Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Adah Isaacs Menken’s Relationship with Charles Dickens: A Blog in Honor of his Upcoming 204th Birthday

By Margueritte Peterson

 “[Menken] is a sensitive poet who, unfortunately, cannot write.” -Charles Dickens

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.16.57 AMAdah Isaacs Menken died in Paris on August 10, 1868, only eight days before her collection of poems, Infelicia would be published. Dedicated to Charles Dickens, Infelicia highlights Menken’s complicated relationship with her literary contemporaries—and, perhaps, her unfailing talent for generating publicity. Details about Menken’s early life are difficult to corroborate because Menken herself told so many different versions of her story. Most experts agree that she was born on June 15, 1835 in Memphis, and that her given name was Adah Bertha Theodore. She moved to Lousiana as a young child, grew up there, and launched her acting career there. From Louisiana, Menken traveled throughout the South and West. Meanwhile, she launched her writing career with “Fugitive Pencillings,” which appeared in Texas’ Liberty Gazette and the Cincinatti Israelite.

The year 1856 brought the first of Menken’s multiple marriages, to Alexander Isaacs Menken. The two were (supposedly) divorced already when Menken entered her next marriage with prizefighter John Heenan in 1859. But Heenan and Menken separated shortly thereafter; Heenan was scandalized to find that his new wife was still legally married to her first husband. By this time, Menken had already begun traveling in bohemian and literary circles. A regular at Pfaff’s, Menken met Walt Whitman, who greatly influenced her work.

Menken in Mazeppa - where she caused quite a stir.

Menken in Mazeppa – where she caused quite a stir.

Soon Menken was “not known for her talent, but rather for her frenetic energy, her charismatic presence, and her willingness to expose herself.” Indeed, Menken’s primary claim to fame was her performance in Mazeppa. Menken played the role of a man, and in one scene she was lashed to the back of a running horse…wearing nothing but a flesh-colored body stocking.

The play debuted in Albany in June, 1861. Menken’s manager, Edwin James was a sports reporter for the New York Clipper (and a former lawyer who’d inspired the character of Striver in Tale of Two Cities.) James managed to get reporters from all six of New York’s daily papers to attend, along with reporters from three weeklies and two monthlies. Although the Civil War had already broken out, Menken’s performance grabbed headlines. Mark Twain saw Mazeppa at Tom Maguire’s Opera House in San Francisco. Though he had formerly dismissed Menken as a “shape actress,” her performance changed his mind. On September 13, 1863, he wrote a column called “The Menken—Written Especially for Gentlemen.” His assessment of Menken was less than sterling:

“Here every tongue sings the praises of her matchless grace, her supple gestures, her charming attitudes. Well, possibly, these tongues are right. In the first act, she rushes on the stage, and goes cavorting around after ‘Olinska’; she bends herself back like a bow; she pitches headforemost at the atmosphere like a battering ram; she works her arms, and her legs, and her whole body like a dancing-jack: her every movement is as quick as thought; in a word, without any apparent reason for it, she carries on like a lunatic from the beginning of the act to the end of it. At other times she ‘whallops’ herself down on the stage, and rolls over as does the sportive pack-mule after his burden is removed. If this be grace then the Menken is eminently graceful.”

At any rate, Menken continued to bring crowds to theatre after theatre. Always the shrewd self-promotor, she would arrive in a new city and immediately ensure that her photograph was hanging in every shop window. By now Menken had also gotten into the habit of inventing stories about herself. She also frequently exaggerated the extent of her relationship with famous figures, particularly those in the literary world.

Mazeppa opened in London on October 3, 1864. Charles Dickens attempted to attend an early performance, only to find that the show was already sold out. The ticket manager recognized Dickens and offered him a private box, but Dickens declined. It’s long been rumored that Menken used the incident as an excuse to meet Dickens, but it’s likely that Menken started that rumor herself. The two traveled in the same social circles, and Dickens may even have attended some of Menken’s “literary salons” at her rooms in the Westminster Hotel. But there’s little evidence to suggest a deeper relationship, and even the rumor of an association with Dickens would have bolstered Menken’s reputation.

Meanwhile, Menken’s connection to Dickens’ contemporary Algernon Charles Swinburne was anything but a rumor. Fearing that Swinburne had lost his interest in the opposite sex, his associates set him up with the sexy Menken. After Menken’s death, Swinburne would say of her, “She was most loveable as a friend, as was as as a mistress.”

A shot of the inserted facsimile letter in our holding of Felicia.

A shot of the inserted facsimile letter in our holding of Felicia.

By 1868, Menken had published more than enough poems to publish a collection, which she titled Infelicia. Menken made another probably-calculated move: she dedicated the book to Charles Dickens, who by now enjoyed the Victorian equivalent of rockstar status in both England and America. The first edition included an engraved portrait of Menken on the frontispiece, along with a poem that Swinburne had written for her. It also included a facsimile of a letter that Dickens had supposedly written to Menken, thanking her for the dedication.

While Dickens did indeed thank Menken for the dedication, the facsimile was actually comprised of two different letters Dickens had sent to Menken. Thus this first edition was quickly suppressed, and subsequent editions don’t include the facsimile. This only added to the sensation that already surrounded the book. The dedication to Dickens left many speculating about the true nature of their relationship, and Menken’s untimely death had catapulted her back into the headlines.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Swinburne and the fact that the frontispiece bore a Swinburne poem led some to suggest that Swinburne or his assistant, John Thomson, had actually authored Infelicia. Critics soon pointed out, however, that the poems were riddled with flaws and simply weren’t that good. They eventually accepted the work as Menken’s, arguing that Swinburne was too talented to write it.

Infelicia went through a number of editions in England and America, mostly pirated. The book made its last appearance in 1902. It’s now quite rare to find a copy of Infelicia that bears that facsimile letter from Charles Dickens.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 7.02.44 PM


Charles Dickens and the Impenitent Prostitute

Charles Dickens, in many ways, stands for Victorianism; indeed it’s impossible to think of the era without him, and he defined the period in many ways. Yet we cannot assume that Dickens represents his contemporaries in all things. His own upbringing shaped his sense of social justice in ways that did not always reflect the common views of the era. One such topic on which Dickens thought differently than his contemporaries was that of prostitution. Dickens firmly believed that women could (and should want to) reform. Not everyone agreed—including a few women who were prostitutes themselves!

An Ambitious New Endeavor


Angela Burdett-Coutts

In May 1846, Angela Burdett-Coutts approached Dickens about starting a home for the redemption of prostitutes. Coutts came into her wealth unexpectedly and resolved to use it for the common good. She’d gotten Dickens’ council before on her Ragged School and believed that they had similar perspectives. Coutts, the daughter of radical MP Sir Frances Burdett, had been raised to take a pragmatic approach to philanthropy. She was liberal with others, but held herself to high standards of performance—much like Dickens.

Dickens did not immediately embrace the idea of an “asylum” for prostitutes, and he initially tried to dissuade Coutts from the idea. But eventually he warmed up to the concept and jumped directly into logistical planning. In a letter to Coutts on May 23, 1846, Dickens discusses the layout of the house, suggesting that the interior be divided into two portions, with one for new residents on probation, and another for residents who had already proven their capacity for and willingness to reform. He found Urania Cottage, in Lime Grove, that same month. The home was “retired, but cheerful,” he said, and the taxes were low.

Dickens was quite emphatic that the women not be constantly reminded of their sin, arguing that “she is degraded and fallen, but not lost, having the shelter; and that the means of Return to Happiness.” He also proposed the use of Captain Maconnochi’s Mark System, which rewarded marks for positive behaviors and deducted them for inappropriate ones. Dickens noted that “the goal of this institution should be ‘the formation of habits of firmness and self-restraint.’”


Urania Cottage

Coutts agreed with Dickens on all these counts, though the two could not reach consensus on whether the women should be given colorful garments—Coutts believed that all aspects of the women’s appearance should be somber and reserved, while Dickens didn’t see the damage that could be caused by cheerfully colored dresses. Despite this tiny matter, they moved forward with the project, planning gardens and determining that there should be a piano for the ladies in the parlor. The idea of entertainments for fallen women shocked the literary community, and Dickens responded by satirically announcing that there would actually be a piano for every woman in her quarters!

Dickens Closely Monitors His Social Project


Published by the Bibliophile Society, this edition of ‘The Charity of Charles Dickens’ was limited to only 425 copies. It details his involvement with Urania Cottage.

Meanwhile the issue of prostitution seemed to worsen daily. That summer, famine struck Ireland, sparking migration to England and a new wave of women entering the oldest profession. Numerous other reformatories sprung up. However, the vast majority were harsh places, where women were treated stringently and often reminded of their “fallen” status. Many believed that these women would only be “reformed” through rigorous discipline. Coutts and Dickens on the other hand, thought that these women could be rehabilitated, and they ambitiously predicted a full return to society…though not in England. After the women were deemed ready, they would be sent off to the Colonies to find domestic work and, with any luck, find husbands who had no inkling of their sordid past.

In 1849, Dickens wrote “An Appeal to Fallen Women.” Distributed in the prisons, the pamphlet was intended to recruit women to be residents. It worked to some extent, and Urania Cottage (known euphemistically as a “Home for Homeless Women”) was rarely short on prospective inmates, whom Dickens often interviewed himself. Indeed, he remained incredibly active in the daily operations of Urania Cottage. He closely supervised the staff and monitored finances.

Coutts and Dickens were generally pleased with their work. In 1853, Dickens wrote positively of the home in Household Words: “Of these fifty-six cases, seven went away by their own desire during their probation; ten were sent away for misconduct in the home; seven ran away; three migrated and relapsed on the passage out; thirty (of whom seven are now married) on their arrival to Australia or elsewhere, entered into good service, acquired a good character and have done so well every since to establish a strong prepossession in favor of others sent out from the same quarter.”

A Mortifying Letter to the The Times

One such woman who was sent away was Sesina Bullard, whom Dickens called “the most deceitful minx in this town—I never saw such a draggled piece of fringe on the skirts of all that is bad. She would corrupt a Nunnery in a fortnight.” Bullard’s friend Isabella Gordon was not much better. After fabricating a story about a house matron, Gordon was given a half-crown and directions to another charity. While awaiting her punishment, Gordon reportedly sashayed up the stairs with her skirts up, mocking the gentility of house staff and Coutts herself. Still another woman, Jemima Hiscock, broke into the beer cellar and got herself “dead drunk.”


Albumen Print of John Thadeus Delane by Ernest Edwards (National Portrait Gallery)

By February 1858, there were approximately 80,000 sex workers in London alone, and prostitution qualified as a pandemic problem. Always on the lookout for women to help, Coutts was excited to read a column in The Times that month. It was penned by an “Unfortunate” who had become a prostitute. Coutts wanted the woman’s name, so Dickens wrote to Times editor John Thadeus Delane to solicit the letter writer’s identity and explain his benevolent motive. Delane clearly thought highly of the letter writer, exclaiming, “What an admirable letter it was! Except Currer Bell [Charlotte Bronte] and Mrs. Gaskell, I know of no woman who could have sustained such a tone through nearly two columns.”

Neither Dickens nor Coutts, unfortunately, had bothered to read all the way to the end of those two columns. The child of drunks, the author had entered the profession of her own accord at the age of fifteen. She made a good living, educating herself and sending her brothers to apprenticeships. She paid her debts and even had enough income to be “charitable to her fellow-creatures.” Often such a tale of success would end with a sudden fall, reinforcing popular notions that prostitution could never really pay. In this case, however, the author takes a different tack: she castigates the public for looking down on her. “You, the pious, the moral, the respectable, as you call yourselves,” she writes, “Why stand you on your eminence shouting that we should be ashamed of ourselves? What have we to be ashamed of, we who know not what shame is?”

The letter writer differentiated between “born prostitutes” like she was, and had entered the profession of their own volition, and “poor women toiling on starvation wages, while penury, misery, and famine clutch them by the throat and say ‘Render up your body or die.’” The author went on to blame immigrants for London’s prostitution epidemic, pointing out the growing number of French prostitutes on the street. She also reminds readers that while prostitution is itself a social ill, its antecedents rest in other social ills: “If I am a hideous cancer in society, are not the causes of the disease to be sought in the rottenness of the carcass?”

When Coutts finally read the end of the column, she was absolutely mortified. Dickens again wrote to Delane on Coutts’ behalf, admitting that Coutts is “immensely staggered and discomfited by the latter part [of the column], and is even troubled by its being seen by the people in her household. Therefore I think the writer should had best remain unknown to her.” Dickens himself suspected that Delane or another Times writer had actually penned the letter, and he wasn’t alone. The Times had to publish a note that the letter was not a “cunningly executed literary imposture,” and Delane continued to insist that the letter was authentic.

The scandal of Dickens’ affair with Ellen Tiernan and the subsequent estrangement between Dickens and his family caused a rift between Coutts and Dickens. Like Elizabeth Gaskell and William Makepeace Thackeray, Coutts thought that such public display of one’s personal problems was just as horrible as the separation itself. Coutts stopped funding Urania Cottage, and it was finally closed down in 1862.


Richard Bentley, Victorian Publisher Extraordinaire

Born on London’s Fleet Street on October 24, 1794, Richard Bentley came into the publishing world thanks to his family. When Bentley started a firm with his brother in 1819, he was the third generation to enter the profession. Bentley would go on to pursue a number of partnerships and weather the volatile economic climate of Victorian England to become, according to the DNB, “arguably one of the finest printers in London.”

In 1829, Bentley undertook a partnership with Henry Colburn, who had encountered financial difficulty and owed Bentley money. Rather than watch Colburn default, Bentley entered a rather lopsided agreement. They merged their firms. For a period of three years, Bentley would act as bookkeeper and procure new manuscripts for publication. He would also invest £2,500 over that time period and receive 40% of the firm’s profits. Colburn, meanwhile, would provide 60% of the capital and receive 60% of the profits. If the partnership failed in less than three years, Bentley would buy out Colburn for £10,000. Colburn would then publish only what he’d published before the partnership.

From the start, however, the partnership was quite profitable, largely because they chose to cater to public taste. They took advantage of the interest in “silver fork novels,” that is, fashionable novels about the lives of aristocrats and other high-society members. For instance, Colburn and Bentley published works by Catherine Gore and Benjamin Disraeli. They also published a fair number of novels in the triple-decker format, because this was the format preferred by circulating libraries, and they advertised heavily (indeed, in three years, the firm spent over £27,000 on advertising).


From Colburn & Bentley’s edition of ‘Frankenstein’ (1832). Photo: Knox College Library

Perhaps their greatest triumph was the Standard Novels series. They focused on popular titles that were previously available only in the expensive triple-decker set, publishing them for the first time in inexpensive single volumes. Colburn and Bentley came up with an ingenious approach to publishing popular works of the era; they solicited the authors to revise their novels enough that the works would be eligible for a new copyright–and short enough to publish in a single volume. One such author was Mary Shelley, who was more than happy to get a new audience for Frankenstein. (There was one caveat, however: when Shelley assigned copyright to the Standard Novels series, she precluded the novel’s publication elsewhere, and it wasn’t published in England again until the 1860’s.)

The first Standard Novels book was The Pilot by James Fenimore Cooper. From there, the series went on to include the first inexpensive reprints of Jane Austen’s novels and a number of American titles. Colburn and Bentley published the first nineteen titles together, but after the partnership fell apart Bentley continued the series on his own. It was incredibly successful, making the firm £1,160 in the first year. And over the course of 124 years, the series came to include 126 titles.

Not all of Colburn and Bentley’s endeavors proved equally profitable. They ended up selling over half the 550,000 books in the National Library of General Knowledge series as remainders. And the Juvenile Library lost the firm £900. The Library of Modern Travels and Discoveries never even made it to the printing press, and the firm passed up Sartor Resartus by the then-unknown Thomas Carlyle. Meanwhile the cost of copyrights continued to rise. By 1832, Colburn and Bentley had stopped speaking, relying on lawyers and clerks to manage their affairs.

On September 1, 1832, Colburn and Bentley’s partnership was officially dissolved. Bentley bought out Colburn for £1,500. He got to keep the office and drop “Henry Colburn” from the firm’s name. He also paid Colburn £5,580 for copyrights and other materials. For his part, Colburn agreed to limit his publication activities…but violated this part of the agreement almost immediately. Thus Colburn and Bentley went from business partners to bitter rivals. Bentley received a boost in reputation when he was named Publisher in Ordinary to the king in 1833, but that appointment brought him no additional business of any significance.

Nevertheless, Bentley enjoyed early success on his own. He published Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), which sold well for years on end. Bentley also published William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood the same year. The novel was a bestseller and required two more editions. Bentley soon gained a reputation for publishing excellent literature, and he named such respected writers as Frances Trollope, William Hazlitt, and Maria Edgeworth among his authors. Bentley expanded his audience by publishing works in multiple formats, serializing them in Bentley’s Miscellany in addition to publishing them in single-volume or triple-decker editions.


Here Dickens “paraphrased the average Royal speech, and by the use of bombastic and ponderous expressions announced the coming of ‘Oliver Twist'” (Eckel).

Bentley launched Bentley’s Miscellany in January 1836. He invited Charles Dickens, then known for Pickwick Papers, to act as editor. Dickens took the job, which came with a salary of £40 a month. He also agreed to provide novels for serialization in the periodical. But Dickens soon enjoyed celebrity status and believed he deserved higher pay. Dickens and Bentley would negotiate Dickens’ contract a total of nine times. In their final agreement, Dickens was to receive £1,000 per year, plus additional payment for his novels. Yet the two had other differences that proved insurmountable, and in the end Dickens bought out his contract for £2,250 and purchased the copyright to Oliver Twist, serialized in 1837 and largely responsible for the periodical’s success.

When Dickens stepped down in February 1839, William Harrison Ainsworth took the editorial helm. Almost immediately, circulation dropped and costs shot up. Ainsworth lacked Dickens’ following–and his eye for engaging content. The quality of Bentley’s Miscellany decreased considerably. Through the 1840’s and 1850’s, Bentley used Miscellany to promote his own publications, which did include the occasional literary masterpiece like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Then in 1843, the Crimean War broke out. England’s economy took a nosedive, and the book trade suffered considerably. Bentley would struggle for the next two decades. He started a sixpenny newspaper, Young England, which lasted only fourteen issues. In 1849, the House of Lords ruled that copyrights on foreign works were no longer valid, so other firms began publishing cheap versions of works that Bentley had paid for the rights to publish. Though this decision was overturned in 1851, it still did damage not only to Bentley, but to the publishing industry at large. By 1853, Bentley had reduced the price of his books in an attempt to increase sales volume. The tactic didn’t work. In 1857 Bentley sold off copyrights, plates, steel etchings, and other materials to stave off bankruptcy.

Then in 1859, Bentley made a risky move. He decided to compete with the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review with his own Bentley’s Quarterly. Robert Cecil, John Douglas Cook, and William Scott were named editors. Though critics praised the periodical, the public expressed little interest and only four issues were published. In June of the same year, Bentley tried again with Tales from Bentley, where he reprinted stories that had already appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany. This was a more successful venture.

Bentley purchased Temple Bar Magazine in January 1866, naming his son George the editor. Two years later, Ainsworth ran into financial difficulties and sold back Bentley’s Miscellany to Bentley for a mere £250. Bentley merged the two publications and built himself an excellent roster of authors: Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins all appeared. But then tragedy struck. Bentley fell from the railway platform at Chepstow station and broke his leg. His son George immediately took over daily operations at the firm. Bentley would never recover from the injury, and he passed away four years later in September 1871.

Today Bentley perhaps best remembered, as related above, as the man who first brought to the public, in his  Miscellany, Dickens’ classic novel, Oliver Twist.  For that one publication, we are eternally grateful.


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
Thanks for reading! Love our blog? Subscribe via email (right sidebar) or sign up for our newsletter--you’ll never miss a post.



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


Thanks for reading! Love our blog? Subscribe via email (right sidebar) or sign up for our newsletter--you’ll never miss a post.