The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Newly published Charles Dickens letters reveal he was ‘a bit of a diva’

British novelist Charles Dickens in an undated photo. (AP)

LONDON — Handwritten letters by one of Britain’s most famous authors, Charles Dickens, will go on public display for the first time this week, giving a fresh insight into the Victorian writer’s life and mind.

Eleven letters were acquired by the Charles Dickens Museum in London from a private seller in the United States — a country Dickens visited twice on popular public reading tours.

One letter — dated Feb. 10, 1866, and written to an I.H. Newman — reveals Dickens, a celebrity in his own time, having a mild diva moment as he complains about the potential loss of Sunday postal service in his southern English town and threatens to move elsewhere.

“I beg to say that I most decidedly and strongly object to the infliction of any such inconvenience upon myself,” he writes. “There are many people in this village of Higham, probably, who do not receive or dispatch in a year, as many letters as I usually receive and dispatch in a day,” he said of his home in Kent, southern England.

“I am on the best terms with my neighbours, poor and rich, and I believe they would be sorry to lose me,” he continues. “But I should be so hampered by the proposed restriction that I think it would force me to sell my property here, and leave this part of the country.”

In another, penned on vacation in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Aug. 5, 1846, Dickens writes to his friend and lawyer Thomas Mitton, describing the town as “prodigious if ugly.” He includes details of his stay, notably a mountain hike and washing his face with snow, and he comments on the local cuisine and how his children are passing the time.

“I have no doubt you have been looking once or twice for a letter from me since I have left home. I have written to very few people indeed,” he says.

“It is not at all a cheap place — dearer than Genoa, and as dear, I should say, as Paris. The most astonishing circumstance to me, is that bread, of all things in the world, is dearer at this moment, than in London! Meat is pretty cheap, and very good. … The native wine is something between vinegar and pickled cucumbers, and makes you wink and cry when you taste it,” he adds.

Another letter is a dinner invitation with a dramatic Dickensian final flourish: “Say ‘no’ and I never forgive you. Say ‘yes’ and join us here at ten minutes past six next Thursday, and I shall always remain faithfully yours CHARLES DICKENS.”

Princess Diana’s 1985 Ford Escort sells for $764,000 at auction

Peter Orford, a lecturer in English literature at the University of Buckingham and a biographer of Dickens, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he was “excited” by the new trove of letters, which would be a “major resource” for academics and enthusiasts alike.

Orford described Dickens — the author of classics such as “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations” and “Bleak House” — as someone who “tried to be a man of the people,” championing social causes. However, like many modern celebrities, he was also “quite precious about his privacy” and sought to strike a balance, Orford said.

“He could be a bit of a diva and hold the attention when it suited him,” he said, as there was “always interest in him as a person,” but at other times he found the public attention “intrusive.”

Dickens, like many Victorians, was a “prolific letter writer” and a man of his time, when an individual could receive mail deliveries a dozen times a day. So far, 12 volumes of Dickens’s letters have been published, some short “like text messages” confirming plans, said Orford, and other lengthier missives to friends and family.

Like other British authors including Jane Austen, Dickens destroyed many letters before his death, holding a bonfire in 1860 to stop them from falling into public hands. Those that still exist were collected from recipients. In his will, Dickens also specified that he did not wish to be remembered by statues or memorials but rather for his works, Orford added.

Despite his “Bah! Humbug!” attitude, Dickens still has millions of fans around the globe. His portrait has appeared on bank notes and stamps, his books have been adapted on screen, and countless schoolchildren still study his novels and perform “A Christmas Carol” each year.

“There’s still a great deal of popular interest in Dickens,” said Catherine Waters, emeritus professor of Victorian literature at the University of Kent. Waters is also the latest president of the Dickens Fellowship, a worldwide association of people who share an interest in Dickens’s life and works. The group was founded in 1902 and has active chapters in the United States, Italy, Australia and Japan.

The House of Lords is a bloated relic. Boris Johnson could make it bigger.

But like many of his fictional characters, Dickens was not easy to sum up. “He shared some of the prejudices of his age,” said Waters. She noted criticism of his “stereotyped” portrayal of some female characters and his real-life affair with Ellen Ternan later in life.

However, he was also encouraging of contemporary female writers and journalists, said Waters, accepting and publishing their works in periodicals that he edited. “He was a complex man,” she said.

Dickens could have been writing up to 20 letters a day over a period of more than 40 years, Waters told The Post.

“The range of topics that his letters cover is immense,” she said, with letters to family, publishers and charities illustrating a broad array of topics and social acquaintances.

“Given the variety and vividness of his letter writing, I’m sure being able to read some of these new letters will be very exciting for people,” she said.

Other letters in the collection give an insight into his reading habits and busy social diary. The museum also acquired a number of his personal objects, art, jewelry and books from the U.S. collector in 2020, amounting to more than 300 items valued at just over $2 million, according to the museum.

The exhibit of his handwritten letters will go on display starting Wednesday at the museum and online for international enthusiasts. Dickens died in 1870 in Higham and is buried in Poets’ Corner of London’s Westminster Abbey along with other British authors Geoffrey Chaucer and Rudyard Kipling.

“There’s no diary, so this is the best we get of what he’s thinking at the time,” Orford said. “The letters are a fantastic resource.”

Loading...