Category Archives: Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’ Fraught Relationship with Harriet Beecher Stowe


One hundred years after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, Langston Hughes called the novel “the most cussed and discussed book of its time.” Hughes’ failure to comment on the literary merits of Uncle Tom’s Cabin hints at the persistent disagreement among writers, critics, and the reading public about the novel’s actual quality. Stowe’s contemporaries who found the book overly sentimental, extreme, or otherwise objectionable could not avoid discussing the book–on either side of the Atlantic. That included Charles Dickens, who initially endorsed Uncle Tom’s Cabin but came to resent the less than complimentary comparisons made between his own views and works and Stowe’s.

A Fortuitously Timed Publication

It seemed that Stowe had chosen precisely the right moment to publish an anti-slavery novel. The Fugitive Slave Act had passed in 1850, and the divisive legislation directly affected the Stowe household. Stowe had thought that one of her servants was a freed slave, but the girl had actually run away from a Kentucky plantation. When Stowe learned that the girl’s former owner was looking for her, Stowe immediately set out to find a safe hiding place for the girl. The episode would be one of many that inspired Stowe to undertake an abolitionist novel (though she would later claim that God himself was guiding her pen).

Stowe_Uncle_Toms_CabinSuch events happened all over the country, and the nation was ripe for just such a work as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On May 8, 1851, the first installment of appeared in Washington DC’s National Era, which was owned by abolitionist Gamaliel Bailey. The piece was immediately popular; sales and readership of the National Era jumped from 17,000 to 28,000 while the story ran. Before the last installment had even appeared, Stowe already had an offer from John J Jewett & Co. to publish Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a single volume.

That edition was published on March 20, 1852. Over 100,000 copies had sold by the end of the summer, and over 300,000 copies had sold by March 1853. Dramatic versions of the novel appeared within months, and George L Aiken’s stage production remained among the most popular plays in England and America for the next 75 years.

Not everyone was quite so enthusiastic. Southerner William Gilmore Simms considered the novel both libelous and poorly researched. Reverend Joel Parker threatened to sue Stowe for her “dastardly attack” on his character. And Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been banned in the South at numerous points in history. The negative publicity induced Stowe to write The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) to defend herself. Either way, all the attention only served to increase Stowe’s fame.

An American Novel Goes Abroad

To expand her readership, Stowe sent presentation copies to a number of illustrious personages, from Prince Albert to the Reverend Charles Kingsley. Among the recipients was Charles Dickens, who received a little lavender-bound volume with a letter from Stowe. The American novelist evoked their shared mission, stating that “The Author of the following sketches offers them to your notice as the first writer in our day who turned the attention of the high to the joys and sorrows of the lowly.”

Dickens responded with guarded praise, complimenting Stowe’s noble cause. He was less restrained in expressing his opinion of the book later that year. Dickens reportedly told Sara Jane Clarke, a young American visiting Tavistock House, “Mrs. Stowe hardly gives the Anglo-Saxon fair play. I liked what I saw of the colored people in the States. I found them singularly polite and amiable, and in some instances decidedly clever; but then I have no prejudice against white people.” Clarke wrote, “Uncle Tom evidently struck him as an impossible piece of ebony perfection…and other African characters in the book as too highly seasoned with the virtues.” She noted that Dickens argued Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “scarcely a work of art.”

Stowe Proves Impossible to Ignore


This piece of music published the same year as the novel – most likely due to the intense popularity Stowe’s work enjoyed right from the beginning. OCLC records nine institutional holdings.

By mid-1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was selling quickly in both America and England. Dickens simply couldn’t avoid talking and writing about the novel because it was simply what everyone wanted to discuss and read about. Thus he and Henry Morley wrote an article for the September 18, 1852 issue of Household Words called “North American Slavery.” The article opened with a critique of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Dickens called the novel a “noble work,” before pointing out its “overstraining conclusions and violent extremes.” But then Dickens turned his pen to the author: “Harriet Beecher Stowe is an honor to the time that has produced her, and will take her place among the best writers of fiction.”

Before the article ran, however, Dickens was dragged into a most unpleasant controversy. On September 13, 1852, Lord Denmon, the former Lord Chief Justice of England and a friend of Dickens, launched a rather vicious attack against Dickens. He published an article in the London Standard critiquing both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the first seven numbers of Bleak House. A staunch abolitionist, Denmon castigated Dickens for obstructing the abolitionist cause. He brought up the character of Mrs. Jellyby, “a disgusting picture of a woman who pretends zeal for the happiness of Africa…if it means to represent a class, we believe that no representation was ever more false.”

Denmon went on to publish five more columns in the Standard, which were subsequently republished for circulation in pamphlet form. In the third, Denmon satirized Dickens’ initial praise of Stowe, saying “Mrs. Stowe might have learned a more judicious mode of treating a subject from the pictures of Mrs. Dombey and Carker, of Lady Dedlock and Joe [sic]. Uncle Tom ought not to have come to his death by flogging. A railway collision, such as disposed conveniently of Mr. Carker, would have been much more artistic.” By the fifth piece, Denmon finally abandons Dickens to heap praises on Stowe’s “graphic skill and pathetic power in which she has so far surpassed all living writers.”

Dickens Tries to Quash the Controversy

Dickens didn’t publicly respond to Denmon right away. He probably would have preferred to avoid all discourse on Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin altogether, but that was impossible. Indeed, he gets drawn into talking about the novel in his correspondence on more than one occasion, most notably with the Duke of Devonshire (October 29, 1852) and three weeks later with Mrs. Watson.


“Aunt Harriet Becha (sic) Stowe” was written for Kunkel’s Nightingale Opera Troupe. OCLC records five institutional holdings.

Mrs. Cropper, Denmon’s daughter, wrote Dickens a letter of apology toward the end of 1852. She said that her father had suffered a severe paralytic stroke on December 2, 1852 and was not himself. Indeed, he had been forced to resign his post as Lord Chief Justice because of similar strokes. Dickens’ response indicates his growing resentment toward Stowe, who was now receiving praise at Dickens’ expense from a host of critics. Dickens argued that the best means to further the cause of abolition was not exaggerated emotional appeals and painting slave owners in the worst possible light, but rather reason and rational argument.

Dickens also felt that Stowe’s novel was being used as an “angry weapon” against him. He observed that the “exactly four words of objection to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (amidst the most ardent praise of it)” had resulted in unjust attacks on him. Cropper had her brother George draft a response to Dickens, but Dickens replied on January 21, 1853 with an aim of ending the matter completely. He sent back Cropper’s letter unopened.

An Unexpected Encounter

Unfortunately for Dickens, he couldn’t end his exposure to Stowe quite so easily. Now famous on both continents, Stowe embarked on a tour of the United Kingdom, and Dickens was to meet her. Her travel schedule proved unpredictable, so Dickens had virtually no time to prepare. Stowe and her husband arrived in London on May 2, 1853, which happened to be the day that the Lord Mayor was hosting a large banquet. Eager to show Stowe the proper hospitality, the Mayor immediately extended an invitation. He seated the Stowes directly across from Dickens and his wife, Catherine.

Unaware that Dickens harbored a grudge, Stowe was thrilled to be in Dickens’ company. She was impressed with him and his wife, noting later that they were “people that one couldn’t know a little of without desiring to know more.” Once the crowd had had several rounds of alcohol, Thomas Noon Talfourd proposed a toast to the literature of England and America. He noted how both Dickens and Stowe “employed fiction as a means of awakening the attention of their respective countries to the condition of the oppressed and suffering classes.” Then Talfourd made a toast to Dickens. Dickens stood and offered kind words to Stowe. Thus the evening appeared to go pleasantly enough. A few days later, Dickens took Catherine to call on Stowe and her husband at Walworth. Stowe returned the visit, only to find that Dickens was ill and Catherine was busy ministering to him.

In 1854, Stowe published Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, recounting her visit to England. She specifically mentioned her meeting with Catherine Dickens, calling her a “good specimen of a truly English woman: tall, large, and well-developed, with fine, healthy color, and an air of frankness, cheerfulness, and reliability.” Perhaps Stowe was already predisposed to like Catherine. After all, she had championed an anti-slavery appeal, helping to collect about 500,000 signatures. The document, titled “An Affectionate and Christian Address from Many Thousands of Women of Great Britain and Ireland to Their Sisters, the Women of the United States of America.” The document was bound in 26 huge volumes and sent to Stowe.

By this time, however, Dickens had a very different view of his wife’s character. Thus Stowe’s lavish praise rankled him. He was sure to mention to others that Stowe had called Catherine “large.” Dickens also found Sunny Memories quite trite and dubbed the book “Moony Memories.” He wrote to a friend, “the Moony Memories are very silly I am afraid. Some of the people remembered most moonily are terrible humbugs–mortal, deadly incarnations of Cant and Quackery.”

Stowe Returns for a British Copyright

Stowe made a second visit to England in 1856, but she would not again encounter Dickens. This time, she met Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, along with Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke, Lady Byron. The visit came on the heels of Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, another anti-slavery novel that was successful but not wildly popular like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

During this second trip to England, Stowe and Dickens may have found common ground: Stowe’s primary purpose was to get a British copyright on her new book. She hadn’t held one for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, losing untold profit on all the copies sold abroad. Dickens, a long-time proponent of international copyright law, might have empathized with Stowe, given that he’d lost major sums thanks to pirated editions of his books in America.

A New Offense

For the next several years, there’s no evidence that Dickens discussed Stowe or Uncle Tom’s Cabin either in print or in correspondence. That changed in September 1869. That year, James T Fields, Dickens’ friend and American publisher, decided to run Stowe’s The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life in Atlantic Monthly. The piece delved into the Byrons’ private lives, unabashedly addressing the incestuous relationship between Lord Byron and his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Stowe intended to vindicate Lady Byron by exposing her husband’s depravity.

Dickens found such a work unconscionable. He’d always been vehemently opposed to prying into the lives of private figures; Dickens even called James Boswell an “unconscious coxcomb” for having written his biography of Samuel Johnson. Dickens was even sensitive once his own marriage fell apart and he started an affair with Ellen Ternan. Indeed, a simple indiscreet comment from William Makepeace Thackeray was among the first in a series of events that destroyed Thackeray and Dickens’ friendship. To protect his own privacy, Dickens even went to far as to make a bonfire at Gads Hill in September 1860, with the sole purpose of burning his own papers and correspondence.

Thus it should come as no surprise that on October 6, 1869 Dickens wrote to Fields, “Wish you had nothing to do with that Byron matter. Wish Mrs. Stowe was in the pillory.” And on October 18, 1869, he wrote to the actor Macready, “May you be as disgusted with Mrs. Stowe as I am.” He argued, “It seems to me that to knock Mrs. Beecher Stowe on the head, and confiscate everything about [the Byron affair] in a great international bonfire to be simultaneously lighted over the whole civilized earth, would be the only pleasant way of putting an end to the business.”

Yet Stowe’s brief foray into celebrity scandal would hardly remain a memorable part of her career. As she got older, she increasingly turned to more domestic subjects. None of her subsequent works would come close to reaching the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Regardless of the book’s literary merits (or lack thereof), Uncle Tom’s Cabin has proven an incredibly powerful piece of literature. That’s evident in President Abraham Lincoln’s apocryphal greeting to Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started the Great War!” Whether that’s true or not, the fact that it could be true aptly demonstrates the incredible impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Related Posts:
Charles Dickens the Copyright Confederate
How the “Dickens Controversy” Changed American Publishing
The California Gold Rush, Slavery, and the Civil War
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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.

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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.

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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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