Email newsletters might be associated with the ghost towns of old personal email addresses for many: relentlessly accumulating unopened updates from organisations, stores and services signed up to and forgotten in the distant past. But over the last few years they have experienced a revival, with an increasing number of writers supplementing their income with paid newsletter subscriptions.
Most recently, Salman Rushdie’s decision to use the newsletter subscription service Substack to circulate his latest book has sparked conversation around this platform and its impact on the world of publishing.
What is Substack?
Launched in 2017, Substack allows writers to create newsletters and set up paid subscription tiers for them, offering readers a mixture of free and paywalled content in each edition.
Substack has thus encroached on the traditional territories of newspapers, magazines, the blogosphere – and now trade publishing. Though it is worth noting that until now it has been most enthusiastically adopted by journalists rather than authors.
Rather than monetising the service via advertising, Substack’s profits come from a percentage of paid subscriptions. Substack’s founders see the platform as a way of breaking from the ‘attention economy’ promoted by social media, allowing a space for more thoughtful and substantial writing that is funded directly by readers.
Rushdie’s decision to publish via Substack signals a surprising inroad into one of the areas associated with trade publishing – literary fiction – and certainly makes for a good news story. He is the first significant literary novelist to publish a substantial work of fiction via the platform and Rushdie himself talks jokingly about helping to kill off the print book with this move.
However, the novella that Rushdie is intending to serialise will almost certainly be available in a more conventional format at some point in the future, given all Substack writers retain full rights to their intellectual property.
Other experiments with digital self-publication by prominent fiction authors, such as Stephen King’s novella Riding the Bullet (first published independently as an eBook), and the fiction first generated on Twitter by writers like David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman, have made their way to traditional publishers.
While this movement provides excellent publicity for Rushdie and the Substack service, it’s perhaps better understood as a limited term platform exclusivity deal than as a radical disruption of the literary publishing ecosystem.
Potentially more interesting is what the “acquisition” of Rushdie by Substack illustrates about their operation as a digital service. Throughout its history, Substack has offered advances to promising writers to support them while they cultivate a subscriber base.
This practice has now been formalised as Substack Pro, where selected writers, like Rushdie himself, are paid a substantial upfront fee to produce content, which Substack recoups by taking a higher percentage of their subscription fees for their first year of writing.
The exact sums paid vary between writers, but it is not dissimilar to a traditional advance on royalties. When coupled with some of the other services that are available to writers with paid subscriptions – like a legal fund and financial support for the editing, design, and production of newsletters – Substack can be seen as operating in a grey area between publisher and platform.
They pursue promising and high-profile writers, generate income, and provide services in ways that parallel the operations of trade publishers, but do not claim rights or responsibilities in relation to the content that is produced.
Although Substack do not see themselves as commissioning writers it could be argued they do play an editorial role in curating content on their platform through not terribly transparent Substack Pro deals and incentives.
The evolution of Substack
Recently Jude Doyle, a trans critic and novelist, has abandoned the platform. They note the irony of how profits generated by the often marginalised or subcultural writers who built paid subscriber bases in the early days of Substack are now being used to fund the much more lucrative deals offered to high-profile right-wing writers, who have in some cases exploited Substack’s weak moderation policy to spread anti-trans rhetoric and encourage harassment.
It could be argued Substack Pro is evolving into an inversion of the traditional (if somewhat idealised) publishing model, where a small number of profitable authors would subsidise the emergence of new writers. Instead, on Substack, profits generated from the work of large numbers of side-hustling writers are used to draw more established voices to the platform.
The founders of Substack have been unapologetic about their policies, considering the “unsubscribe” button to be the ultimate moderation tool for their users. They do, however, acknowledge Substack’s free-market approach may not appeal to all and anticipate competition from alternatives.
Ghost already exists as a non-profit newsletter platform with a more active approach to moderation, and Facebook’s Bulletin provides a carefully curated newsletter service from commissioned writers.
At this stage, the use of newsletters for literary fiction is an experiment, and it remains to be seen if it will be sustainable. As Rushdie puts it: “It will either turn out to be something wonderful and enjoyable, or it won’t.”
However uncomfortable we may feel about the subject, death is in the news at the moment. Many of us have lost people during the pandemic and, even if we want to shield children from hearing or knowing about death it seems unlikely that we can.
As adults we may hope that our children won’t be aware of death and that we can protect them from it. However, it is important that we support them in their understanding by allowing them to ask questions and be curious.
One source of help with children between the ages of four and seven is the picture book. Since the 1980s, there has been an explosion in the production of good quality picture books often dealing with difficult subjects. The picture book is an incredible resource as the illustrations provide sources of information without the need to be able to read text. Reading picture books is often a shared event. Seated side by side with an adult, a child can listen to the words and explore the pictures and see and be curious about the images presented.
It has been suggested
that their value lies in the fact that the pictures can provide material not explicit in the text, allowing the child to construct the story in their own way and to ask their own questions. The pictures do not just simply offer a matching illustration of the text but, provide a story on their own, allowing for curiosity and for the child to guide the adult.
Here is a selection of picture books which can help parents begin to have conversations about death and how we might feel about it with young children:
Beginning to talk about death
In When Dinosaurs Die: A guide to understanding death, we are given a series of small frames in which different aspects of death are considered, allowing a young child to look at the pictures and pose their own questions. The little dinosaurs ask about a wide range of things concerning death such as: what happens at funerals? Why do people die? And also how might we feel about death?
In similar way Frog and the Birdsong looks at general questions about death. This brightly coloured book shows us a group of animal friends who come across a dead bird while they are out for a walk. They ask many pertinent questions, as might a child, and are helped to find the answers by a more knowing hare. The friends then bury the bird and shed a tear before going on their way.
These two books offer a supportive and safe way of thinking about death – they do not look at the pain of loss or grief and perhaps can thus be a helpful way to begin to talk about death.
Broaching the idea of loss
Some books that may help to begin to address the subject of loss are about the death of a pet. This is no less painful and serious but, sometimes seen as easier to talk about. Lovely Old Roly and Harry and Hopper are two such examples. In each book we are told about the death of the pet and the sense of loss and emptiness felt by the children. Roly’s children feel so sad they are unable to play or do any routine tasks. Harry misses Hopper so much that he yearns for his return and imagines or dreams that he has returned. In each book we see that eventually the children begin to feel OK but are reminded they will never forget.
The Heart and the Bottle is perhaps more difficult as it deals with a little girl who does not feel able to talk or let herself feel anything. In it we are shown very directly the shock of the little girl when she walks into a room expecting to find her grandfather but sees only his empty chair. The little girl is unable to talk about her unhappiness and so shuts her heart away. This book can allow a child to see that it is better to acknowledge the pain and to let others see how much it hurts.
In John Keats’ poems, death crops up 100 times more than the future, a word that appears just once in the entirety of his work. This might seem appropriate on the 200th anniversary of the death of Keats, who was popularly viewed as the young Romantic poet “half in love with easeful death”.
Death certainly touched Keats and his family. At the age of 14, he lost his mother to tuberculosis. In 1818, he nursed his younger brother Tom as he lay dying of the same disease.
After such experiences, when Ludolph, the hero of Keats’ tragedy, Otho the Great, imagines succumbing to “a bitter death, a suffocating death”, Keats knew what he was writing about. And then, aged just 25, on February 23 1821, Keats himself died of tuberculosis in Rome.
Life sliding by
His preoccupation with death doesn’t tell the whole story, however. In life, Keats was vivacious, funny, bawdy, pugnacious, poetically experimental, politically active, and above all forward-looking.
He was a young man in a hurry, eager to make a mark on the literary world; even if – as a trained doctor – he was all too conscious of the body’s vulnerability to mortal shocks. These two very different energies coalesce in one of his best loved poems, written in January 1818 when the poet was in the bloom of health:
When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be is a poem of personal worry, according to biographer Nicholas Roe. In it, Keats is anxious that he won’t have time to achieve poetic fame or fall in “unreflecting love”, and these fears and self-doubts take him to the brink.
But as brinks go, this one doesn’t seem all that bad. The poem is romantic with a small “r” – wide-eyed, dramatic, sentimental – its vision of finality, of nothingness, gorgeous in its desolation, and all-importantly painless. Who can read those final lines without themselves feeling a pull to swooning death, half in love with it, as Keats professed to be?
That’s what I used to think, at any rate. Lately, in the pandemic, I’ve begun to read this poem rather differently. Lensed through long months of lockdown, the sonnet’s existential anxieties seem less abstract, grand and performative, and more, well, human.
It’s a poem that will resonate with the youth who are cooped up indoors, physically isolated, unable to meet and mingle, agonisingly aware of weeks slipping by, opportunities missed, disappointments mounting. This poem has made me almost painfully empathetic towards their plight.
The sonnet’s fears of a future laid to waste are shared by whole generations whose collective mental health is under siege. In his last surviving letter, written two years after the sonnet while dying in Rome, Keats records a “feeling of my real life having past”, a conviction that he was “leading a posthumous existence”. How many of us are experiencing similar thoughts at the moment?
Illness and isolation
Of all the Romantics, Keats perhaps knew most about mental suffering. He grew up in Moorgate, just across from Bethlem Hospital, which was known to London and the world as Bedlam. Before he turned to poetry, Keats trained at Guy’s hospital, London, where he not only witnessed first-hand the horrors of surgery in a pre-anaesthetic age but also tended to patients on what was called the lunatic ward.
It was all too much for him. Traumatised by the misery and pain he felt he could do little to alleviate, in 1816 he threw medicine in for the pen. His experiences at Guy’s, though, and the empathy he developed there, found their way into his writing. For instance, in Hyperion, his medical knowledge helps him to inhabit the catatonic state of “gray-hair’d Saturn”, who sits in solitude, “deep in the shady sadness of a vale”, despairing after being deposed by the Olympian gods. The vignette is a moving image of isolation and enervation that speaks to us today:
As for lockdown, Keats was no stranger to its pressures and deprivations. During periods of illness in Hampstead in 1819 – precursor symptoms of tuberculosis – he was reluctant to venture out, isolating himself. In October 1820, he set sail for Italy in the hope warmer climes would save his lungs. On arrival, his ship was put into strict quarantine for ten days. In letters to his friends, Keats described being “in a sort of desperation”, adding, “we cannot be created for this sort of suffering”.
Keats was a poet of his age, his own social, cultural and medical milieu. And yet, on the bicentenary of his death, he’s also – more than ever, perhaps – a poet of ours. A poet of lockdown, frustration, disappointment, fears … and even hope.
Because even in those last, scarcely imaginable weeks in Rome, 200 years ago, holed up in a little apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps, he never quite gave up on the future, never relinquished his dreams of love and fame.
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.
William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time and one of the most important and influential people who has ever lived. His written works (plays, sonnets and poems) have been translated into more than 100 languages and these are performed around the world.
There is also an enduring desire to learn more about the man himself. Countless books and articles have been written about Shakespeare’s life. These have been based primarily on the scholarly analysis of his works and the official record associated with him and his family. Shakespeare’s popularity and legacy endures, despite uncertainties in his life story and debate surrounding his authorship and identity.
The life and times of William Shakespeare and his family have also recently been informed by cutting-edge archaeological methods and interdisciplinary technologies at both New Place (his long-since demolished family home) and his burial place at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The evidence gathered from these investigations by the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University provides new insights into his interests, attitudes and motivations – and those of his family – and shows how archaeology can provide further tangible evidence. These complement traditional Shakespearean research methods that have been limited to sparse documentary evidence and the study of his works.
Archaeology has the ability to provide a direct connection to an individual through the places and objects associated with them. Past excavations of the Shakespearean-era theatres in London have provided evidence of the places he worked and spent much of his time.
Attributing objects to Shakespeare is difficult, we have his written work of course, his portrait(s) and memorial bust – but all of his known possessions, like those mentioned in his will, no longer exist. A single gold signet ring, inscribed with the initials W S, is thought by some to be the most significant object owned and used by the poet, despite its questionable provenance.
The building itself was lost in the 18th century, but the site and its remains were preserved beneath a garden. Erected in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon more than a century prior to Shakespeare’s purchase in 1597, from its inception, it was architecturally striking. One of the largest domestic residences in Stratford, it was the only courtyard-style, open-hall house within the town.
This type of house typified the merchant and elite classes and in purchasing and renovating it to his own vision, Shakespeare inherited the traditions of his ancestors while embracing the latest fashions. The building materials used, its primary structure and later redevelopment can all be used as evidence of the deliberate and carefully considered choices made by him and his family.
Shakespeare focused on the outward appearance of the house, installing a long gallery and other fashionable architectural embellishments as was expected of a well-to-do, aspiring gentleman of the time. Many other medieval features were retained and the hall was likely retained as the showpiece of his home, a place to announce his prosperity, and his rise in status.
It provided a place for him and his immediate and extended family to live, work and entertain. But it was also a place which held local significance and symbolic associations. Intriguingly, its appearance also resembled the courtyard inn theatres of London and elsewhere with which Shakespeare was so familiar, presenting the opportunity to host private performances.
In search of the Bard
Extensive evidence of the personal possessions, diet and the leisure activities of Shakespeare, his family and the inhabitants of New Place were recovered during the archaeological investigations, revolutionising what we understand about his day-to-day life.
An online exhibition, due to be made available in early May 2020, presents 3D-scanned artefacts recovered at the site of New Place. These objects, some of which may have belonged to Shakespeare, have been chosen to characterise the chronological development and activities undertaken at the site.
Open access to these virtual objects will enable the dissemination of these important results and the potential for others to continue the research.
Here lies …
Archaeological evidence recovered from non-invasive investigations at Shakespeare’s burial place has also been used to provide further evidence of his personal and family belief. Multi-frequency Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was used to investigate the Shakespeare family graves below the chancel of Holy Trinity Church.
A number of legends surrounded Shakespeare’s burial place. Among these were doubts over the presence of a grave, its contents, tales of grave robbing and suggestions of a large family crypt. The work confirmed that individual shallow graves exist beneath the tombstones and that the various members of Shakespeare’s family were not buried in coffins, but in simple shrouds. Analysis concluded that Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed in the past and that it was likely that his skull had been removed, confirming recorded stories.
These family graves occupy a significant (and expensive) location in Holy Trinity Church. Despite this, the simple nature of Shakespeare’s grave, with no elite trappings or finery and no large family crypt, coupled with his belief that he should not be disturbed, confirm a simple regional practice based on pious religious observance and an affinity with his hometown.
There is still so much we don’t know about Shakespeare’s life, so it’s a safe bet that researchers will continue to investigate what evidence there is. Archaeological techniques can provide quantifiable information that isn’t available through traditional Shakespearean research. But just like other disciplines, interpretation – based on the evidence – will be key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding the life (and death) of the English language’s greatest writer.
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”.
This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.
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.