Category Archives: Charles Dickens

Thackeray, Dickens, and the Garrick Club Affair

“I am become a sort of great man in my way–all but at the top of the tree; indeed there if truth be known and having a great fight up there with Dickens.”

-William Makepeace Thackeray, in a letter to his mother

Contemporary authors Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray are remembered as preeminent writers of Victorian England. The two traveled in the same social circles and were at first great admirers of each other’s work. Their daughters even grew to be close friends. But a series of literary disputes drove the authors apart. Their feud culminated in the Garrick Club affair, which resulted in a rift that would not be bridged until just before Thackeray’s death.

Thackeray_Loving_Ballad_Lord_BatemanThe young Charles Dickens became the darling of both critics and public with Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). Meanwhile, Thackeray slaved away as a hack writer for another decade. Despite their unequal reputations, the two authors enjoyed each other’s work. They even presumably collaborated on The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman, which was initially attributed to Dickens. Now it’s believed that Thackeray wrote the body of the book, while Dickens wrote the preface and notes.

Finally, the publication of Vanity Fair (1847-1848) gained Thackeray the critical attention he sought and freed him from financial struggle. The novel got off to a slow start–multiple publishers rejected the first few chapters–but the novel eventually sold about 7,000 numbers per week. It made Thackeray the talk of London, though still not to the same extent as Dickens.


“Caricature of Two Great Victorians, Christmas Greetings for 1916″ was published by Oak Knoll Press. It later used as the frontis for Newton’s popular 1918 work, ‘The Amenities of Book Collecting and Kindred Affections.’

Thackeray’s next novel, Pendennis (1849-1850) was published concurrently with Dickens’ David Copperfield, and Thackeray finally earned comparison to the Inimitable, first in North British Review and later in other critical journals. Thackeray knew that he would never equal Dickens in the eyes of the reading public, but he was happy to be equally respected and admired among critics. Dickens, however, was less enthusiastic about sharing the limelight: Dr. John Brown, a friend of both authors, noted that Dickens “could not abide the brother so near the throne.” Thackeray and Dickens would subsequently engage in a number of literary quarrels, notably the “Dignity of Literature” debate.

In 1858, the situation finally reached a head. Dickens had recently separated from his wife, and he was sensitive to public and private opinion about his choice. It especially rankled Dickens when he heard that Thackeray had repeated information about Dickens’ affair with Ellen Ternan. Thus it should come as no surprise that Dickens allowed Edmund Yates to publish an anonymous, slanderous attack on Thackeray in Household Words. Yates was a young journalist whom Dickens had taken under his wing. He was also a member of the Garrick Club, along with Dickens and Thackeray.

When Thackeray learned that Yates had written the Household Words piece, he wrote a letter demanding an apology. Upset that Yates had shared confidential conversations from the Garrick Club, Thackeray took the issue before the Garrick Club. Though Dickens had been overseas when the dispute broke, he quickly jumped to Yates’ aid, writing letters to both Thackeray and to the Garrick Club committee. But Dickens intervention did little to mitigate the situation; the committee decided to cancel Yates’ membership, and he was forbidden to set foot on Club property.

Yates_Thackeray_Garrick_ClubYates did not consider the matter closed. He continued writing journal articles and pamphlets, fanning the flames of scandal. He even penned Mr. Thackeray, Mr. Yates, and the Garrick Club: The Correspondence and Facts (1859), which was predictably biased in his favor an which he had privately printed by Taylor and Greening. Finally Dickens realized that his support of Yates might damage his own reputation, and he convinced Yates to put the matter to rest.

The feud certainly weighed on Thackeray. He admitted to Charles Kingsley, “What pains me most is that Dickens should have been his adviser, and next that I should have had to lay a heavy hand on a young man who, I take it, has been cruelly punished by the issue of the affair and I believe is hardly aware of the nature of his own offense and doesn’t even understand that a gentleman should resent the monstrous insult which he volunteered.”

But Thackeray hardly felt compelled to extend an olive branch to either Dickens or Yates. Still close friends, Thackeray and Dickens’ daughters struggled to facilitate a reconciliation between their fathers. Though they got their fathers to relax their opinions, they didn’t manage to effect a meeting between the two men. That happened accidentally, when the two authors bumped into each other on the steps of another London club. The men shook hands and parted ways. Only months later, Thackeray passed away.

Though these literary titans may have bitterly quarreled, they both left behind a rich authorial legacy. Thackeray and Dickens are both central figures in the canon of Victorian literature.


Top Ten Blog Posts of All Time

This month has been a big one here at Tavistock Books! We celebrate our 25th anniversary, along with the one-year anniversary of fearless Aide-de-Camp Margueritte Peterson. We’re also proud that this month we hit the 10,000-visitor mark for our blog. To recognize this occasion, we humbly present the top ten blog articles of all time. Hope you enjoy reading!

Dickens_Great_Expectations_Confederate_Edition1. The Two Endings of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations

When Charles Dickens finished Great Expectations and sent it off to his publishers, he was quite pleased with himself. Then he showed a copy to friend and fellow author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who, according to Dickens, “was so very anxious that I should alter the end…and stated his reasons so well, that I have resumed the wheel, and taken another turn at it.” The book’s dual endings present complications for critics and collectors alike. Read More>>

2. Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas? 

For the Victorians, Christmas wasn’t complete without a great ghost story! Charles Dickens certainly catered to this preference with his beloved Christmas Carol and a number of other Christmas tales. But why ghost stories? The holiday–once forbidden by Oliver Cromwell–has its roots in pagan rituals, which included telling “winter’s tales,” that is, ghost stories. Read More>>

Edith_Cavell_Crime_Des_Barbares3. Edith Cavell: Nurse, Humanitarian, and…Traitor?

Edith Cavell quickly earned a reputation as an excellent nurse, and during World War I she found herself with another set of duties. Along with other nurses, Cavell was recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service to collect information about the Germans. She eventually put that mission aside, preferring to funnel British and French soldiers to neutral Holland. Cavell raised suspicion, and the Germans arrested her for treason. Cavell was convicted and executed, a move that provided plenty of fodder for British and American propaganda machines. Read More>>

4. Alexander Pope’s Legacy of Satire and Scholarship

History has not always been kind to Alexander Pope, and neither were his contemporary critics. The poet published his earliest extant work at only twelve years old and went on to found the Scriblerus Club alongside celebrated authors John Gay and Jonathan Swift. Thanks to the guidance and support of Swift, Pope was able to do what few authors of the era managed to accomplish: he made a comfortable living with the pen, mostly due to his ingenious translation of Homer’s Iliad. Read More>>

5. A Brief History of Propaganda

Propaganda has existed for ages; the Behistun Inscription, written around 515 BCE details King Darius I’s glorious victory. But the Catholic Church gave us the word itself and formalized the use of propaganda, most notably when Pope Urban II needed to bolster support for the Crusades. The literacy boom of the nineteenth century actually drove the production of more propaganda, as politicians had to sway the opinions of a more informed public. World War I saw the first large-scale propaganda production. Britain even enlisted its best authors, like AA Milne, to create pro-war propaganda. Read More>>

6. Charles Dickens Does Boston

Charles Dickens’ first trip to America began promisingly enough; he was immediately mobbed by adoring fans. Dickens fell in love with Boston, declaring the city “what I would like the whole United States to be.” But the trip turned sour when the young author insisted on addressing the issue of international copyright law at every turn. He was also appalled by the way slavery was practiced in the South and by Americans’ lack of social graces. Dickens documented his impressions of the United States in American Notes, which immediately alienated his Continental readers. Read More>>

Beardsley-Salome-Wilde7. Oscar Wilde, Dickens Detractor and “Inventor” of Aubrey Beardsley 

We remember Oscar Wilde just as much for his oversize personality as we do for his authorial excellence. Wilde’s ego often led to strange relationships with fellow authors, most notably Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, and Aubrey Beardsley. Wilde lost a love to Stoker, railed against Dickens’ sentimentality, and claimed that Beardsley had Wilde to thank for his career. For rare book collectors, Oscar Wilde epitomizes the way that single-author collections can (and should) include works by other authors. Read More>>

8. The Six Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe called his time “the epoch of the hoax,” and the horror writer couldn’t have been happier about it. Poe was a great lover of hoaxes, even attempting several himself. He forged a note from a supposed lunar inhabitant and penned a fake journal from an explorer. Poe even undertook one hoax to dissuade people from going West during the Gold Rush. But Poe’s efforts only proved that he should have stuck to poetry and fiction; he hardly convinced anyone that his hoaxes were real. Read More>>


From ‘The Cruikshankian Momus’ by Isaac, Robert, and George Cruikshank

9. George Cruikshank: “Modern Hogarth,” Teetotaler, and Philanderer

George Cruikshank followed in his father’s footsteps, building a reputation as a preeminent illustrator of his time. Political from the beginning of his career, Cruikshank was openly racist and patriotic. He adopted an incredibly moralistic tone about drinking. That uncompromising campaign for temperance ultimately became a wedge between Cruikshank and Charles Dickens. After Cruikshank’s death, however, his wife discovered that he’d been leading a secret life–and had fathered eleven children with the family’s former servant. Read More>>

10. The Millerites an the Great Disappointment

The Seventh-Day Adventist Church arose from a great failure. The nineteenth century saw a revival in millinarianism, the belief that a drastic event or movement would suddenly change the course of society as outlined in the book of Revelation. William Miller stepped forward as a sort of prophet, arguing that Jesus would certainly return in 1843 or 1844. His followers, called the Millerites, embraced his predictions–until the days passed and nothing happened. They broke into a number of different sects, one of which developed into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Read More>>



Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Victorian Spiritualism

On April 1, 1848, modern Spiritualism was born in Hydesville, New York. That day, teenage sisters Margaret and Kate Fox announced that they had communicated with the spirit of a man who had been murdered in their house years before. A report of the incident first appeared in the New York Tribune, and it was reprinted soon after in both American and European newspapers.

Spiritualism Takes Hold in England


The Fox Sisters

The roots of Spiritualism stretch back to the eighteenth-century works of Emmanuel Swedenborg. But the incident with the Fox sisters ignited unprecedented interest in the phenomenon of communicating with the dead. Spiritualism would enrapture leading thinkers of the day, along with celebrated authors like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Meanwhile, Charles Dickens came out as a staunch opponent–despite his own interest in the also-questionable practice of mesmerism.

Spiritualism in its modern form emerged in Britain in 1852. That year, Maria Hayden traveled to London and offered her services as a medium. She conducted seances, complete with table rappings and automatic writing. But Spiritualism was far from new in England; Queen Victoria herself had subscribed to the belief as early as 1846. By the 1860′s Spiritualism had exploded into a full-fledged counterculture; it had its own newspapers, societies, treatises, and pamphlets. Seances–complete with table tapping, table tipping, automatic writing and levitation–were conducted in even the most genteel social circles.

Victorian England was ripe for just such a movement. Though it was an era of great scientific discovery, it was also an era of turning away from organized religion and confronting uncertainty. To fill the void, many Victorians turned to the supernatural, mesmerism, electro-biology, Spiritualism, and other relatively new pursuits. These new practices thoroughly blurred the lines between religion and science, and even proponents of Spiritualism were divided about how to characterize it.

From Fiction Writer to Leading Spiritualist

Doyle_McCabePublic_Debate_SpiritualismElizabeth Barrett Browning famously subscribed to Spiritualism, much to the chagrin of her skeptical husband, Robert Browning, who was dragged to seances with her on multiple occasions. But the Brownings were far from the only authors at the seance tables; Christina Rosetti, John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Rudyard Kipling participated in seances. But it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who would delve so deeply into Spiritualism, he would turn away from fiction almost altogether.

Conan Doyle encountered Spiritualism as early as 1866, thanks to a book by US High Courts Judge John Worth Edmonds. The judge, who claimed he’d communicated with his wife after she died, was one of the most influential Spiritualists in America. Conan Doyle was by now already famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But he hoped to be remembered for something entirely different, so he turned away from his famous protagonist to study Spiritualism. Conan Doyle presented his first public lecture on Spiritualism in 1917, and he would eventually travel throughout Great Britain, Europe, and America educating audiences about the practice. He even trekked to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in the name of Spiritualism.

Fairy_PicturesWhile Conan Doyle was respected in Spiritualist circles, his blind devotion led him headlong into ridicule on more than one occasion. He was taken in by Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright’s forged photographs of fairies. Conan Doyle, accepting the photographs as authentic, wrote a few pamphlets and The Coming of Fairies (1922), which made him a bit of a laughingstock. Later, Conan Doyle invited his friend Harry Houdini to attend a seance,with his wife Jean, acting as medium. Jean claimed to have contacted Houdini’s mother and “automatically” wrote a long letter in English. Unfortunately Houdini’s mother had known little English. Consequently the famous magician publicly declared Conan Doyle a fraud.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Conan Doyle persisted, remaining an avid Spiritualist until his death. Once he passed away, claims surfaced that he and his wife had arranged for communication from beyond the grave. On July 7, 1930, five days after Conan Doyle’s death, a seance was held at Royal Albert Hall. The presiding medium, Estelle Roberts, claimed that she’d relayed a message from Conan Doyle to his wife…but was drowned out by the overzealous organ player.

Dickens Ridicules Spiritualists

Although Conan Doyle was devoted to Spiritualism, he was careful not to sully Sherlock Holmes with such a controversial ideology. Thus whenever Holmes encounters potentially supernatural phenomena, he remains nonplussed and seeks a rational explanation. After all, as the famed detective says in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” Charles Dickens would surely have agreed.

Dickens grew up reading penny weeklies like The Terrific Register, which he said “frightened the very wits out of [his] head.” The register’s pages brimmed with tales of ghosts, murder, incest, and cannibalism. Meanwhile, the English tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas–coupled with Dickens’ own (lucrative) habit of publishing new stories at Christmas resulted in Dickens’ publishing plenty of ghost stories of his own.



Dickens called Eliotson “one of my most intimate and valuable friends” in this letter to ‘The Boston Morning Post.’

That didn’t stop the Inimitable from openly dismissing Spiritualism as unmitigated quackery. He frequently attacked Spiritualists in both Household Words and All the Year Round. In “Well Authenticated Rappings,” (Household Words, 1858), Dickens questions why spirits would return to communicate with the living, only to make idiots of themselves by tapping out banal messages rife with orthographical mistakes.

Yet even Dickens got pulled into a movement of highly questionable validity: mesmerism. Named for its creator, Anton Mesmer, mesmerism was the belief that the universe was full of an invisible magnetic fluid, which influenced all life and could be manipulated more easily with magnets. Prominent doctor John Eliotson was one of the leading proponents of mesmerism (also known as magnetism and animal magnetism). Eliotson was eventually shunned from the medical establishment as a result.

Dickens actually became a practicing mesmeric doctor, successfully putting both his wife and sister-in-law into a trance. During his family’s trip to Italy in 1844, Dickens also mesmerized the alluring Augusta de la Rue, who suffered from, as she called it, a “burning and raging” in her head. The attention he lavished on M. de la Rue was sufficient to evoke jealousy from Dickens’ wife, Catherine. Meanwhile, Dickens was less successful in his attempt to mesmerize his friend Charles Macready.

Dickens_Edwin_DroodDickens and his fellow mesmerists believed, as Eliotson did, that the practice represented a genuine improvement in the field of medicine–unlike Spiritualism, which served no such therapeutic function. Thus he felt perfectly justified in lambasting Spiritualism while simultaneously espousing a practice that, as modern readers, we might find laughable. 

Ironically enough, Dickens was a frequent target of mediums. His final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood has inspired many an author to attempt its end. But in 1873, printer Thomas James penned an ending for the book. He claimed that Dickens had dictated the ending from beyond the grave, calling the book The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Complete). Part second of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. By the spirit-pen of Charles Dickens, through a medium.

Ultimately both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens illustrate the Victorian predilection for the supernatural and strange. 

Related Posts:
Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas?
The Six Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe
All Posts-Charles Dickens


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Charles Dickens as Social Commentator

Karl Marx deeply admired his contemporary Charles Dickens, which should surprise no one familiar with the works of the Inimitable. Dickens used his novels to address the social ills of Victorian society, from the poor conditions in factories to the deplorable treatment of orphans. Some of Dickens’ incredible popularity can certainly be attributed to his overt empathy for the common man, but that same popularity also gave him an unprecedented platform for promoting reform. Dickens took up social causes early in his career and, after the success of Oliver Twist, resolved to use the novel as a vehicle for social commentary.

Sunday Under Three Heads

Dickens_Sunday_Under_Three_HeadsBy 1836, England’s social classes were not only divided by economics; they also observed religion differently. For the middle and upper classes, the Sabbath remained a sacred day, free from feasting, visiting, and indulgences. But for members of the lower class, Sunday was usually the only day off and therefore the only day available to make merry. Thus the streets of London were often full of drunkards and revelers on Sundays. Sir Andrew Agnew despised the lower classes to such a degree that he went out of his way to end Sunday festivities with a Sabbath Observances bill. The bill would have put an end to the usual freedoms and entertainments that the lower class usually enjoyed on Sundays. Dickens found the bill draconian and discriminatory. In 1836, he published “Sunday Under Three Heads” under the pseudonym Timothy Sparks. The cartoon illustrates the fact that there could–and should–be some middle ground between reckless revelry and puritanical observance. Dickens would go on to criticize not only Agnew’s bill (which failed to pass in four different permutations, leading Agnew to resign from Parliament), but also his character.

Oliver Twist

Completed in 1839, Dickens_Oliver_TwistOliver Twist vaunted Dickens to celebrity status in England. The novel was Dickens’ first to carry over social commentary, and its success galvanized his resolve to use his fiction to address social injustice. Two years prior, in 1837, six members of Parliament and six working men had banded together to publish the People’s Charter (1838). Their aim was to empower working-class men with voting rights and the ability to be elected to the House of Commons. While these demands weren’t new, they were made at just the right time, and the People’s Charter is often regarded as the most famous political manifesto of the nineteenth century. The Chartist movement rapidly emerged, drawing attention to the plight of the working class. Thus Oliver Twist likely could not have been published to a more sympathetic audience. Dickens’ criticism of the Poor Law of 1834 and the horrible conditions of orphanages fell on eager ears.

A Christmas Carol

Dickens_Christmas_CarolRobert Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population pseudonymously in 1798. He argued that overpopulation would necessarily right itself through famine, disease, war or other means. The work was highly influential and immediately raised concerns about the population of Great Britain. In 1800, the Census Act was passed, enabling a census count every ten years. In ensuing decades, the population of cities, and of London in particular, grew astronomically. Malthus’ theory became an excuse to ignore the spread of contagious disease and the lack of proper care for orphans. Dickens personified Malthus in Ebenezer Scrooge, who says, “If they would rather die…they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” By this time, another concept dovetailed conveniently with Malthusianism: the “deserving poor.” Victorians commonly believed that people were poor because they deserved to be. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens refutes both ideas wholeheartedly.

Bleak House

Critic Terry Eagleton notesDickens_Bleak_House that by 1852, Dickens saw Victorian England as “rotting, unravelling, so freighted with meaningless matter that it [was] sinking back into primeval slime.” Bleak House, which Dickens completed in 1853, is widely regarded as England’s first contribution to the tradition of the modern detective novel. But the book still usually gets short shrift among readers and critics. Nevertheless, Bleak House is one of Dickens’ best–and one of his most ambitious in terms of social commentary. Dickens takes on issues of electoral corruption, class division, slum housing, overcrowded urban cemeteries, and the neglect of contagious diseases. More importantly, he draws attention to England’s faulty legal system, as exemplified in the Chancery Court. Prior to his career as an author, Dickens had been a court reporter. The post gave him an inside look at the inconsistencies, inefficiencies, and iniquities of the British court system, and he drew on this experience in Bleak House.

Hard Times

Dickens_Hard_TimesThe Anti-Corn Law League was founded in 1836 with the sole purpose of abolishing the Corn Laws, which levied taxes on imported wheat and inflated the price of food at a time when factory owners were attempting to cut wages. After a decade, the movement was successful, and the league disbanded. The movement (known as Manchester capitalism or Manchester liberalism)  was based on the principles of laissez-faire capitalism as promoted by Adam Smith, and its members believed that free trade would ultimately lead to a more equitable society. Although Dickens would likely have agreed with the school on other issues like slavery, he vehemently disagreed with laissez-faire capitalism. In Hard Times, we encounter characters whose personal relationships have been tainted by economics and face the cruel living conditions of the urban working class. Dickens also paints a picture of the greedy excesses enabled by unregulated capitalism. Meanwhile, he also addresses contemporary reforms to divorce law, the lack of education for the poor, and the working class’ right to amusement.

Dickens is often criticized for failing to offer any solutions to Victorian England’s social issues. Criticism also sways with political trends; in the 1960′s and 1970′s, for instance, Dickens was simply “not Marxist enough.” But ultimately Dickens renders an important service by bringing attention to such a wide range of social concerns, and one must ask whether we should really expect solutions to social problems in our literature.

Related Posts:
Charles Dickens and Capital Punishment
Andersen’s Visit with Dickens Less than a Fairy Tale
Charles Dickens the Copyright Confederate
Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas?
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Charles Dickens and Capital Punishment


The sensationalization of public executions was a long-standing tradition by Dickens’ day. This account of William Page’s “robberies and adventures” dates to 1758.

On February 24, 1807, three convicted murderers were to be executed at Newgate: Owen Haggerty, John Holloway, and Elizabeth Godfrey. The fact that three people were going to be executed (and one of them a woman) was extremely unusual. The event drew a huge and rowdy crowd. The crowd reached a point of hysteria, and authorities could not even penetrate the throngs to help those caught in the melee. In the end, 27 people died and 70 were sent to the hospital with serious injuries.

Though that magnitude of injury was unusual, the excitement over public executions certainly was not. By the time Charles Dickens was born five years later, execution as entertainment was firmly entrenched in British culture. Though Dickens, too, would be morbidly fascinated with public executions, he would eventually argue for private executions.

Broadsides Outsell Even Dickens

By the 1840′s, Dickens was the most popular novelist in England. His monthly shilling numbers consistently sold in the 10,000′s–quite an impressive figure at the time. But the cheap penny broadsides advertising “popular” murderers regularly outsold Dickens by 100 to one. These accounts often included lurid details of the crimes, partially or completely fabricated by the printers. They were undoubtedly the most widely read material in England and had been for decades.


“The Dying Speech of James Shepheard” is known in five different editions. Only four other copies of this one are recorded.

The broadsides fueled a long-standing obsession with death and criminality. Following execution, it was quite common for Madame Tussaud’s to make wax figures of the deceased. Sometimes Tussaud would even buy clothing and other artifacts from the hangman to make the wax figure more realistic. Death masks were also sometimes made. In the case of William Corder, who was hanged on August 11, 1828 for the “Red Barn Murder” of Maria Marten, a cast was taken of Corder’s face and a copy of a book about the trial was bound in Corder’s own skin. William Burke’s death mask, taken on January 28, 1829 clearly shows an indentation from the noose on Burke’s neck. Phrenology, the study of the skull’s shape as a guide to one’s personality, was all the rage in the nineteenth century, and people were enthusiastically interested in studying the skulls of criminals.

But undoubtedly the most prurient and popular entertainment was attending the execution itself. Ordinary citizens would walk miles to attend executions. In smaller towns, executions would be held on market days to facilitate attendance. By the 1850′s, special trains had actually been laid on to transport people to executions. School groups were even made to attend executions as morality lessons; the rationale was that watching such a brutal punishment would deter spectators from committing the same crimes.

Dickens Attends His First Execution

Dickens worked as a court reporter from 1829 to 1833, a position that exposed him to the world of criminals and capital punishment. This experience likely had a significant impact on Dickens’ attitude toward crime, punishment, and justice. But the first execution that we know Dickens attended was that of Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, on July 6, 1840. By this time, it was not fashionable for nobility to attend executions, but Courvoisier’s case was an exception: he’d been convicted of murdering Lord William Russell. Over 40,000 people attended the execution, including William Makepeace Thackeray. Profoundly disgusted by the experience, Thackeray would later describe the experience in great detail in “Going to See a Man Hanged.”

Dickens_Barnaby_RudgeDickens seemed more inured to the event, but he later said in a letter that he witnessed “No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing by ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes.” Experts hypothesize that seeing this execution influenced Dickens’ portrayal of the bloodthirsty hangman Ned Dennis in Barnaby Rudge, published in 1841.

That same year, Dickens tried to reach an agreement with Mackey Napier, editor at the Edinburgh Review. The two had met during Dickens’ visit to Scotland, and Napier had invited Dickens to write a piece for the journal. Such invitations were difficult to come by; the Review was the premier intellectual publication at the time. But the Review was also definitively a definitively conservative, Whig publication, quite at odds with Dickens’ own politics. He proposed a number of ideas, including a piece about the sordid state of public executions, even conducting substantial research on the topic.

Ultimately Dickens decided that the Edinburgh Review wasn’t a great fit for him. Five years later, he published a series of letters in the Daily News, a periodical dedicated to “free trade” politics. Dickens remained editor of the paper for only twenty days, but he published five letters on capital punishment during and after his tenure. Critics argue that it’s the best-researched and -written non-fiction that Dickens ever wrote. He addresses Courvoisier’s execution in the second letter. In the Daily News letters, Dickens speaks out against the death penalty altogether.

The Manning Executions

But Dickens managed to attend yet another sensational execution on November 13, 1849. Maria and Frederick Manning were executed at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in front of a crowd that numbered between 30,000 and 50,000. Executions at Horsemonger Lane were particularly popular spectacles; the gallows were on the rooftop. It was said that on execution days, local tenants could let the rooms with windows facing the gaol. Dickens rented such quarters and held a late dinner party there on the night before the execution. He walked around and observed the crowd afterward.


John Leech’s “Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol” appeared in ‘Punch’ magazine after the Manning execution and turned a critical eye not to the gallows, but to the crowd below. Leech, who had illustrated ‘A Christmas Carol,’ attended the execution with Dickens.

Tormented by the thought of a mad crowd, Maria Manning tried to stab herself in the throat with her own fingernails the day before her execution. Thwarted, she appeared before the mob in an elegant black satin gown and veil. Her outfit merited mention from countless spectators, including Dickens, and black satin remained out of style for the next thirty years. Dickens shares his recollections of the public hanging in an 1852 essay called “Lying Awake,” which appeared in Household Words. And he evokes Maria Manning in Bleak House’s Mademoiselle Hortense. Dickens also wrote a letter to The Times about the appalling scene at the execution. His letter did much to raise interest in the abolitionist cause. Meanwhile, abolitionist George Jacob Holyoake wrote an ironic commentary in his journal The Reasoner, decrying the unchecked crowding at executions.

But opponents defended the execution circus, arguing that it was a public duty to make the criminals’ last moments as miserable as possible. One proponent wrote, “The merciful object of ever punishment which the law inflicts is not so much to revenge past crime as to prevent its recurrence”; that is, capital punishment was necessary because it deterred spectators from committing the same crimes. Such a mindset was hardly contained among the uneducated. Even clergymen could get overzealous. One inflicted serious burns on a female inmate after holding her hand over a candle to simulate the fires of Hell that awaited if she didn’t repent.

Grisly Executions Sway Public Opinion


The most famous hangman of the 19th century, William Calcraft completed around 450 executions. An illustrated account of his life was published in 1871.

While Dickens consistently comments on the horrors of executions, that didn’t dissuade him from attending more. In Pictures from Italy (1846), Dickens describes in graphic detail a guillotining he watched in Rome. He observed that the “ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle” showcased the very worse of humanity. And he recounts another beheading, this time in Switzerlandin Household WordsThese passages certainly made a mark on public opinion.

So did the grisly execution of John Gleeson Wilson on September 15, 1849. Around 100,000 people came to Kirkdale to witness the spectacle. The case had received so much attention, broadside publishers had changed the name of the street where the crime occurred to curb publicity. Unfortunately or both Wilson and the spectators, accomplished executioner William Calcraft was indisposed. He’d been replaced by a seventy year old with little experience. Calcraft’s substitute made the drop too short, and he didn’t pull the cape down far enough; Wilson’s face was exposed to the crowd. Rather than having his neck immediately broken, Wilson strangled to death–and it took a full fifteen minutes. Spectators watched in horror as his eyes bulged and his face turned purple. Numerous individuals fainted at the sight.

Abolitionists Gain Considerable Traction

Throughout the 1850′s, the abolitionists gained more sympathy. It fell completely out of fashion for both nobility and the upper middle classes to attend executions. But while more and more people were coming to believe that the death penalty should be eliminated, Dickens’ sentiments were swinging the opposite way. He’d lobbied for complete abolition of the death penalty in the late 1840′s. But in 1859, upon hearing about the potential reprieve of convicted murderer Thomas Smeghurst, Dickens wrote “I would hang any home secretary, Whig, Tory, Radical, or otherwise, who would step in between so black a scoundrel and the gallows.”

He confirmed this stance in 1864, admitting, “I should be glad to abolish both [public executions and capital punishment] if I knew what to do with the Savages of civilization. As I do not, I would rid Society of them, when they shed blood, in a very solemn manner but would bar out the present audience.” Thus Dickens came to support the death penalty in cases of violent crime, which was concurrent with English law at the time. In 1861, the Criminal Law Consolidation Act reduced capital offenses to murder, high treason, piracy, and arson in a Royal Dockyard. Other than one case of attempted murder, no one had been executed for any other offenses since 1837, so the law finally caught up to common practice.


As Britain’s first “railway murderer,” Franz Muller drew considerable attention.

On November 14, 1864, over 100,000 people gathered to watch the execution of Franz Muller. The King of Prussia had written a letter to Queen Elizabeth on Muller’s behalf, but to no avail. The German tailor had been convicted of killing banker Thomas Brigg. Brigg’s colleagues had discovered bloody clothing and hat in Brigg’s compartment, and the man was found on the railroad tracks shortly thereafter. He was still carrying a considerable amount of money, but his pocket watch and chain had been stolen.

The bloody hat had been traced directly back to Muller, while the pocket watch turned up at a local pawn shop. The proprietor said that a man with a German accent had brought it. By this time, Muller had already boarded a steamship for New York. The inspector boarded a faster ship, intercepted Muller in New York, and returned him to England. Muller was found guilty in less than fifteen minutes.

At the time, people were especially preoccupied with the safety of rail travel. The crowd was boisterous on execution day. Multiple people were violently trampled to death, including a woman and her infant. By this time, public opinion had shifted; Victorians were more evenly divided over the efficacy of public executions. Abolitionists pointed out all the crime that occurred in the very shadow of the gallows. They commonly quote a chaplain’s report that of 167 criminals he’d interviewed on execution day, only three had never witnessed a public execution. Clearly this form of punishment did not deter future criminal behavior.

Legendary Authors Influence Legislation

Along with the Quakers, both Thackeray and Dickens would be credited with changing public opinion on capital punishment. The 1864 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment spent two years deliberating on the issue and finally ruled that there was no case for ending the death penalty altogether. But they did decide to make executions private. On May 11, 1868, the Capital Punishment Amendment was read into Parliament.

A number of factors led to changes in England’s capital punishment laws, but we shouldn’t underestimate Dickens’ role in changing public opinion. The Inimitable One consistently exerted an uncanny influence over his contemporary readers.

Related Posts:
A Brief History of True Crime Literature
Charles Dickens the Copyright Confederate
Andersen’s Visit with Dickens Less Than a Fairy Tale


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Andersen’s Visit with Dickens Less than a Fairy Tale

Hans_Christian_AndersenLegendary children’s author Hans Christian Andersen was born on April 2, 1805. Though the Danish author published work in a number of genres, he’s best remembered for his fairy tales. Stories like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Nightingale” are beloved by readers of all ages, all over the world. Thanks to Andersen’s authorial reputation, he could rely on wealthy patrons to support him. He lived his life as a permanent house guest. Experienced visitor though he was, Andersen still managed to ruin his relationship with Charles Dickens during an extended stay at Gads Hill.

Andersen published his first book, The Improvisatore, in 1835. An autobiographical novel, the book met with immediate acclaim when it was translated into English and published in the UK. Soon after, audiences had discovered–and delighted in–Andersen’s fairy tales. Between 1845 and 1847, at least five anthologies of Andersen’s stories had been published in English. Andersen’s London publisher, Richard Bentley, decided to capitalize with a publicity tour. In 1847, Andersen made his first visit to England.

By that year, Charles Dickens was already a literary titan. Bentley thought that a meeting between Andersen and Dickens could be advantageous for Andersen’s reputation, so he arranged it. Countess Blessington, a close friend of Lord Byron and a generous patron of the arts, provided the perfect opportunity. The countess was a bit of a scandalous figure; she openly lived with her stepdaughter’s husband, none other than Count d’Orsay, the famed soldier, painter, and fashion icon. There were also rumors about the true nature of Countess Blessington’s all-night parties.

But the party at which Dickens and Andersen met was much more mundane. Andersen had fallen in love with Dickens’ work when he read Oliver Twist and considered Dickens “the greatest writer of our time.” The two immediately hit it off and resolved to see each other again before Andersen left England. But due to his busy tour schedule, that proved nearly impossible. At one point, Dickens visited Andersen’s lodging, and finding the author away, left twelve presentation copies of his books for Andersen. (Some of these books remain unaccounted for.) Andersen finally visited Dickens’ home on his last night in England. By all accounts, the visit was quite enjoyable. Dickens and Andersen began a long, if sporadic, correspondence, and Dickens invited Andersen to visit on more than one occasion.


Gads Hill

Andersen finally took Dickens up on his offer in 1857. By that time, Andersen had grown accustomed to staying in grand homes with dozens of bedrooms. It wasn’t quite the same at Gads Hill, where Dickens had just moved his family. At the time, eight or nine of Dickens’ ten children were still living at home, and his marriage was falling apart. Though Dickens was wealthy by the standards of the era, his lifestyle was still squarely middle class (largely because he had so many progeny to support).

Andersen had promised Dickens, “I shall not inconvenience you much,” but he stayed five weeks instead of the agreed-upon two. He also made a strange request: that one of the older Dickens boys shave him every morning. Dickens refused to indulge that request, which was undoubtedly related to Andersen’s libidinous urges for boys.

There is no thorough account of the visit, but it couldn’t have been an easy one: Andersen spoke little English, and Dickens was often away from home. He had just completed Little Dorrit and was producing Wilkie Collins’ play The Frozen Deep as a benefit to his friend Douglas Jerrold. Ellen Ternan  was in the play, and the affair between her and Dickens was blossoming. It’s possible that Dickens actually invited Andersen to extend his stay so that he could attend the opening of The Frozen Deep. Andersen may have offered his criticism a little too freely, or the two could have discovered other artistic differences.

It’s more likely, however, that the rather awkward Andersen unwittingly committed some faux pas in front of the Inimitable’s impressive literary circle. At any rate, when Andersen finally left Gads Hill, Dickens reportedly wrote on the mirror of the guest room, “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks–which seemed to the family AGES.” Dickens’ daughter Kate called Andersen a “bony bore,” a characterization that perhaps inspired Dickens when he created the character of Uriah Heep.

The final straw for Dickens may have come after Andersen departed. Andersen published an account of his stay with the Dickens family in Germany, without Dickens’ permission. He gave a glowing report of his stay and had particularly warm words for Mrs. Dickens. But that may have been a fatal mistake; by the time the account appeared in English in 1858, Dickens and his wife were already separated.

Though Andersen continued to write to Dickens after his stay, Dickens was generally unresponsive. Andersen’s popularity grew in the ensuing years, and he would travel throughout Europe. But he would never return to England. Meanwhile, some critics see Andersen’s influence in Dickens’ works, especially his Christmas stories. At any rate, the whole episode perfectly illustrates Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

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Charles Dickens the Copyright Confederate

In 1854, Sigmund H Goetzel arrived in Mobile, Alabama and immediately got to work setting up a bookstore. A German immigrant who’d been naturalized as a US citizen, Goetzel was intent to establish himself as a prominent member of the city and a vital member of the publishing community. During the Civil War, Goetzel’s publishing house would make waves regarding international copyright law–an issue near and dear to Charles Dickens’ heart. That copyright policy likely contributed to Dickens’ decision to support the South during the Civil War.

An Enterprising Publisher

Goetzel set up shop with silent partner Bernard L Tine, who owned a local clothing store. They called their outfit SH Goetzel & Company. Goetzel would drop the “& Company” once he repaid his debt to Tine in 1863, five years after their partnership had actually expired. Though he remained in the business only eight years, Goetzel proved quite industrious, publishing not only maps and broadsides, but also pamphlets and a number of books. Although many of the books were simply reprints of English or northern titles, a significant number were also original titles.


Confederate-era sketches of Mobile, Alabama, from Harpers Weekly

By 1860, the publishing industry in Mobile had grown by leaps and bounds, probably due to increased wealth and an influx of residents. The city was prosperous and cosmopolitan; approximately 50% of its white, male residents were foreign born. Meanwhile in the late 1850′s, Goetzel had consistently garnered praise for the high quality of his publications. SH Goetzel & Company was a thriving part of the Cotton City.

The onset of the Civil War in 1861, however, presented new challenges. Materials, particularly paper and ink, became increasingly difficult to procure from the North, and Union blockades prevented the import of materials from Europe. Goetzel’s main competitor, William Strickland & Company, was driven out of business due to accusations that the firm’s principles were “incendiaries,” that is, abolitionists. By the middle of the war, publishers and printers had either shuttered their shops, or stretched the limits of their ingenuity; thus, wallpaper became a common book covering material when paper and other materials ran out.

Copyright Controversy

Yet Goetzel persevered, anxious to prove to the world that the Southern publishing world would not be undone. His first endeavor was a new edition of William J Hardee’s Hardeen’s Revised and Improved Infantry and Rifle Tactics, which Hardee had revised at the request of Jefferson Davis. Goetzel soon found himself embroiled in a copyright lawsuit, as the work was immediately pirated both in the North and the South. He began printing “THE ONLY COPYRIGHTED EDITION” directly over the title.

Edward_Bulwer_LyttonThe following year, Goetzel announced that the firm would issue an edition of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story. Scheduled to start in time for Christmas and New Years, it was issued in numbers. Goetzel published the numbers with such astonishing rapidity, that editors at the Mobile Advertiser and Register noted that the printer’s resources “exceeded expectations.”

By this time, the Confederate States of America had already established a strong stance on international copyright. On May 21, 1861, the CSA Copyright Act was ratified, granting reciprocal copyright and royalties to foreign-born authors. The legislation was a calculated move, designed to appeal particularly to the British, French, and Germans. And it did garner goodwill tin Europe, particularly in England, where Charles Dickens and other authors had been proponents of copyright law reform for decades.

Dickens_Great_Expectations_Confederate_EditionThus Goetzel had indeed written to Bulwer-Lytton to obtain permission to print A Strange Story and offer him a payment of $1,000. But thanks to the blockade, the letter never arrived. Bulwer-Lytton announced that the only royalties he’d received had come from his New York City Publisher, Harper & Company. Goetzel wrote a letter of self-defense to the editor of the Mobile Advertiser and Register, arguing that he’d sent Bulwer-Lytton payment and had only recently received confirmation of its arrival.

These issues did little to slow Goetzel’s prodigious output. In 1863–the height of the war–Goetzel published five new book-length titles, along with a map, three pamphlets, and a handful of reprints of earlier titles. One of these was an edition of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which was bound in wallpaper. It’s now an incredibly scarce volume. The following year, Goetzel executed six new titles, each about 320 pages.

Dickens’ Sympathies Shift to the Confederates

Dickens_American_NotesThe Civil War had aroused vehement debate in England. Charles Dickens, then the editor of the popular periodical All the Year Round, simply couldn’t remain neutral. Furthermore, Dickens had already taken a decidedly anti-American stance following the debacle of his first visit there. Though American Notes only cast aspersions on the American institution of slavery and the press, Dickens was much more aggressive in Martin Chuzzlewit. The works only served to alienate him further from his American audience.

Dickens personally published on the war in All the Year Round only once, on March 1, 1862. He simply republished a number of controversial passages from American Notes with the following note: “The foregoing was written in the year eighteen hundred forty-two. It rests with the reader to decide whether it has received any confirmation, or assumed any color of truth, in or about the year eighteen hundred sixty-two.” The comment implies disdain for both the North and the South. But it also served to vindicate Dickens’ original (and somewhat unpopular) stance in American Notes.

But All the Year Round saw at least 25 pieces about the Civil War. Ever the attentive editor, Dickens carefully supervised every aspect of his publications. That extended to the publication’s political stances which we know thanks to his public announcement following the mid-war printing of Charles Reade’s serialized novel Very Hard Cash, which attacked the Commissioners on Lunacy (which included Dickens’ dear friend John Forster). Dickens said that he took responsibility for the political stances presented in All the Year Round–with the exception only of noted authors’ serial novels that appeared in the periodical.

Appealing to His Readership

Dickens relied on All the Year Round for a substantial portion of his income and had to consider his readers’ interests to ensure sales. Therefore he leaned toward narratives and “true accounts” of the Civil War, rather than news and political commentary. On December 29, 1860, a summary review of Frederick L Olmstead’s A Journey into the Back Country appeared. The book chronicled the most horrifying aspects of slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley, the least cultured area of the South. The review descried the South’s purported intention to reopen the slave trade.

An article published on July 13, 1861 denounced the South for commissioning privateers to harass British ships delivering goods to the North. Such interference with foreign trade was simply a barbarous tactic. Then on October 26, 1861, a story about an English doctor who treats a runaway slave appeared. It includes all the usual elements: bloodhounds, sketchy Southerners, and a doctor who notes how “wonderfully” the Southerners’ minds have been warped by slavery. A West Virginian character in the story opines, “I only wish we could have a hand on them philanthropists (abolitionists)…A load of brushwood and a lucifer-match will be about their mark, I calculate.”

Spence the English Confederate

By the end of the year, however, the editorial bent of All the Year Round had become decidedly pro-Southern. What happened to change Dickens’ mind? First, he read James Spence’s The American Union, Its Effects on National Character and Policy with an Inquiry into Secession as a Constitutional Right and the Causes of Disruption. Dickens’ copy is inscribed by Spence himself, and the work would deeply impact Dickens’ view of the war.

Historian of the South Frank Lawrence called Spence’s book “the most effective propaganda of all by either native or Confederate agent.” Spence also became active in agitating for the South among England’s working class. He would organize meetings and rallies to counter those held by the Foster-Bright abolitionist groups. So Dickens wasn’t the only British citizen swayed by Spence; he was simply one of multitudes–but perhaps the only one with such a public platform for endorsing Spence’s views.

Dickens was so anxious to review Spence’s book in All the Year Round, he mentioned it more than once in his letters to his assistant editor. After it finally appeared (in not one, but two issues), he was dissatisfied with it. Written by Henry Morley, the review harshly criticizes the Northern cause and contends that the United States is too large to govern honestly and effectively.

A Change of Heart

Dickens was so taken with Spence’s arguments that he espoused them almost unquestioningly. In a letter to his Swiss friend WF de Cerjat on March 16, 1862, Dickens outlines his own views on the war…which are almost entirely borrowed from Spence. He argued that abolition was merely a pretext for other economic aims and “in reality [had] nothing on earth to do” with the Northern war effort. He went on to say, “Any reasonable creature may know, if willing, that the North hates the Negro, and that until it was convenient to make a pretense that sympathy for him was the cause of the war, it hated the abolitionists and derided them up hill and down dale.”

Spence grounds his arguments in the tariff debated that had gripped America even before the South had seceded from the Union. The Morrill tariff, passed on March 2, 1861, replaced the Tariff of 1857, which strongly favored Southerners. The Morill tariff, in contrast, gave preference to industrial workers and placed the South at a considerable disadvantage (hardly a surprise, given that by the time of its ratification, the Southern representatives had left Congress). It also impeded trade with Europe. Two subsequent tariffs during the Civil War helped raise necessary funds for the war.

While Dickens openly adopted Spence’s views, there’s another reason he may have shifted his allegiance: international copyright law. After all, his perspective shifted after the CSA’s Copyright Act had been ratified. And Dickens had long advocated stronger international copyright law; indeed, his first visit to the United States was spoiled because he refused to dismount his copyright law hobby horse and act graciously toward his American hosts and interlocutors. Instead, Dickens pushed his agenda at every opportunity, even using a dinner in his honor as a platform to galvanize fellow authors to his cause.

This issue would have been an emotional one for Dickens, but not one that would garner him much empathy from readers. Better, then, to repeat other, more popular arguments. Thus, it’s quite possible that Dickens privately sympathized with the South because the South seemed to sympathize with his own cause. Whatever his motives, the Confederate imprint of Great Expectations remains a work that will undoubtedly continue to evoke questions and enrapture collectors.

Related Posts:
A Collection of Confederate Literature
How the “Dickens Controversy” Changed American Publishing
Charles Dickens Does Boston
The Two Endings of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’

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