Fiddling around with Charles Dickens’ papers, part 2

“Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012” book

Yesterday, we discussed Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012 and its delightful collection of photographs and drawings, plus 21 pieces of printed memorabilia. Dickens’ fans can delight in the material drawn from the family archives, while historical fiction writers can get a bit of insight into what it was like to live in those times.

Today, I want to talk about a few more facsimile documents that I found interesting.

First is this handbill for a theatrical performance. (Click to embiggen)

This is not a public performance, but one devised by Dickens and performed by members of the family and friends. Dickens had a great love of theater, and put a great amount of effort into mounting these productions. He oversaw every detail, including the design and printing of these handbills.

Think of it. Someone had to write the copy, discuss the setting of the type with the printer (and because this was printed in two colors, each handbill had to be printed twice). But this was more than just family theatricals, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley writes:

Dickens would hire an army of workmen to turn the children’s schoolroom into what he called “The Smallest Theatre in the World.” The costumes were ordered from London’s top theatrical costumier, Nathan’s, and Dickens even hired a policeman to stand outside the house, check people’s invitations and keep out gatecrashers. . . . A new theatrical would take over the family’s life for several weeks: the house would be disrupted by the workmen and scene painters, the girls would be given regular coaching for their roles, and the boys would be sent their scripts at school and exhorted to learn all their lines before coming home for the holidays.”

Dickens’ love of theatricals would eventually lead him to destroy his marriage. The year after “The Lighthouse” was performed, family and friends would perform the melodrama “The Frozen Deep.” So successful was the production that Dickens decided to take it out on tour. To replace Dickens’ daughters, he hired actresses, including Ellen Ternan, with whom he would fall in love.

Finally, the book contains these examples of Dickens’ calling cards, giving us an idea of how he wanted friends and business acquaintances to view him: the writer, the commanding presence, the stern man of affairs.

I knew that the Victorians used calling cards. They’re the forerunners of today’s business cards. But I never would have thought they used photographs. I wonder if this was a widespread practice? And did Dickens, looking at the one of him in white, curse the printer for framing him so off-center. Did he think about tossing them and ordering another batch, or did he have a strong desire not to waste the money and decide to use them anyway? We’ll never know.

Last, there’s this letter he wrote to a friend, Angela Burdett Coutts, on 19 May 1858. The granddaughter of the founder of Coutts Bank, she used her inheritance to help the poor, and worked with Dickens on a number of schemes. They parted when he left his wife. It’s a serious letter, written after he had separated from his wife, Catherine. He was trying to arrange a settlement, but Catherine’s mother was urging her to sue for divorce and possibly spreading the word that Ellen Ternan had come between the couple.

Here’s the text of the letter. Think about how the recipient must have to squint and consider each word, especially one that could pack such an emotional punch:

Household Words Office / Nineteenth May 1858
My Dear Miss Coutts,
I think I know what you want me for. How I value your friendship, and how I love and honor you, you know in part, though you can never fully know. But nothing on earth — no, not even you — no consideration, human or Divine, can move me from the resolution I have taken.

And one other thing I must ask you to forgive me. If you have seen Mrs. Dickens in company with her wicked mother, I can not enter — no, not even with you — upon any question that was discussed in that woman’s presence.

I will come round, almost as soon as your messenger; but I foresee that there is nothing left to us to say.

My Dear Miss Coutts / Ever Affectionately / And Faithfully Yours


While we know many of the events about how Dickens parted from his wife for Ellen Ternan, many mysteries remain: why Catherine’s sister stayed with Dickens, whether Catherine was really as unstable as Dickens portrayed her, and what he was hoping to find with Ellen.

And that’s the truth behind historical research: At some point, you run out of answers, and fiction has to take over.