Three Letters by Charles Dickens
Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870) was not only one of the 19th century’s greatest writers, but one of the greatest writers in history. Despite a traumatic childhood that saw his family temporarily broken up when his father was imprisoned for debt, Dickens became the author of short stories, essays, and some of the world’s best known novels, including Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Bleak House, and many others. Dickens was a prolific letter writer as well, and in fact the Pilgrim Edition of the collected Letters of Charles Dickens has been an ongoing project since the 1960s and now numbers 12 volumes. Of the three Dickens letters in the Frellsen Fletcher Smith collection, two were previously unknown and unpublished, and the originals of all three may be seen only in this collection.
Letter 1: Charles Dickens to John Dillon, January 1859
Dickens writes from Tavistock House, the London residence where he lived from 1851 through 1860, and where he wrote Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, and A Tale of Two Cities. In this letter, Dickens acknowledges the receipt of a print of the interior of Westminster Abbey sent to him by his friend John Dillon. Dillon was a wealthy merchant and philanthropist and one of the partners in of Morrison, Dillon, and Co. His son had died aged 23 on 10 September 1843, and that same year, after the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dillon apparently wrote Dickens telling him how much A Christmas Carol meant to him. Dickens wrote to Dillon thanking him for his letter expressing warm feelings about the book, and apparently from that time on Dickens and Dillon met and corresponded on a number of occasions.
In 1859 Dillon apparently purchased a print at P and D Colnaghi, Ltd., an art gallery and brokerage in London that had been in business since 1760 and which still operates today (unfortunately, according to Livia Schaafsma at Colnaghi, their transactions are only recorded back to 1890, so there is no record of which print Dillon purchased and sent). It seems likely that Dillon sent the drawing to Dickens as a gift, and here Dickens acknowledges the receipt of the print and thanks Colnaghi for its safe delivery.
This is a known and previously documented Dickens letter, and can be found in the Pilgrim edition of Dickens’ letters, volume 9, page 12.
Letter 2: Charles Dickens to George Holsworth, September 1866
Because of the nature of Dickens’ writing, and his evident compassion for the poor, oppressed, and even those temporarily down on their luck, he often found himself appealed to for financial assistance. During the 1860s, several letters exist where Dickens simply forwarded the missives to George Holsworth on the staff of Dickens's journal All the Year Round and asked him to send the individual money. Though the original letter that accompanied this one is now lost, in this previously unpublished letter Dickens tells Holsworth to send along a few pounds to the unknown writer.
Despite the fact that Dickens was generous by nature and had a great compassion for the misfortunes of others, throughout his adult life he would be constantly beset by mendicants and all manner of beggars – even his own relatives – all of whom wanted money to help them along. It would to some extent become the bane of his existence.
Letter 3: Charles Dickens to an Unknown Correspondent, February 1868
Charles Dickens arrived in Boston on November 19, 1867, and thus embarked on his second and last tour of America. He stayed in America for five months, and by giving more than seventy performances and readings throughout the east, he made an amazing 38,000 pounds – perhaps the equivalent of nearly four million dollars today. It was during this period that a number of American citizens – including Mark Twain – saw Dickens for the first time.
This letter was written from Boston on February 22nd, and Dickens was known to have been in Providence Rhode Island on the previous day. As of this date, the subject matter of the letter is unclear, and will likely remain so until the addressee, whose name is indecipherable, can be identified.
According to Leon Litvak of Queens University in Belfast and a current editor of the volumes of Dickens’ letters, this is a previously undocumented and unpublished Dickens letter. It is slated for inclusion in a future volume of Dickens’ correspondence.
- Dr. Rick Simmons, Department of English, Louisiana Tech University