Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens as Social Commentator

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

Sunday Under Three Heads

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

Oliver Twist

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

A Christmas Carol

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

Bleak House

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

Hard Times

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

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

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


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Charles Dickens and Capital Punishment


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

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

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

Broadsides Outsell Even Dickens

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


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

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

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

Dickens Attends His First Execution

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

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

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

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

The Manning Executions

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


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

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

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

Grisly Executions Sway Public Opinion


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

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

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

Abolitionists Gain Considerable Traction

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

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


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

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

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

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

Legendary Authors Influence Legislation

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

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

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


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Andersen’s Visit with Dickens Less than a Fairy Tale

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

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

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

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


Gads Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Charles Dickens the Copyright Confederate

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

An Enterprising Publisher

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


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

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

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

Copyright Controversy

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

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

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

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

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

Dickens’ Sympathies Shift to the Confederates

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

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

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

Appealing to His Readership

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

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

Spence the English Confederate

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

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

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

A Change of Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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A Collection of Confederate Literature

On March 11, 1861, delegates from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas gathered in Montgomery, Alabama. Their purpose: to ratify the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. The document was–not unsurprisingly–similar to the US Constitution, even using some of the same language.

But the Confederate Constitution gave the states much more autonomy and power than the central government. For example, while a presidential item veto existed, states had to consent to the use of any funds or resources by the federal government. The Confederate Constitution also set six-year terms for the president and the vice presidents, and precluded the president from serving two consecutive terms. And slavery was “recognized and protected” in all slave states and territories, while foreign slave trade remained illegal.

Both France and Great Britain considered entering the fray on the side of the Confederates. But they never acknowledged the Confederate States of America as its own independent, autonomous entity, and the Confederate States crumbled in April 1865.

A Selection of Confederate Literature

For collectors of Americana, the Civil War is a perennially popular area of focus. Within that specialization, the depth and breadth of material available makes it possible to further specialize in a sub-section of Civil War literature. The works and records of the Confederacy offer a fascinating, enlightening, and sobering look into one of the bloodiest periods in American history. Even this sub-specialty has incredible scope, stretching to include works written both before and long after the war itself.

The Italian Bride

Levy-Italian_brideSamuel Yates Levy wrote this play in honor of Eliza Logan and had it printed for private distribution in 1856. Logan was a popular actress in the mid-nineteenth century, and her father, Cornelius Logan, acted as her manager until his death in 1853. Though Logan was born in Philadelphia, she made her name in the antebellum South, with many lucrative engagements in cities like Savannah. Meanwhile, Levy would go on to become a Confederate officer during the Civil War, slightly unusual because he was Jewish. Research indicates that this volume’s recipient was a fellow officer from Georgia. Details>> 

Great Expectations

Dickens_Great_Expectations_Confederate_EditionDickens’ first visit to America ended less than well. The legendary author returned to Britain and published two American Notes, which criticized the United States, most notably for permitting the institution of slavery. (He further alienated American readers with Martin Chuzzlewit.) Dickens’ strong opposition to slavery and his keen sensitivity to social injustice made him an unlikely ally of the Confederacy. But after a close reading of James Spence, who was not only a writer for the London Times, but also a pro-South merchant, Dickens revised his opinion. In All the Year Round, he spoke out in defense of the South on the subject of the Morrill Tariff, noting that the ariff had “severed the last threads that bound the North and South together.” This first Confederate edition of Great Expectations is exceedingly rare in the trade, with no copies having come to auction in the past thirty years. Details>>

Carrie Bell

Carrie_BellCaptain MC Capers wrote the lyrics to the Confederate tune “Carrie Bell,” while T. Von La Hache composed the musical accompaniment. Capers was formerly of the “Macon Volunteers” and had also participated in the Indian Wars in Florida (1836). During the Civil War, Capers was in command of Company G, 1st LA Heavy Artillery Regiment of the CSA. In July 1863, he was promoted to major, seeing service at Vicksburg and elsewhere in the South. Details>>

A Legal View of the Seizure of Messrs Mason and Slidell

Legal_View_Seizure_Mason_SlidellThough this pamphlet was published under the pseudonym “Pro Lege,” it’s thought to be the work of Virginia statesman Francis Rives. He delves into the issues regarding seizure at sea during the US Civil War. The matter came the the forefront when Captain Wilkes, acting on his own cognizance, boarded the British vessel Trent and took two individuals, Mason and Slidell, captive. The two were acting as Confederate diplomats. Wilkes’ bold move was locally applauded, but the British were indignant and on the verge of entering the war against the Union forces. Seward released the two gentlemen and told the British that Wilkes had erred and acted without proper authority. Published in 1861, this pamphlet looks at the diverse international maritime legal issues and the ramifications of Wilkes’ act. Details>>

General Orders No 30

General_Orders_No_30Containing “An Act to Organize Bands of Partizan (sic) Raiders” and “An Act to Further Provide for the Public Defence,” this document was published in April 1862 by the Confederate War Department. It authorized the president “to call out and place in the military serve of the Confederate States, for three years, unless the war shall have been sooner ended, all white men who are residents of the Confederate State, between the ages of 18 and 35 years old.” Details>>

Life of General Stand Watie

Life_General_Stand_WatieThe only Indian brigadier in the Confederate Army and the last Confederate general to surrender, Stand Watie was no stranger to conflict. Long before the war, Watie and his brother, Elias Boudinot, had published the Cherokee Phoenix. Watie also acted as a signatory to the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which called for the removal of the Cherokee people from Georgia to “Indian Territory” (which eventually became Oklahoma). During the Civil War, Watie consistently distinguished himself in battle, refusing to surrender until June 23, 1865. His grandniece wrote the biography Life of General Stand Watie. The first edition is rare in the trade; only one other copy has come to market in the last fifteen years. Details>>

The Princess of the Moon: A Confederate Fairy Story

Princess_Moon“‘I am the Fairy of the Moon,’ said she, ‘and having witnessed your grief I desire to serve you. What would you have?'”

The Princess of the Moon is a relatively scarce juvenile with strong fantasy elements. The bias of the author, Cora Semmes Ives, is obvious, and she clearly wanted the Civil War to end differently. Published in 1869, this volume illustrates that Confederate sympathies certainly didn’t dissolve with the Confederacy. OCLC records three institutional holdings, though we found a few additional ones. Details>>

John Brown and Wm. Mahone

John_Brown_William_MahoneWritten by George W Bagby in 1880, this pamphlet’s half-title is “An Historical Parallel, Foreshadowing Civil Trouble.” The political tract, anti-Grant and anti-Malone, was issued during Malone’s 1880 run for US Senator for Virginia. Bagby proposes an odd connection among Grant, Mahone, and Confederate guerilla John S Mosby. He also predicts a civil war worse than that of the early 1860’s. “Miserable South!…despised by all the world, and for no crime but that you Christianized a race of savages thrust upon you by mercantile greed–how sad is your fate!” Details>>

The James Boys in Arkansas; or, After Confederate Gold

James_Boys_JayHawkers_Confederate_GoldThe concept of Confederate plunder was a popular one that survived the end of the Civil War. It inspired this 1895 dime novel, which plays on the notion that Confederate rebels had hoarded ill-gotten wealth. According to Bragin’s Dime Novels Bibliography, author Frank Tousey “practically revolutionized the dime novel field…[and here in the Detective Library was] the finest James Boys stories. The second title proves but a teaser, comprising only three pages of text and informing readers that the entire tale can be found in Issue No. 671. This is considered a scarce title of outlaw fiction; OCLC records only one institutional holding. Details>>


Jane Bigelow, the First Celebrity Stalker?


Can we really blame Bigelow for being obsessed with this guy? We are!

When Charles Dickens arrived in Boston for the first time, he was greeted with incredible fanfare. He would fall in love with the city and be lured back there in 1867. By this time, Dickens had established himself as a preeminent author of the age, and he undertook a whirlwind reading tour. His fans’ adulation had not abated in the past decades, and Dickens found himself once again the center of attention.

One woman gave Dickens a bit too much attention–Jane Bigelow. Jane was a descendent of the Poultney family of England, a lineage that included a three-time mayor of London and an Earl of Bath. When she married John Bigelow on June 11, 1850, she was 21 years old and he was 33. The couple would have nine children together. John Bigelow was already managing editor and co-owner of the New York Evening Post, and he had a promising political career ahead of him. He would eventually serve as President Lincoln’s consul general and later as the minister to France.

Although John took well to political life, his wife was not quite so suited for it. She managed to offend the Prince of Wales by slapping him on the back, and she sent her servants to sit in the imperial opera box in Germany. It’s rumored that John was denied further diplomatic posts because of his wife’s crass behavior, to which Charles Dickens would unfortunately find himself privy.

A Chance Acquaintance at the Parker House

November, 1867 found both the Bigelows and Dickens at the Parker House. Dickens had made the hotel his home base during this second American tour, and he often dined there with publisher James T. Fields. The Bigelows dined with Fields, Dickens, and his manager George Dolby. The group played parlor games together, as was common for genteel hotel guests at the time. Jane Bigelow soon proved herself a rather tiresome companion; she frequently showed herself to have little grasp for polite manners or common courtesies.

Dickens’ own wife had proven unequal to the task of running a household–let alone keeping up with Dickens’ tireless publicity and authorial efforts, and Dickens could empathize with John Bigelow’s plight. Fields’ wife, Anne observed in her journal that Dickens had “deepest sympathy for men who were unfitly married and has really taken an especial fancy I think to John Bigelow…because his wife is such an incubus.” Jane Bigelow figured in Anne’s journal frequently enough that Anne took to calling her “Mrs. Bigs.” When the Bigelows finally returned to New York, Dickens was likely grateful to escape Jane’s irksome company.

An Unexpected Encounter Turns Violent

But then he traveled to New York himself and encountered Jane under more peculiar circumstances. Dickens was doing a reading at the Westminster Hotel, and the hotel manager asked him to meet with “a little widow” named Mrs. Hertz. She was a great admirer of Dickens and was thrilled to meet him privately. But when Mrs. Hertz left Dickens’ rooms, she found herself face to face with none other than Jane Bigelow! Jane attacked Mrs. Hertz and berated her for being “daring” enough to enter Dickens’ rooms alone. For the rest of the tour. Dolby had to place guards outside Dickens’ quarters to prevent interlocutors, most notably Jane, who tried to see Dickens on several subsequent occasions.

Dickens took the whole incident in stride, but he was struck with the oddity of the situation. He wrote to a friend, “How queer it is that I should be perpetually having things happen to me with regard to people that nobody else in the world can be made to believe.” Though a few other literary figures like Oliver Wendell Holmes had achieved celebrity status as authorial rock starts, such status was still relatively uncommon. It was certainly unusual for an adoring, possibly crazy fan to attack an old widow outside one’s hotel room!

Though Dickens’ encounter with Jane Bigelow was out of the ordinary, it illustrates the magnitude of his fame. Beloved in his time, Charles Dickens remains a major figure in world literature and a favorite among rare book collectors.

Related Posts:
How the “Dickens Controversy” Changed American Publishing
Charles Dickens Does Boston
Irving and Dickens: The Authors Who Saved Christmas
Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas?
The Two Endings of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations
Oscar Wilde: Dickens Detractor and “Inventor” of Aubrey Beardsley

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How the “Dickens Controversy” Changed American Publishing


“Is it tolerable that besides being robbed and rifled, an author should be forced to appear in any form – in any vulgar dress – in any atrocious company – that he should have no choice of his audience – no controul [sic?] over his distorted text – and that he should be compelled to jostle out of the course, the best men in this country who only ask to live, by writing?”

-Charles Dickens, to Henry Austin (May 1, 1842)

By the time Charles Dickens made his first visit to America, the country was deeply embroiled in a publishing battle with Britain. His repeated pleas for international copyright law would eventually spark the “Dickens Controversy” and bring new accountability to the world of American publishing.

A Legal Loophole

In Dickens’ day, American copyright law provided no protection for non-citizens’ intellectual property. The result hit both British and American authors in the pocketbook: British authors received no royalties on pirated editions of their works, and their authorized editions were hardly appealing at many times to price of the pirated copies. Meanwhile, American authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, and Walt Whitman lost money because American readers would purchase 25-cent pirated British literature instead of one-dollar American books.

While such a publishing problem might seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of foreign relations, it actually caused significant tension. American publishers sent employees to scour the docks of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, in hopes of intercepting manuscripts from popular authors that were bound for pirated editions. Meanwhile, British officials frequently confiscated as contraband American pirated copies of British books.

Thus Dickens faced quite a copyright conundrum. The pirated editions severely cut into his profits, but they also increased his circulation and popularity, leading to more demand for his work. But ultimately Dickens knew that more rigorous copyright laws would benefit authors on both sides of the Atlantic. He began openly advocating international copyright law. By the time Dickens arrived in the United States for the first time on January 22, 1842, he already planned to enlist American authors to support his cause.

 A Triumphant Arrival in Boston

Dickens’ fans in Boston greeted him like a rock star. He later wrote to a friend, “there never was a king or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by crowds.” Thanks to all those pirated copies of Dickens’ novels, the author had an incredible fan base in the United States. Dickens clearly loved the attention and adulation. He could also identify with the American ideals of democracy, liberalism, and equality. He’d pulled himself from poverty to become a celebrated author, personifying those ideals. And the American press glommed on to Dickens’ story. One paper called him “Boz, the gay personification of youthful genius on a glorious holiday.”


“Report of the Dinner Given to Charles Dickens in Boston, February 1, 1842”

Dickens was received by preeminent scholars and authors of Boston, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Richard Henry Dana, and Daniel Webster. On February 1, 1842, Dickens was the guest of honor at a “Young Men of Boston” dinner. He used the event to give his first speech to an American audience on the subject of international copyright law. This move proved poorly calculated; while Dickens had expected to receive support from fellow authors, he instead encountered resistance. America’s economy was flagging, and authors were reluctant to come across as demanding more money from the reading public.

Public Opinion Turns for the Worse


This caricature, often attributed to Thomas Nast, illustrates the reaction of the American press.

Dickens had also underestimated the power and priorities of the American press. Countless newspapers filled their pages with free British content, so international copyright law posed a significant threat to their profits. The newspapers immediately accused Dickens of being a “hired agent” for Britain, a mercenary out to fleece the American public. Dickens’ reputation was quickly tarnished.

Even Walt Whitman, who’d always been fascinated with Dickens, got in on the action, publishing “Boz’s Opinion of Us” in the New York Evening Tattler, where he was the editor. The paper ran a forged letter, supposedly from Dickens, outlining the “dark spots of American character.” Even though Whitman actually defended Dickens’ words, praising passages of the letter, the whole episode deeply damaged Dickens’ image. The editor of one New York newspaper reprinted the letter and said, “it will ruin Mr. Dickens’ personal popularity altogether with us.”

Dickens Strikes Back


“American Notes for General Circulation”

Although Dickens was initially quite taken with the United States, his account of the trip, “American Notes,” was relatively dry. He was harsh, however about slavery and the “abject state” of the American press. It was with Martin Chuzzlewit that Dickens really lashed out. The eponymous protagonist, a young man, travels to America to seek his fortune, only to be disappointed with American customs, manners, and publishing. Martin Chuzzlewit was published (unauthorized, of course) by the very papers that Dickens insulted in the novel.

Soon after, Dickens gave up lobbying for international copyright law. He realized it was a lost cause. But he didn’t give up his position entirely. Dickens stopped negotiating with American publishers for advance sheets of his novels, effectively removing their advantage of printing his books first. While this refusal wasn’t controversial, it was extremely unusual for the time period.

Finances Spur a Return

By the 1860’s, Dickens was an established celebrity. By all accounts, he should have been quite comfortable financially. But after much marital strife, Dickens’ wife, Catherine had been removed from the Dickens’ Rochester estate. A divorce would have sullied Dickens’ image, so he settled for relocating his wife to London and giving her a monthly stipend. And Dickens was still supporting his adult children–all six of his surviving sons were still receiving support from him by the mid-1860’s, despite being of age to support themselves.

Dickens’ resources were stretched thin. He wrote to his sister-in-law Georgiana, “Expenses are so enormous, that I begin to feel myself drawn towards America, as Charles Darnay in Tale of Two Cities is drawn toward Loadstone Rock, Paris. He believed enough time had passed that the American public would have forgotten about the publicity debacle of his first visit to the States.

Meanwhile, Dickens had perfected his readings, and British audiences flocked to see him perform. American theatre managers promised a second American tour would be even more lucrative than the first. They were correct. Dickens made £38,000 for 76 readings. His managers strutted around with paper bags full of cash. When Dickens passed away, the profits from this American tour constituted a full twenty percent of his estate.

An Unexpected Move


‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’

In 1867, Dickens made a bold proclamation. He announced that Fields, Osgood, and Co, the publishers who’d sponsored his tour, would have exclusive rights to his next novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This was a truly unprecedented maneuver, and it spurred discussions that have since become known as the “Dickens Controversy.” Dickens knew that he would never stop piracy of his works altogether, but he made an impassioned moral plea to the American public to buy authorized editions.

The tactic–perhaps surprisingly–worked quite well. Even the most notorious pirating firms were forced to reconsider their practices in light of Dickens’ campaign. Alas, Dickens passed away before finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the changes he promoted for international copyright law weren’t adopted until 1891. But Dickens contributed to a new era of cultural balance between Britain and the United States.

Related Posts:
Charles Dickens Does Boston
Irving and Dickens: The Authors Who Saved Christmas
Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas?
The Two Endings of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations
Oscar Wilde: Dickens Detractor and “Inventor” of Aubrey Beardsley

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