When Charles Dickens died on June 9 1870, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic framed his loss as an event of national and international mourning. They pointed to the fictional characters Dickens had created as a key part of his artistic legacy, writing how “we have laughed with Sam Weller, with Mrs. Nickleby, with Sairey Gamp, with Micawber”. Dickens himself had already featured as the subject of one piece of short biographical fiction published during his lifetime. Yet, in the years following his death, he would be increasingly appropriated as a fictional character by the Victorians, both in published texts and in privately circulated fan works.
Dickens’s private family funeral at Westminster Abbey created a gap in knowledge which some journalists chose to fill with a fictional scene they considered more emotionally satisfying. The London Penny Illustrated Paper visually re-imagined the funeral, publishing a large illustration depicting a crowded public event.
Under the sub-heading: “A National Honour Due to Charles Dickens”, the accompanying text acknowledges that the image is fictional, but argues that:
A ceremony such as is depicted in our Engraving would unquestionably have best represented the national feeling of mourning occasioned by the lamented death.
It was the publication of John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens in 1872–74, though, that marked a watershed in fictionalisations of Dickens. Victorian readers now had a full-length birth-to-death Dickens biography to draw on, written by a friend who had known him for his entire adulthood. Dickens’s Preface to his 1849–50 novel David Copperfield had encouraged readers to interpret it as semi-autobiographical. However, it was only with Forster’s biography that the full extent of the similarities between Dickens and the fictional Copperfield was made public.
The revelation that Dickens had performed child labour in a blacking warehouse when his father was imprisoned for debt, before rising to international fame in his twenties, gave him a life story that the press described as rivalling Dickens’s “most popular novel”.
Rags to riches
The Household Edition of Forster’s Life, published by Chapman & Hall in 1879, included 28 new illustrations of the biography by Fred Barnard. Among them was an emotive image of Dickens as a young boy in the blacking warehouse.
Dickens wrote a private account of this time, for which Forster’s biography is our only remaining source. In this autobiographical fragment, Dickens describes how he was brought down to work among other boys in the warehouse. He was careful not to let them see his suffering, and to make sure that he worked as hard as them. Yet what Barnard pictures is a scene of solitude, visible despair or perhaps exhaustion at the warehouse that is not described in this fragment. The image bears a closer resemblance to Dickens’s fictionalisation of the first day at the warehouse in David Copperfield.
In the novel, the young Copperfield writes that: “I mingled my tears with the water in which I was washing the [blacking] bottles.” Barnard heightens and externalises the private emotion that Dickens wrote about in the autobiographical fragment to create a fictional scene. In doing so, he further blurs the boundaries between Dickens and the fictional Copperfield.
The practice of Grangerization – the art of extending and customising a published book with inserted material – was popular among Victorian readers. Additional fictionalised illustrations of Dickens’s life, created by the Dickens illustrator Frederick W. Pailthorpe, are revealed in a 14-volume Grangerization of Forster’s Life, held in the British Library.
Some of these seem to have been created for personal interest and private circulation among fellow Dickens enthusiasts, rather than for publication. One sketch shows Dickens as a boy making a low bow to a friend of his father’s.
This image is based on an incident which Forster describes as taking place at the blacking warehouse where Dickens worked. Yet Pailthorpe’s illustration fictionalises the location of the event, transposing the young Dickens to the front of the house of John Dryden, the former poet laureate next to whom Dickens would eventually be buried in Westminster Abbey. In doing so, Pailthorpe creates a narrative in which Dickens was always destined for literary greatness.
Biographical fiction and ‘real-person fiction’
In the 21st century, readers have commented on the resemblances between the fictional stories which the young Brontë siblings wrote about real-life contemporary figures such as the Duke of Wellington, and 20th and 21st-century forms of fan fiction. Oscar Wilde’s 1889 story, The Portrait of Mr W.H., focuses on a series of men whose biographical speculations about the life of Shakespeare verge on fictionalisation.
Nevertheless, recent scholarly work on biographical fiction has described it as coming into being “mainly in the 20th century”. Press articles on the form of fan fiction known as “real person fiction” have largely focused on it as a product of internet culture (while noting briefly that many of Shakespeare’s plays also fictionalise real-life figures).
Archival work on the Victorian press, and on semi-private forms of reader response such as Grangerized books, can flesh out our understanding of the role that biographical fictionalisation played in Victorian culture. It demonstrates a longer and more varied history of the human desire to appropriate and imaginatively recreate famous contemporary figures. And it shows that part of Dickens’s creative legacy, as well as his own works, was the fictional forms that his life inspired others to create.
This episode of The Conversation’s In Depth Out Loud podcast, features the work of Leon Litvack at Queen’s University Belfast, a world authority on Charles Dickens, on what happened after the death of the author.
His new research has uncovered the never-before-explored areas of the great author’s sudden death on June 9 1870, and his subsequent burial.
Dickens’s death created an early predicament for his family. Where was he to be buried? Near his home (as he would have wished) or in that great public pantheon, Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey (which was clearly against his wishes)? But two ambitious men put their own interests ahead of the great writer and his family in an act of institutionally-sanctioned bodysnatching.
You can read the text version of this in depth article here. The audio version is read by Michael Parker and edited by Gemma Ware.
This story came out of a project at The Conversation called Insights. Sponsored by Research England, our Insights team generate in depth articles derived from interdisciplinary research. You can read their stories here, or subscribe to In Depth Out Loud to listen to more of their articles in the coming months.
The music in In Depth Out Loud is Night Caves, by Lee Rosevere.
In so doing, they present readers with opportunities to rethink ways in which Dickens was “a representative of literature”; including the power relations around class and colonialism that have shaped the transmission of writing in “our English tongue” for the past two centuries.
In Jack Maggs, Carey – a double Booker Prize-winning Australian novelist – rewrites Great Expectations from the perspective of a convict who returns from his sentence in the new world to terrible risk: the only sure thing that old England can offer him is a noose. Dickens’s original novel sees the world from the shifting perspective of Philip Pirrip – or “Pip” – an orphan boy plucked from obscurity who thinks he has been “made” by the wealthy Miss Havisham. In fact his fortunes have been advanced by Abel Magwitch, a convict who the young Pip had helped in an escape bid.
In Carey’s pastiche, Magwitch becomes Jack Maggs, who has survived transportation to Australia and become a successful and wealthy brickmaker. He returns from the British colony of New South Wales to the London of 1837, the year during which Dickens rose to fame. Maggs wants contact with Pip – rendered here as the young man Henry Phipps, whom he has made into a gentleman.
Instead, he encounters the young, upwardly mobile novelist Tobias Oates: ambitious, anxious to hold onto the new respectability he has secured after childhood poverty, and riddled with emotional and financial insecurities. Oates is of course a version of the young Dickens prior to the consolidated public image of the respectable literary giant commemorated in Forster’s biographical portrait.
Carey reminds us, through Oates, that the Dickens of 1830s closely observed a London world of crime and sexual misdemeanour that could scarcely be rendered in the language of fiction available to him. Dickens also flirted with the new science of mesmerism, a technique which Oates applies to Maggs to exorcise him of the “phantoms” or traumas of brutalised convict life. Oates thereby appropriates Maggs’s story as a series of “burgled secrets” which are to be recast as a crime melodrama for his own literary gain.
Yet Carey reverses this invasive power relation and enables Maggs to tell his own story, restoring him to his own emotionally scarred but resilient origins. Carey concludes with the image of Maggs as redeemed Australian subject who has exorcised the phantoms of English class longings, and is restored to his family in the new world.
Pip in the Pacific
Lloyd Jones’s Mr Pip transports Great Expectations to the Pacific, the conflicted island of Bouganville in Papua New Guinea. The New Zealand novelist writes about the reading and interpretation of Dickens’s novel among a group of black children and their eccentric, self-appointed white teacher, Mr Watts, as an event punctuated by the rebel insurgence, military occupation and horrific violence experienced in the 1990s.
If Dickens wrote Great Expectations as a tale of betrayal, guilt and ambiguous origins in 1860, Jones’s novel shows how that moral and emotional frame can be adapted to new, post-colonial conditions. Matilda is Jones’s 14 year-old fatherless narrator, who comes to appreciate that Pip’s story of mobility and self remaking, which the migrant Mr Watts reads to his pupils as a source of inspiration, is powerfully apt for those whose lives are subject to displacement and migration.
But the “Pip” that Matilda venerates by writing his name, in shells, on the beach is mistaken by military occupiers as the name of a rebel who is being concealed by the villagers. In a terrible unfolding of misunderstandings, both Matilda’s mother and Mr Watts are butchered.
As Matilda escapes to a life of education and possibility, reunited with her migrant father in Australia, she comes to realise that the Great Expecations that Mr Watts read to them was in fact an abridged format for the children of empire: that Dickens’s “sacred” text existed in multiple versions.
Jones’s story casts powerful new light on the way in which Dickens can be seen as a leading “representative of literature”. In one sense, Dickens was the great author of Forster’s biography, buried in Poet’s Corner. In another, as Matilda comes to recognise, the name “Dickens” helped to drive and commodify the global transmission of Victorian literature in many different formats to many new parts of the globe.
As Regenia Gagnier’s research on the global circulation of Dickens and other Victorians shows, literature itself is always in a process of migration to and through new power relations.
Dickens created some of the best-known characters in fiction. The likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are still well-remembered, 150 years after his death – and are regularly updated through new stage and screen adaptions. One of the reasons why his characters have become part of popular culture is Dickens’s ability to exaggerate and caricature but at the same time also deeply understand human character.
Behaviours that he describes in his novels still resonate today, as in a recent comment by a political editor who describes a lack of decisive action on coronavirus as a “Micawberish conviction in government that something would turn up”, in reference to Dickens’s memorable comic hero and unshakeable optimist in David Copperfield.
The striking and individualising features of his characters have received much critical and popular attention. Yet, crucial to Dickens’s authorial techniques – and hence the public’s love of his characters – is also the description of conventional ways of behaving. Common features make fictional people more like normal people. As with anything in life, we don’t quite notice what’s “normal” until it isn’t any more.
This is where digital methods come in. Treating Dickens’s novels as a dataset makes it possible to identify patterns based on formal repetitions and frequencies – the type of information we are not consciously aware of when we a read a novel.
A common stance
Analysing Dickens’s novels as one single dataset (or “corpus”) shows us that, as in normal life, a type of common behaviour is that people often have or put their hands in their pockets, as Fledgeby in Our Mutual Friend.
‘But why’, said Fledgeby, putting his hands in his pockets and counterfeiting deep meditation, ‘why Riah should have started up, when I told him that the Lammles entreated him to hold over a Bill of Sale has has on all their effects.’
When we read a novel, such a description can easily go unnoticed. Why would we pay particular attention to what people do with their hands – unless it is clearly meaningful.
It’s the same in real life – we would not normally pick up on body language, unless it strikes us as unusual and unfamiliar. But looking at several novels at the same time makes patterns of repeated and commonly occurring behaviours more clearly visible.
This can be achieved with the help of a “concordance” tool that displays all occurrences of a word or phrase with a specified amount of context to the left and right. Below is a sample from a concordance for the phrase “his hands in his pockets” in Dickens’s novels, retrieved with the free web application CLiC.
Importantly, it is not only Dickens who depicts such everyday behaviour. We find examples in other 19th-century fiction, too:
Mr. Earnshaw vouchsafed no answer. He walked up and down, with his hands in his pockets, apparently quite forgetting my presence; and his abstraction was evidently so deep, and his whole aspect so misanthropical.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
He sauntered on, with his hands in his pockets, humming the chorus of a comic song.
Wilkie Collins, Armadale
While such phrases often appear circumstantial rather than central to plot or character, they fulfil important functions in drawing the reader into the text. The description of conventional behaviour makes fictional people more like real people, subtly creating a link between what the reader knows about how people “normally” behave or how fictional people are generally depicted across novels.
What, however, is the norm that we measure fictional characters against? Behaviours and body language change over time. So it is little surprise that in the 19th century it was mainly men who were described with their hands in their pockets.
Exploiting conventions and subtleties also enabled Dickens to draw attention to exceptional behaviours. Another common pattern of body language that occurs across 19th-century fiction is men standing with their back to the fire, a pose connected to power and confidence of the man of the house.
In Dickens, we also find a woman, Mrs Pipchin (in Dombey and Son), who is depicted in a situation where she stands with her back to the fire. This is no coincidence. As a widow, Mrs Pipchin looks after herself, and the way in which she runs her boarding house for children does not show her to be a character who displays stereotypical, female qualities.
… and Mrs Pipchin, with her back to the fire, stood, reviewing the new-comers, like an old soldier.
Dombey and Son
The interplay of norms and deviations from norms also becomes apparent in the wide range of body language references that Dickens uses. References to eyes are generally common in fiction, as can be shown with frequency data retrieved by tools like CLiC. Typical patterns we find in Dickens (and elsewhere) concern the direction and duration of gaze.
‘And what’, said Mr Pecksniff, turning his eyes on Tom Pinch, even more placidly and gently than before, ‘what have YOU been doing, Thomas, humph?’
Body parts that are less frequent are teeth. So using teeth in a similar way to eyes makes these body parts a more strikingly characterising feature.
‘May I be allowed, Madam,’ said Carker, turning his white teeth on Mrs Skewton like a light – ‘a lady of your excellent sense and quick feeling will give me credit.’
Dombey and Son
With Dickens’s ability to both create individualised, memorable characters as well as subtly connect to our experience of encountering people more generally, his novels still speak to readers today.
The contexts in which modern readers interact with the texts have changed, and in today’s digital world we can draw on new tools to view and understand the people Dickens has given us. After 150 years, we not only remember Dickens’s fictional characters, but we can still find out more about them.
“Charles Dickens the misogynist”, ran a headline in the Mail on Sunday on May 23 2020, publicising a new book marking the 150th anniversary of his death on June 9 1870. “The novelist was cruel to his wife, hated his mother [and] had an affair”, it reported.
But this is an old story. When news broke last year that a cache of letters at Harvard University had disclosed Dickens’s attempt to place his wife, Catherine, in an asylum, it only confirmed for many that he was a stereotypically “ruthless Victorian husband”. Dickens’s affair with Ellen Ternan and cruel treatment of his wife are well known and he has long been criticised for depicting weak females in his fiction. But was what the Mail called “his need to control and manipulate members of the opposite sex” really “a defining feature of his life”?
To a large extent, Dickens’s beliefs about women were typical of the age. “God created men and women different – then let them remain each in their own position”, declared Queen Victoria in the year of Dickens’s death – and in many respects, Dickens shared this view. Women’s supposed innate purity and selflessness were held to fit her for the making of a home that would serve as a refuge for the man who must endure the rigours of public life.
Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House is probably Dickens’s best-known example of a woman betraying the home in this way, neglecting her own children in favour of raising funds for the distant natives of Borrioboola-Gha. She devotes herself to this cause and, as a result, her house is dirty, the servants unruly, and her unfortunate husband neglected. Notably, Mrs Jellyby is last heard of in the novel perversely continuing to neglect her home duties by campaigning for “the rights of women to sit in parliament”.
Dickens also set out to satirise such agitating women in Household Words, the journal he published throughout the 1850s. A polemical piece he published on Rights and Wrongs of Women lampooned those women who aspired to become an “inferior man”, and extolled instead the path of “a noble, unpretending, redeeming, domestic, usefulness” to be taken by “the loving, quiet wife, the good mother, the sweet unselfish sister”. “Give woman public functions”, the anonymous contributor wrote, “and you destroy the very springs of her influence”.
But Dickens also explored the constrictions of women’s roles in his fiction through disruptive female figures who help to expose the limitations of the Victorian feminine domestic ideal: like Rosa Dartle, Bella Wilfer or Edith Dombey, whose rage at her powerlessness, “There is no slave in a market, there is no horse in a fair, so shown and offered and paraded … as I have been”, continues to resonate.
As in his fiction, so in his journalism, Dickens’s response to demands for reform of the position of women was more complex than is often appreciated. He was prepared to support campaigns against particular legal and social injustices suffered by women and he was not unsympathetic towards the demand for extending employment opportunities for them.
Indeed, he was especially supportive of women’s efforts to reach out to a wider public sphere within his own field of expertise – literature and journalism. For the author of the Household Words essay, the Rights and Wrongs of Women, was a woman – and the first English female newspaper correspondent to draw a fixed salary: Eliza Lynn (Linton).
Dickens encouraged women writers to contribute to his journals, recruiting prominent authors such as Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Gaskell and Eliza Lynn when he founded Household Words in 1850. Lynn had worked for two years on the staff of the Morning Chronicle and published three novels before she became a Household Words contributor in 1853. She wrote for the journal up until the last year of its publication, contributing more than 60 items. Dickens came to value her work highly: “Good for anything and thoroughly reliable”, he wrote against her name when making out a list of contributors at one time.
Ironically, while Lynn shared Dickens’s conviction that women’s aspirations to participate in public life undermined their proper, natural duties within the home, she defied the stereotype herself. As a hard-working journalist within the male domain of the Victorian newspaper and periodical press, her career challenged the accepted idea of womanhood and questioned the limits placed upon the female role.
Lynn first met Dickens at a dinner party and later recalled his kindness to her: “He included me, then quite a beginner in literature, young in years and shy by temperament, and made me feel at home with him”, she writes. When her father died in 1855, she sold Gad’s Hill Place, where part of her early youth had been spent, to Dickens, and visiting some years after his death, remembered:
How bright he was! How keen and observant! His eyes seemed to penetrate through yours into your very brain, and he was one of the men to whom, had I been given that way, I could not have dared to tell a lie. He would have seen the truth written in plain characters behind the eyes, and traced in the lines about the mouth.
Such a profound capacity for truth-seeing and telling is of course just one of the qualities for which we remember Dickens on the anniversary of his death. While his reputation as an exponent of the “home goddess” stereotype is undeniable, he also imagined strong women, rebellious women, and women inwardly divided, who provide a more complex picture of his fictional treatment of the opposite sex than this reputation suggests.
And in the practical support he gave to women like Eliza Lynn, we remember above all his deep commitment to writing, to the professions of literature and journalism, and his unshakeable belief in their ability to move us so as to remedy social injustice and inequality for women and men.
When Charles Dickens died, he had spectacular fame, great wealth and an adoring public. But his personal life was complicated. Separated from his wife and living in a huge country mansion in Kent, the novelist was in the thrall of his young mistress, Ellen Ternan. This is the untold story of Charles Dickens’s final hours and the furore that followed, as the great writer’s family and friends fought over his final wishes.
My new research has uncovered the never-before-explored areas of the great author’s sudden death, and his subsequent burial. While details such as the presence of Ternan at the author’s funeral have already been discovered by Dickensian sleuths, what is new and fresh here is the degree of manoeuvring and negotiations involved in establishing Dickens’s ultimate resting place.
Dickens’s death created an early predicament for his family. Where was he to be buried? Near his home (as he would have wished) or in that great public pantheon, Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey (which was clearly against his wishes)?
“The Inimitable” (as he sometimes referred to himself) was one of the most famous celebrities of his time. No other writer is as closely associated with the Victorian period. As the author of such immortal classics as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol, he was constantly in the public eye. Because of the vivid stories he told, and the causes he championed (including poverty, education, workers’ rights, and the plight of prostitutes), there was great demand for him to represent charities, and appear at public events and visit institutions up and down the country (as well as abroad – particularly in the United States). He moved in the best circles and counted among his friends the top writers, actors, artists and politicians of his day.
Dickens was proud of what he achieved as an author and valued his close association with his public. In 1858 he embarked on a career as a professional reader of his own work and thrilled audiences of thousands with his animated performances. This boost to his career occurred at a time when his marital problems came to a head: he fell in love with Ternan, an 18-year-old actress, and separated from his wife Catherine, with whom he had ten children.
Dickens was careful to keep his love affair private. Documentary evidence of his relationship with Ternan is very scarce indeed. He had wanted to take her with him on a reading tour to America in 1868, and even developed a telegraphic code to communicate to her whether or not she should come. She didn’t, because Dickens felt that he could not protect their privacy.
On Wednesday June 8 1870, the author was working on his novel Edwin Drood in the garden of his country home, Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester, in Kent. He came inside to have dinner with his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, and suffered a stroke. The local doctor was summoned and remedies were applied without effect. A telegram was sent to London, to summon John Russell Reynolds, one of the top neurologists in the land. By the following day the author’s condition hadn’t changed and he died at 6.10pm, on June 9.
Accepted wisdom concerning Dickens’s death and burial is drawn from an authorised biography published by John Forster: The Life of Charles Dickens. Forster was the author’s closest friend and confidant. He was privy to the most intimate areas of his life, including the time he spent in a blacking (boot polish) warehouse as a young boy (which was a secret, until disclosed by Forster in his book), as well as details of his relationship with Ternan (which were not revealed by Forster, and which remained largely hidden well into the 20th century). Forster sought to protect Dickens’s reputation with the public at all costs.
Last Will and Testament
In his will (reproduced in Forster’s biography), Dickens had left instructions that he should be:
Buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial; that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed; and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity.
Forster added that Dickens’s preferred place of burial – his Plan A – was “in the small graveyard under Rochester Castle wall, or in the little churches of Cobham or Shorne”, which were all near his country home. However, Forster added: “All these were found to be closed”, by which he meant unavailable.
Plan B was then put into action. Dickens was set to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, at the direction of the Dean and Chapter (the ecclesiastical governing body). They had even dug a grave for the great man. But this plan too was scuppered, in favour of interment in Poets’ Corner, in Westminster Abbey – the resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, and other literary greats.
Forster claims in the biography that the media led the way in agitating for burial in the abbey. He singles out The Times, which, in an article of January 13 1870, “took the lead in suggesting that the only fit resting place for the remains of a man so dear to England was the abbey in which the most illustrious Englishmen are laid”. He added that when the Dean of Westminster, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, asked Forster and members of the Dickens family to initiate what was now Plan C, and bury him in the abbey, it became their “grateful duty to accept that offer”.
The private funeral occurred early in the morning of Tuesday June 14 1870, and was attended by 14 mourners. The grave was then left open for three days so that the public could pay their respects to one of the most famous figures of the age. Details of the authorised version of Dickens’s death and burial were carried by all the major and minor newspapers in the English-speaking world and beyond. Dickens’s estranged wife Catherine received a message of condolence from Queen Victoria, expressing “her deepest regret at the sad news of Charles Dickens’s death”.
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The effect that Dickens’s death had on ordinary people may be appreciated from the reaction of a barrow girl who sold fruits and vegetables in Covent Garden Market. When she heard the news, she is reported to have said: “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”
The funeral directors
My investigation has revealed, however, how Dickens’s burial in Poets’ Corner was engineered by Forster and Stanley to satisfy their personal aims, rather than the author’s own. While the official story was that it was the “will of the people” to have Dickens buried in the Abbey (and there were articles in The Times to this effect), the reality was that this alteration suited both the biographer and the churchman.
Forster could conclude the volume he was contemplating in a fitting manner, by having Dickens interred in the national pantheon where so many famous literary figures were buried. He thus ensured that a stream of visitors would make a pilgrimage to Dickens’s grave and spread his reputation far and wide, for posterity.
Stanley could add Dickens to his roll of famous people whose burials he conducted. They included Lord Palmerston, the former UK prime minister, mathematician and astronomer Sir John Herschel, missionary and explorer David Livingstone, and Sir Rowland Hill, the postal reformer and originator of the penny post.
The efforts of Forster and Stanley to get Dickens buried exactly where they wanted enhanced the reputations of both men. For each of them, the interment of Dickens in the abbey might be considered the highlight of their careers.
‘Mr Dickens very ill, most urgent’
The new evidence I have found was gathered from libraries, archives and cathedral vaults and prove beyond a doubt that any claims about the Westminster burial being the will of the people are false.
What emerges is an atmosphere of urgency in the Dickens household after the author collapsed. Dickens’s son Charley sent the telegram to the author’s staff in London, requesting urgent medical assistance from the eminent neurologist, John Russell Reynolds:
Go without losing a moment to Russell Reynolds thirty eight Grosvenor St Grosvenor Sqr tell him to come by next train to Higham or Rochester to meet… Beard (Dickens’s physician), at Gadshill … Mr Dickens very ill most urgent.
Dickens’s sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, who ran his household and cared for his children after the separation from Catherine, was clearly disappointed that the specialist could do nothing for her much-adored brother-in-law. She sent a note to her solicitor with the doctor’s fee: “I enclose Dr Reynolds’ demand (of £20) for his fruitless visit.”
Dean Stanley had met Dickens in 1870, after being introduced by the churchman’s brother-in-law, Frederick Locker, who was a friend of the novelist. Stanley confided to his private journal (now housed in the archives of Westminster Abbey) that he was “much struck” by his conversation with Dickens and appreciated the few opportunities he had to meet the author before he died.
Locker’s memoir also records an interesting conversation he had with Stanley before this 1870 meeting, which sheds light on the Dean’s attitude towards the novelist, his death and funeral. Locker writes about talking to Stanley “of the burials in the abbey” and they discussed the names of some “distinguished people”. Stanley told him there were “certain people” he would be “obliged to refuse” burial, on account of personal antipathies. But his attitude changed when the name of the author “came up” and he said he “should like to meet Dickens”. Then, to “gratify” Stanley’s “pious wish”, Locker asked Dickens and his daughter to dine. Thus even while Dickens was still alive, Stanley privately expressed a desire to bury him.
When the end came, Locker conveyed the news to his brother-in-law on that very day – June 9. The Dean wrote to Locker to say:
Alas! – how soon we have been overtaken by the event which we were anticipating as so distant. I cannot amply thank you for having given me the opportunity of having met Charles Dickens while there was yet time. You will gather from what I have already said that I am quite prepared to raise any proposals about the burial that may be made to me.
The letter is fascinating. On the very day of the famous author’s death, the Dean was already thinking about burial in the Abbey. But there was a catch: Stanley could only entertain such a proposal if it came from the family and executors. He could not act unilaterally.
Locker quickly seized the opportunity hinted at in Stanley’s letter and sent a copy of it to Charley Dickens (the author’s son) on June 10. He wrote in his covering note: “I wish to send you a copy of a letter that I have just received from Dean Stanley and I think it will explain itself. If I can be of any use pray tell me.”
False claims and ambition
Meanwhile, the idea of getting Dickens to Poets’ Corner was growing in Stanley’s imagination. He wrote to his cousin Louisa on Saturday June 11 to say “I never met (Dickens) till this year… And now he is gone … and it is not improbable that I may bury him”. It’s interesting how quickly the plan crystallised in the Dean’s mind. Within the space of 48 hours, he went from hypothetical proposals from the family for burial, to foreseeing a key role for himself in the proceedings.
However, an answer from Charley Dickens wasn’t forthcoming. Stanley waited until the morning of Monday June 13, before seeking another way of making his wishes known to the family. He got in touch with his friend Lord Houghton (formerly Rickard Monckton Milnes – a poet, politician and friend of Dickens), reiterating his preparedness “to receive any proposal for (Dickens’s) burial in the Abbey” and asking Houghton to “act as you think best”.
It was at this point in the proceedings that Forster took charge of the planning. He had been away in Cornwall when Dickens died and it took him two days to reach Gad’s Hill. When he reached Dickens’s country home on Saturday June 11 he was overcome with grief at the death of his friend and clearly unprepared for the suddenness with which the blow was struck. His first thoughts, and those of the immediate family, were to accede to Dickens’s wishes and have him buried close to home. While the official account, in his Life of Dickens, claims that the graveyards in the vicinity of his home were “closed”, an examination of the records of the churches in Cobham and Shorne demonstrate this to be false.
The proposed burial in Rochester Cathedral was not only advanced, but in fact finalised, costed, and invoiced. The Chapter archives demonstrate that a grave was in fact dug in St Mary’s Chapel by the building firm Foord & Sons. The records also show that the Cathedral authorities “believed, as they still believe (after Dickens was buried in the Abbey), that no more fitting or honourable spot for his sepulture could be found than amidst scenes to which he was fondly attached, and amongst those by whom he was personally known as a neighbour and held in such honour”.
These views are reinforced by the claims of Hogarth, Dickens’s sister-in-law, in a letter to a friend:
We should have preferred Rochester Cathedral, and it was a great disappointment to the people there that we had to give way to the larger demand.
Let (Dickens) lie in the Abbey. Where Englishmen gather to review the memorials of the great masters and teachers of their nation, the ashes and the name of the greatest instructor of the nineteenth century should not be absent.
Despite this appeal appearing in the press, Stanley’s private journal records that he still “had received no application from any person in authority”, and so “took no steps” to advance his burial plan.
Stanley’s prayers must have seemed answered, then, when Forster and Charley Dickens appeared at the door of the Deanery on that same day. According to the Dean, after they sat down, Forster said to Stanley: “I imagine the article in the ‘Times’ must have been written with your concurrence?” Stanley replied: “No, I had no concern with it, but at the same time I had given it privately to be understood that I would consent to the interment if it was demanded.” By this Stanley meant the letter he had sent to Locker, which the latter had forwarded to Charley. Stanley of course agreed to the request from Dickens’s representatives for burial in Poets’ Corner. What he refrains from saying is how much he personally was looking forward to officiating at an event of such national significance.
While it’s clear, from the private correspondence I have examined, that Stanley agitated for Dickens’s burial in the abbey, the actions of Forster are harder to trace. He left fewer clues about his intentions and he destroyed all of his working notes for his monumental three volume biography of Dickens. These documents included many letters from the author. Forster used Dickens’s correspondence liberally in his account. In fact, the only source we have for most of the letters from Dickens to Forster are the passages that appear in the biography.
But as well as showing how Forster falsely claimed in his biography that the graveyards near his home were “closed”, my research also reveals how he altered the words of Stanley’s (published) funeral sermon to suit his own version of events. Forster quoted Stanley as saying that Dickens’s grave “would thenceforward be a sacred one with both the New World and the Old, as that of the representative of the literature, not of this island only, but of all who speak our English tongue”. This, however, is a mis-quotation of the sermon, in which Stanley actually said:
Many, many are the feet which have trodden and will tread the consecrated ground around that narrow grave; many, many are the hearts which both in the Old and in the New World are drawn towards it, as towards the resting-place of a dear personal friend; many are the flowers that have been strewed, many the tears shed, by the grateful affection of ‘the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and those that had none to help them’.
Stanley worked with Forster to achieve their common aim. In 1872, when Forster sent Stanley a copy of the first volume of his Life of Dickens, the Dean wrote:
You are very good to speak so warmly of any assistance I may have rendered in carrying out your wishes and the desire of the country on the occasion of the funeral. The recollection of it will always be treasured amongst the most interesting of the various experiences which I have traversed in my official life.
For the ages
My research demonstrates that the official, authorised accounts of the lives and deaths of the rich and famous are open to question and forensic investigation – even long after their histories have been written and accepted as canonical. Celebrity is a manufactured commodity, that depends for its effect on the degree to which the fan (which comes from the word “fanatic”) can be manipulated into believing a particular story about the person whom he or she adores.
In the case of Dickens, two people who had intimate involvement in preserving his reputation for posterity were not doing so for altruistic reasons: there was something in it for each of them. Stanley interred the mortal remains of Dickens in the principal shrine of British artistic greatness. This ensured that his tomb became a site of pilgrimage, where the great and the good would come to pay their respects – including the Prince of Wales, who laid a wreath on Dickens’s grave in 2012, to mark the bicentenary of his birth.
Such public commemorations of this Victorian superstar carry special meaning and mystique for his many fans. This year, on February 7 (the anniversary of his birth), Armando Iannucci (director of the new film adaptation The Personal History of David Copperfield) is scheduled give the toast to “the immortal memory” at a special dinner hosted by the Dickens Fellowship – a worldwide association of admirers. The 150th anniversary of his death will be observed at Westminster Abbey on June 8 2020.
Whether it’s the remembrance of the author’s death or his birth, these public acts symbolise how essential Dickens is to Britain’s national culture. None of this would have been possible, however, had it not been for the involvement of Dickens’s best friend and executor, John Forster. Forster organised the private funeral in Westminster Abbey in accordance with Dickens’s wishes, and ensured that his lover Ellen Ternan could discreetly attend, and that his estranged wife would not. But he is also the man who overruled the expectations of the author for a local burial. Instead, through an act of institutionally sanctioned bodysnatching, the grave in Poets’ Corner bound Dickens forever in the public mind with the ideals of national life and art and provided a fitting conclusion to Forster’s carefully considered, strategically constructed biography. It ends with these words:
Facing the grave, and on its left and right, are the monuments of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dryden, the three immortals who did most to create and settle the language to which Charles Dickens has given another undying name.
Charles Dickens’ great masterpiece David Copperfield begins with uncertainty:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
With those few words the author gives us one of the most memorable lines to be found in 19th-century fiction and gets us thinking about who or what a hero might be.
A new film version of the novel is about to open in cinemas in the UK after being premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and opening the 63rd BFI London Film Festival the following month to glowing reviews. Written by Armando Ianucci and Simon Blackwell, the movie stars Dev Patel in the title role, who – as producer Kevin Loader told The Guardian, is one of those “actors who are capable of embodying the character as perfectly as possible, regardless of their ethnicity”.
The young Copperfield certainly shows some heroic promise: he’s an orphan – which is often a good start for a Victorian hero – and he manages to walk from London to Dover alone as a young boy to extricate himself from a life of dull labour. But he also lacks a certain amount of agency: Copperfield is buffeted around by chance and coincidence, relying on the hospitality and generosity of those he meets. So the strange and eccentric characters he encounters also operate as heroes to him.
We could argue, in fact, that the book meditates on the necessity of everyday heroism in a world that is often cruel and unfair. Copperfield witnesses these acts of generosity from early on in his life. When he visits Daniel Peggotty (his beloved nurse’s brother) Copperfield openly admires his heroism in offering a home to his orphaned nephew and niece and to the morbidly depressed widow, Mrs Gummidge.
Copperfield soon has cause to rely on this sort of heroism himself – when he too is orphaned, set to work, and then runs away to throw himself on the mercy of his aunt. His aunt, the eccentric Betsey Trotwood, adopts Copperfield, having already taken on the care of the troubled but amiable Mr Dick, who had been destined for life in an asylum when emotionally traumatised by an undisclosed event in his past.
And of course, we must admire the ultimate heroism shown by Ham who drowns attempting to rescue the shipwrecked Steerforth – seducer of Ham’s beloved Little Em’ly. Fostering children, prison visiting, care for the elderly, the homeless, and the mentally unwell, are the acts of heroism that make Copperfield’s life liveable. They are the stitches through which a 19th-century society, without the mechanisms of a modern welfare state, holds itself together.
Of course, the novel also has plenty of antiheroes, most memorably the sadistic Edward Murdstone, who squelches Copperfield’s childhood freedoms, and the insidious Uriah Heep, who defrauds Copperfield’s family. At times the novel’s small individual acts of heroism seem to be overwhelmed by forces of wrongdoing, indifference and ignorance represented by characters such as those two.
But, of course, this is Dickens – and the way in which David Copperfield’s plotlines come together reveals Dickens’ vision of the world as interconnected. The handy coincidences of converging plots are not just a sop to satisfy mawkish readers, but an embodiment of Dickens’ philosophy.
In the preface to his magazine, Household Words, Dickens tells us that he wants literature to: “bring the greater and the lesser in degree, together … and mutually dispose them to a better acquaintance and a kinder understanding”. By inculcating sympathy with others in his fiction, Dickens thought he could encourage minor acts of heroism such as those that run through the plotlines of David Copperfield.
The new film version promises to give us an energetic and modern re-working and has received 11 British Independent Film Awards nominations, including best screenplay and best actor.
By all accounts it will entertain us with its fast-paced frolics through a diverse Victorian London and its cast of eccentrics played by Hollywood stars including Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick and Peter Capaldi as the incorrigible Mr Micawber. But it will also show us the poverty, child labour and homelessness that form the backdrop to Copperfield’s early life.
Ianucci’s film is part of a long succession of adaptations. As soon as the novel was published, adaptors began working on stage versions. It was actually the Little Em’ly fallen woman sub-plot that had most appeal for Victorian theatregoers who were already more than familiar with the poverty of industrial London.
More recent film versions of Dickens’ novels have had to make similar choices about which of Dickens’ multiple plotlines should be emphasised. David McGrath’s 2002 adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby favoured the joyful romp over the brutality of the novel’s early scenes. But McGrath’s Nickleby retains more of the Dickensian sentimentality than seems to be the case in the new David Copperfield.
The snappy trailer gives a curt but comic announcement of the death of Copperfield’s mother, whereas the novel narrates the deathbed scene in a chapter I defy anyone to read without crying. Even Dora, Copperfield’s young wife, apparently receives a reprieve from her untimely fate in the new film.
Screenwriters and directors have become wary of Dickensian sentimentality but I hope that this new version of Dickens’ own favourite novel retains those links of sympathy and acts of everyday heroism that bind the novel together. If it shows us a hero navigating his way through a difficult world aided by humour, eccentricity and kindness it will be an adaptation that sends us back to the novel to locate those elements once again in Dickens’ work.
If you’re a fan of the TV series, Westworld, you’re probably aware that it’s based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. What you may not know is that the concept has been kicking around for a very long time. While Crichton insists his dystopian vision had no “literary antecedents”, there’s at least one writer who may beg to differ. Charles Dickens imagined a robot theme park way back in 1838. Just like Westworld, the patrons of Dickens’ park are able to enact their “violent delights” on realistic humanoid androids.
In the short story titled: Full Report of the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything, a group of scientists meet to discuss a variety of proposals, including the classification of a one-eyed horse as “Fitfordogsmeataurious” and a snuffbox-sized machine for more efficient pickpocketing. The most vividly described of these outlandish ideas, though, is entrepreneurial inventor Mr Coppernose’s suggestion for a park filled with “automaton figures” which would enable wealthy young men to run riot without causing a public nuisance. Sound familiar? So, how do the two parks measure up?
In purely physical terms, Dickens’ park is much smaller. The series’ showrunner, Jonathan Nolan, has indicated that Westworld covers around 500 square miles, while Coppernose suggests a more modest “space of ground of not less than ten miles in length” for his park. But both demonstrate a similar attention to detail when it comes to creating a realistic environment for their patrons to explore. Westworld offers trading outposts, farmsteads and wide open plains populated by robot cowboys, saloon girls and the Ghost Nation Tribe. Coppernose’s park strives to recreate a version of semi-rural England using “highway roads, turnpikes, bridges [and] miniature villages”, inhabited by automaton police officers, cab drivers and elderly women.
Delos Incorporated (the company which owns Westworld) expects its players will use these environments and android “hosts” to engage in both whitehat (heroic) and blackhat (villainous) activities. Meanwhile, Coppernose assumes only the most base and destructive behaviour from his park patrons. This is evidenced in various design choices, such as the “gas lamps of real glass, which could be broken at a comparatively small expense per dozen”, and the vocal abilities of the automatons themselves which, when struck, “utter divers groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete and the enjoyment perfect”.
Yet this advanced speech technology isn’t the only thing Coppernose’s automatons have in common with Westworld’s hosts, as demonstrated in George Cruikshank’s illustration. Here the lifelike robots are shown to be operational despite missing limbs – something we’ve seen during diagnostic sessions with Westworld’s damaged hosts in the repair lab.
While Coppernose doesn’t provide specific details of any maintenance crews, it seems he has a similar rotational system in mind when he suggests a stock of 140 automatons, with around half kept in reserve so that broken units can be exchanged. However, rather than the spooky warehouse filled with dormant hosts seen in Westworld, Coppernose has a far more space-saving storage solution, keeping inert robot police officers on shelves until needed.
Only human after all
Although its never been explicitly explained in the show, showrunner Lisa Joy has described the “good samaritan reflex” as a safety measure programmed into all Westworld’s hosts – including the animals. This ensures that if a guest is at risk of endangering themselves or another guest, a host will step in to save them from harm. Humans don’t fare so well in Dickens’ park – Coppernose advocates the use of “live pedestrians … procured from the workhouse” for the wealthy park guests to run down in their cabriolets.
However, this is where a theme only lightly touched on in Westworld is brought to the fore in Dickens’ text: the disparity between justice for the rich and the poor. Coppernose’s affluent young adventurers must attend a mock trial following their wild and destructive behaviour, where wooden-headed automaton magistrates side with the defendants rather than the robot police attempting to prosecute them. Dickens describes this process as “quite equal to life” serving to underline the inequality at play in the justice system.
While Westworld primarily focuses on what it means to be human it does hint at this same idea: that we’re inclined to overlook the bad behaviour of the rich and powerful. When wealthy park patron “Man in Black” kills hosts indiscriminately, security chief Ashley Williams says: “That gentleman gets whatever he wants.”
Of course, now that Westworld’s robots have gone rogue, the Man in Black may not go unpunished in season two. Perhaps the retribution Dickens would doubtless have liked to have seen will be delivered not by the courts, but the robots themselves.
Everyone knows the story of Scrooge, a man so miserly his name has become synonymous with penny-pinching meanness. Scrooge’s conversion from miser to benefactor has been told and retold since Charles Dickens first wrote A Christmas Carol in the fall and winter of 1843. Ebenezer is a wonderful character, so richly portrayed and fascinating he’s echoed in stories from The Grinch to It’s a Wonderful Life.
But who was Scrooge before he was, well, Christopher Plummer? The inspiration for the crotchety Christmas-hater may have been those who put Dickens’ own father into debtor’s prison and were responsible for young Charles working in a shoe-blacking factory.
Some Dickens scholars believe the author’s 1843 visit to sooty Manchester, or to “the black streets of London,” (as he described them in a letter to a friend) influenced him. It may be that the fable was a moral reminder from Dickens to himself, as he teetered on financial ruin. This is the theory proposed in the book by Les Standiford on which this year’s movie is based.
Did Dickens in fact invent Christmas, as we know it? Hollywood may think so, but others, like David Parker in his Christmas and Charles Dickens vehemently disagree.
Whatever your opinion, the prevailing wisdom is that A Christmas Carol isn’t particularly religious. As a professor of biblical studies at Concordia University and also a Lutheran minister, I have a different reading.
It’s true that the celebration of the season which Scrooge discovers has much more to do with generosity, family gatherings and large cooked birds, than the Nativity. But maybe those seeking explicit scriptural references in Dickens’ story are underestimating the Victorian novelist’s skill — and his audacity. Perhaps A Christmas Carol contains an alternative to the Bible rather than a simple borrowing from it. And perhaps that’s the point.
Jesus was a master story-teller
Jesus, by all accounts another master story-teller, told a parable that, stripped of Dickens’ English waistcoats, ledgers, fog and shutters, could almost be a mirror to A Christmas Carol:
“There once was a rich man. A poor man named Lazarus lived at his gate, with nothing to eat. Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died.”
There follows, in Jesus’ tale, an exchange between the rich man, who is in torment, and Abraham, who acts as the guardian of paradise. It’s hard not to think of the innocent Lazarus as a precursor to Tiny Tim.
First the rich man asks for his own relief from hell. When that’s denied, he pleads: “I beg you, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. Let him warn them so they don’t come to this place of agony.” Abraham replies: “They have Moses and the prophets. They must listen to them.”
“No, Father Abraham!” cries the rich man, “But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change” (Luke 16:19-31).
One can almost hear the chains of Morley’s ghost rattling. What would have happened if Father Abraham had said yes? Something very like a first-century version of A Christmas Carol.
Let’s not forget that the people of our western English-speaking past, especially artists and writers, were imbued with Biblical references and ideas. As Northrop Frye, among others, has argued, they lived and created in a world shaped by the rhythms, narratives, images and conceptions (or misconceptions) of the King James Bible.
Was Dickens familiar with Christian scriptures? All evidence points to the fact that he was more acquainted than most. Despite an antipathy to organized religion, from 1846 to 1849 Dickens wrote a short biography of Jesus for his children, titled The Life of our Lord.
He forbade that his small retelling of Jesus’ life should be published, until not only he, but also his children, had died. The “Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man” was one of eight stories of Jesus that Dickens chose to include in that volume. But in his story of Scrooge, Dickens was too much of a writer to leave Jesus’ parable as is, and his age too suspicious of scripture to leave it “unbroken.”
A Christmas Carol unites the deliciously horrific sensibility of the Gothic movement with the powerfully simple narrative style, joined to moral concern, typical of parables.
Was Dickens perhaps dozing off some Sunday while the rector droned on about Lazarus, until he wakened with a start dreaming of Scrooge? We will never know. But it’s an intriguing possibility.
Happy endings for the rich
Surprisingly, the Sunday after Dickens was buried in Westminster Abbey, Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, preaching on exactly this text, spoke of Dickens as the “parabler” of his age. Stanley said that “By [Dickens] that veil was rent asunder which parts the various classes of society. Through his genius the rich man…was made to see and feel the presence of Lazarus at his gate.”
I would go further: Dickens took the parable, and then retold and changed it, so that the rich man gets a second chance. As a privileged societal figure who had gone through financial difficulties and who cared about the poor himself, Dickens freely adapted Jesus to come up with a story that’s ultimately more about love than judgement.
When confronted with Marley’s spectre, Scrooge, unnerved but unrepentant, addresses the apparition: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.”
The perceptive reader (or viewer) of A Christmas Carol can point a finger at Marley’s ghost and add: “Or maybe you’re an ironic but hope-filled riff on Jesus, by a famous nineteenth-century author who wanted to write his own story of redemption.”
Dickens not only invented this Christmas genre, but imagined a happy ending for himself in it. He penned an enduring story about the second chance even a rich person can receive, if haunted by persistent-enough ghosts.