Thursday, 17 October 2013


I have been going through some of the wonderful stories that our great friend and author, Stuart Miller-Osborne has sent to us over a very long time.  I came across this fascinating article, "Charles Dickens (A Journey)" that Stuart wrote quite some time ago for one of our earlier Newsletters. I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

You can read the current edition of our Newsletter by going to our website at  Just click on 'Articles' and you will see 'Newsletter'.

Charles Dickens
(A Journey)

On the 9th of June 1865 in Staplehurst in Kent an anonymous bridge over the River Beult was the scene of a horrific railway accident. This was caused when rails were removed whilst maintenance was taking place. Confusion as to when a train ‘The Folkestone Boat Express’ was due (it varied with the tides), the loss of a timetable, which had been destroyed by a previous train, and the incorrect use of detonators all contributed to the disaster. On this sunny afternoon the stage was set for an accident, which apart from killing ten unfortunates also in its way changed the course of English Literature.
For on that train was one of the greatest writers of the Victorian age, Charles Dickens. He was travelling with his “companion” Ellen Ternan and her mother. They were travelling in the front first class carriage, which miraculously did not fall from the bridge. After recovering his composure he (although he was in a slightly awkward position in travelling with Miss Ternan) rendered assistance to the dying and injured before being relieved of the task. Victorian Britain always on the look out for heroes soon latched onto what had happened and Dickens became a public hero. But the damage had been done psychologically and in its way helped to contribute to Dickens’s death exactly five years later to the day on the 9th of June 1870.
He wrote of his experiences in the postscript to Our Mutual Friend 
“On Friday the Ninth of June in the present year, Mr and Mrs Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr and Mrs Lammle at breakfast) were on the South Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage—turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn—to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt. The same happy result attended Miss Bella Wilfer on her wedding day, and Mr Riderhood inspecting Bradley Headstone's red neckerchief as he lay asleep. I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever, than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book “ 
The event was also a catalyst for one of my favourite short stories "The Signal Man “ which is about a train crash in a tunnel (probably the Clayton Tunnel accident of 1861 but the Staplehurst experience would have sown the germ in his mind) and as a great number of people have noted deprived us all of the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Ellen Ternan

     StaplehurstTrain       Crash
But what of Dickens two hundred years later? We are all in danger of Dickens overload with a number of television adaptations and a plethora of exhibitions and events.  Both Augustus Pugin and Robert Browning as well as Edward Lear were born in the same year but although these men’s anniversaries are being commemorated, there is nothing of the intensity of the Dickens anniversary. Why is it that the nation some one hundred and forty years after his death is still gripped by Dickens mania?
Recently for fun I visited as many charity shops, second hand booksellers and antique arcades in parts of Wiltshire, Berkshire and Somerset as I could to see if I so desired that I could purchase a book by Dickens. The results were (with a couple of exceptions) an overwhelming yes. I could have purchased a handsome set of his novels for the equivalent of the train fare between Hungerford and London and for the price of a newspaper I could have purchased an individual novel. This said finding books of poetry by Browning was not all that difficult although his poetry (by its very nature) does not transfer elsewhere. I found nothing on or by either Lear or Pugin at all. Whether we like it or not Charles Dickens is bedded in our consciousness.

      Charles Dickens

Pickwick Papers

 Dickens was born on the 7th of February 1812 just under a month before Pugin and some two months before Lear and Browning. He took his first breath of air at Landport, which is part of the city of Portsmouth. He was born into a poor family and his father was imprisoned for debt forcing Dickens to leave school and work in a factory. Unlike many of his contemporaries he had little education but in spite of this he wrote some fifteen novels and a large number of short stories and articles. It was the poverty and injustice of his early life that provided his fuel and to some extent helped to burn him out at an early age. Although radically different people the same happened to Augustus Pugin who was dead at forty. 
It was in 1836 that Dickens really became known with the publication of Pickwick Papers which was published in a serial format. As with the soaps that infest our televisions today Dickens was able to gauge his readers reactions so that he could pinpoint or modify the storyline as required. Unlike the soaps of today Dickens was a very astute observer of character and the social environment of the time. He was a humorist and a satirist also and this mixture proved very successful. Rather like the Harry Potter books of today the readership was from all social classes. Writers like George Orwell liked the Pickwick Papers and his other novels for their realism and social criticism. This said Virginia Woolf whilst appreciating the books does not like the sentimentalism that crept into his style. 
When I read Dickens novels (I have not read them all) the thing that strikes me are his journalistic roots. Three years prior to the Pickwick Papers he was a political journalist reporting on debates and travelling around the country covering elections and the like. His work was to be found in the Morning Chronicle. He collected his pieces in Sketches by Boz, which was published in 1836. This in turn led to The Pickwick Papers. Within five years Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop And Barnaby Rudge had seen the light of day. We must remember that Dickens was under thirty years of age at the time, which in my view is some achievement. Whilst some writers and poets have extraordinary bursts of creativity at a young age (one has only to think of Arthur Rimbaud) this was something very special.
Domestically all was not sweetness and light for Dickens. He married Catherine Hogarth in 1836 and in time fathered ten children. One of Catherine’s sisters, Mary, came to live with them (which was not an unusual at the time). Dickens grew very close to Mary and was shattered when she died at a very young age in 1837. Mary is to be found in many of his books but most famously as Little Nell. In time another of Catherine’s sisters, Georgina, joined the household. This was to some extent a catalyst for the Dickens household. For some reason Dickens started to blame Catherine for the birth of his ten children and the increasing financial worries involved. (If you have time it would be interesting to compare Augustus Pugin’s relationship with his three wives to that of Dickens). He considered her an incompetent housekeeper  - this is strange as writing as Lady Maria Clutterbuck she wrote a cookery book in 1851 which ran into several editions. They finally separated in 1858 after she has received by accident a bracelet that should have been sent to Ellen Ternan. The break-up was not helped by Georgina siding with Dickens. Two articles at the time in my view help to give insight into Dickens state of mind at the time. 
Some domestic trouble of mine, of long-standing, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected, as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement, which involves no anger or ill-will of any kind, and the whole origin, progress, and surrounding circumstances of which have been, throughout, within the knowledge of my children. It is amicably composed, and its details have now to be forgotten by those concerned in it... By some means, arising out of wickedness, or out of folly, or 
out of inconceivable wild chance, or out of all three, this trouble has been the occasion of misrepresentations, mostly grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel — involving, not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart... I most solemnly declare, then — and this I do both in my own name and in my wife's name — that all the lately whispered rumours touching the trouble, at which I have glanced, are abominably false. And whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as wilfully and as foully as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before heaven and earth. Household Words (1858).
I will merely remark of [my wife] that some peculiarity of her character has thrown all the children on someone else. I do not know — I cannot by any stretch of fancy imagine — what would have become of them but for this aunt, who has grown up with them, to whom they are devoted, and who has sacrificed the best part of her youth and life to them. She has remonstrated, reasoned, suffered, and toiled, again and again, to prevent a separation between Mrs. Dickens and me. Mrs. Dickens has often expressed to her sense of affectionate care and devotion in her home — never more strongly than within the last twelve months. New York Tribune (c 1858). 
Whilst admiring Dickens I have always felt sympathy with Catherine Dickens who when dying in 1879 gave her daughter Kate a number of letters she had received from Dickens with the words  “Give these to the British Museum that the world may know he loved me once”. I have not studied Dickens enough to really give an opinion about the influence that Catherine had over the man and his works. But quite often I can feel her presence in his writing. As with a number of larger than life writers and artists it is sometimes the woman who is shunted into the background in the shadow of a great man, and sometimes cruelly he dispenses with her. Perhaps without this characteristic Dickens would not have been the writer he was. I am unqualified to say but I have a nagging feeling that when he separated from Catherine something was lost.

Catherine Hogarth Dickens

Mary Hogarth

Georgina Hogarth

         Bronte Sisters
We are all aware of Dickens life story so I am not going to go into it in any detail. What fascinates me is why Dickens like the Bronte sisters has endured. When I was twenty-one I had the crazy idea of cycling from Ealing to Haworth after reading some of the sisters' novels. When I arrived three days later I was expecting to find a dusty damp museum but to my surprise it was crowded with visitors from many countries. This was in the mid seventies and the rush has not stopped since. Both the Brontes and Dickens are as popular now as they were thirty years ago and with the advances in media more accessible. Who remembers Charlotte M Yonge (1823-1901) who was known as the novelist of The Oxford Movement? Although for some reason her books are quite easily available in Hungerford  (I see them quite frequently) as far as I know none of her novels have been dramatised for television or the cinema. I think if you asked the average schoolchild about Charlotte Yonge or The Oxford Movement then they would look blankly at you whereas if you mentioned the Brontes or Charles Dickens then you would get a reaction. 
Rather like the Harry Potter phenomena today one imagines that when Dickens was at his height the Victorian equivalent would have been the same. Perhaps there would have been no studio tours or plastic characters but there would have been many souvenirs. My wife recently purchased a Charles Dickens Birthday book of 1882 as a gift for me. The book was published some twelve years after his death by his eldest daughter with illustrations by his youngest daughter. Throughout the year different extracts from Dickens are included. This obviously sold well, as with the Harry Potter merchandise today, and is a haunting read. 
But in one hundred years what will the world make of Harry Potter. I think that it will be viewed as an odd time where fantasy characters lead the reader into a world of dreams and make believe divorced from reality. Although Dickens had his faults and in a Victorian way was exploited as much as J K Rowling’s novels are today. I believe there was a greater attachment to Dickens. The girl receiving the birthday book probably at Christmas in 1881 I believe would have had a different attachment to Dickens than the contemporary child with the Harry Potter novels.
Although closed at present there is a fine Charles Dickens museum in London, which is easily found on the internet. His home at Gads Hill in Kent is also easy to find and well worth a visit - again I would consult the relevant web pages for details. There are many Dickens events being held in 2012 as well as various other events in the media. Sadly the very atmospheric museum in Broadstairs in Kent is no longer with us having suffered a fire. It is now I believe a private residence. I visited it a number of years ago when on a Dickens pilgrimage. Unlike the Bronte museum in Haworth it was a rather dusty and had a somewhat ill organised collection but in its way it reminded me of Miss Haversham’s faded glory. I was sad to see it go. 
Away from Dickens I also decided to visit the house that Augustus Pugin built for himself in Ramsgate as well as the church that he was in the process of building when he died. Sadly at the time the house had seen better days and looked in dire need of love. Happily due to the sterling efforts of the Landmark Trust the house has been renovated and you can either stay there or visit the house (named The Grange) on specified days - again the internet will give you the detail required. 
Dickens like Pugin had a lot of connections with Kent and if you are in that part of the world it would be fun to break your Dickens itinerary with a visit to Ramsgate to visit Pugin’s house and church. As I have noted both were born in 1812 and died quite young (mainly due to overwork) but there, to a great extent, the similarities end. But both were however men of their era in their separate worlds.

Gads Hill Place
The Grange, Ramsgate

researched a great deal of this article in Margate whilst taking a few days out in Kent. As I wandered along the promenade I was leafing through an old copy of Hard Times that I had purchased at the Pilgrims Hospices charity shop. I began to wonder whether Dickens had ever visited Margate (it is likely he would have done) and what he would have made of the Turner Contemporary Gallery in the town today. I could not guess what his feeling would have been but as I read his novel I knew he would have recognised some of the decay in the town which would have changed radically since his times and wondered if he had included it in a novel how we would have read it in 2012. Although an abstract question I did not answer it to my own satisfaction throughout the day. 
Each of us has their favourite Dickens novel and outside of The Signalman mine is Hard Times. I think that the day would have been even more blissful if I had travelled the short distance to Ramsgate and with a fine Kent ale for refreshment settled into my rooms at The Grange with Gradgrind and company, taking time out occasionally to look out of the window at the distant Goodwin Sands. 
Stuart Miller-Osborne

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