introduced Sikes’s murder of Nancy, from Oliver Twist. It was “a most amazing and terrific thing,” a member of the audience wrote to Dickens, “I had an almost irresistible impulse upon me to scream, and... if anyone had cried out, I am certain I should have followed.”45

Dickens included “Sikes and Nancy” against the advice of his family and friends. For one thing, Dickens was playing up the most sensational aspects of his writings; for some, the tours themselves were a bit suspect, the work of an entertainer, a popularizer who played to his middle- and working-class audience, who, in this view, would forfeit the literary stature of his contemporaries such as Thackeray and George Eliot. We now might agree rather with Tolstoy, of course: “If you sift the world’s prose literature Dickens will remain; if you sift Dickens, David Copperfield will remain.”46 More importantly, the readings had always been exhausting, and the “Sikes and Nancy” reading of the last tour was particularly so. “I shall tear myself to pieces” he said on his way to read the scene for the last time.47 He had suffered swollen feet, elevated blood pressure, sore throat, hoarse voice, facial neuralgia and headache, and complained of feelings of numbness in his arms and legs. He had made a fortune, and he had developed an intense and personal relationship with large, cheering, adoring audiences.

Dickens read for his last audience on March 15, 1870; at the end of his performance he thanked them, saying “from these garish lights I vanish now for ever more, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.”48 He returned to Gad’s Hill, a house near Rochester his father had pointed out to him when he was a child and which he had bought as a retreat a couple of years before, to continue work on The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Within three months, on June 9, 1870, he died of a massive stroke. He was fifty-eight years old.


  2. Simon Swift, “What the Dickens?” Guardian, 18 April 2007.
  3. Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952, p. 1007.
  4. Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 384.
  5. There are differing estimates of the number of copies printed of the first number of The Pickwick Papers. Peter Ackroyd, in Dickens, London: Sinclair Stevenson, 1990, rpt. New York: HarperCollins, pp. 180, 196, believes that 400 copies were printed, though he acknowledges that the number is contested; Graham Law, Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press, New York:Palgrave, 2000, believes 1000 copies were printed, but that “sales were at first disappointing”(p.15).
  6. Johnson, p. 947. J. A. Sutherland, in Victorian Novelists and Publishers, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, p. 168, expressed some skepticism about this latter figure: it is “staggering if true.”
  7. Ackroyd, p. 947.
  8. Sutherland, p. 37.
  9. Whittaker family essay, elsewhere in this publication.
  10. Sketches by Boz, 1836, rpt. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens, 1957, with introduction by Thea Holme, p. 59.
  11. Sketches, “Departure of Mr. Minns,” 320.
  12. Sketches, p. 243.
  13. Sketches, p. ix.
  14. Ackroyd, p. 164.
  15. Fred Kaplan, Dickens, A Biography, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1988, p. 23.
  16. Ackroyd, p. 23.
  17. David Copperfield, first published in monthly numbers, May 1849 to November 1850, rpt. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens, 1948, with an introduction by R. H. Malden, p. 55.
  18. John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, London: Chapman and Hall, 1872. Vol. 1, p. 31.
  19. Johnson, p. 58; Ackroyd, p. 128, Kaplan, p. 49.
  20. Ackroyd, p. 120. I have depended on Ackroyd's account of Dickens in this period; it is especially rich in detail.
  21. Acroyd, p. 125.
  22. Sketches, p. 183.
  23. Sketches, p. 191.
  24. See Michael Steig, Dickens and Phiz, Indiana University Press, 1978, for a thorough discussion of the influence of William Hogarth on Dickens’ illustrators. To be found at:
  25. Sketches, p. 187.
  26. Johnson, vol. 1, p. 144.
  27. Sunday under Three Heads, New York: Peter Eckler, 1894, p. 61.
  28. Ackroyd, pp. 173-73, 941.
  29. See Steig, chapter five, available at
  30. Oliver Twist, 1837-39, rpt. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens, 1949, with an introduction by Humphry House, p. 392.
  31. Johnson, p. 219.
  32. The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. by His Sister-in-Law and His Eldest Daughter [Georgina Hogarth and Mamie Dickens], London: MacMillan and Co, 1909, 12 December 1838, pp. 18-19.
  33. Kaplan, p. 117.
  34. Ackroyd, p. 320, quoting an unnamed critic.
  35. Letters, 22 December 1840, p. 37.
  36. Martin Chuzzlewit, 1843-44, rpt. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens, 1951, with an introduction by Geoffrey Russell, pp. 12, 314.
  37. Letters, 2 March 1843, p. 87.
  38. David Copperfield, p. 698.
  39. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film TheorySan Diego : Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, c1977, pp. 195-255.
  40. David Copperfield, p. 760.
  41. Our Mutual Friend, first published in monthly numbers from May 1864 to November 1865, rpt. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens, with an introduction by E. Salter Davies, 1952, p. 217.
  42. Letters, 30 May 1857, p. 427
  43. Ackroyd, p. 820.
  44. The Charles Dickens Show: An Account of his Public Readings 1858-1870, Raymund Fitzsimons, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1970, p. 15.
  45. Letter from William Harness to Dickens, quoted by Johnson, vol II, p. 1103.
  46. Quoted by Q. D. Leavis, in Dickens the Novelist, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1970, p. 36.
  47. Quoted by Ackroyd, p. 1065.
  48. Quoted by Ackroyd, p. 1067.