Skip to content

Monday musings on Australian literature: Charles Dickens and Australia

September 6, 2010
Charles Dicken, c1860

Dickens, c. 1860 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Here’s something completely different for my Monday musings! Not an Australian author, not even a foreign born author who came to Australia (though, being the great traveller he was, he did consider a lecture tour), but Charles Dickens does have a couple of interesting “connections” with Australia. These connections are supported by the existence of some letters written by him at the National Library of Australia.

On convicts and migration in general

Transportation of convicts to Australia – actual, implied or threatened – features in several of his novels. These include John Edmunds in Pickwick Papers (1836-37), the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), Mr Squeers in NicholasNickleby (1838-39), Alice Marwood in Dombey and Son (1846-48), and Magwitch (probably the most famous of all) in Great expectations (1861), not to mention Jenny Wren who threatens her father with transportation in Our mutual friend (1864-65). Dickens apparently learnt quite a lot about convict life, and particularly the penal settlement on Norfolk Island, from his friend Alexander Maconochie (to whom I refer in my review of Price Warung’s Tales of the early days).

Clearly, it was this knowledge which inspired the letter he wrote to the 2nd Marquess of Normanby (George Augustus Constantine Phipps), who was Secretary of State for the Home Office . He suggests

a strong and vivid description of the terrors of Norfolk Island and such-like-places, told in a homely narrative with a great appearance of truth and reality, and circulated in some very cheap and easy form (if with the direct authority of the Government, so much the better) would have a very powerful effect on the minds of those badly disposed … I would have it on the pillow of every prisoner in England. (3 July 1840, Original in the National Library of Australia, Ms 6809)

He offers to write this narrative, gratis. As far as I know, although Dickens and the Marquess were friends, nothing ever came of this offer.

While Dickens deplored the treatment of convicts in the penal settlements, he also saw Australia as a land of opportunity. The transported Magwitch, as we know, made his fortune in Australia. Mr Micawber, debt-ridden at the end of David Copperfield, emigrates to Australia and becomes a sheepfarmer and magistrate. But, perhaps the strongest evidence of Dickens’ belief in Australia as a place where people could get ahead, is the emigation of his sons.

On his sons

Two of Dickens’ sons – Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens* (nicknamed Plorn) – emigrated to Australia, both with their father’s encouragement.

Alfred (1845-1912) migrated to Australia in 1865. He worked on several stations/properties in Victoria and New South Wales and as a stock and station agent, before partnering with his brother in their own stock and station agency, EBL Dickens and Partners. He died in the United States in 1912, having left Australia on a lecture tour in 1910. Dickens’  youngest son, Edward (1852-1902), went to Australia in 1869. He also worked on stations before opening the stock and station agency with his brother. He later worked as a civil servant and represented Wilcannia in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1889-94, but he died, debt-ridden, in 1902 at Moree. Australia did not quite turn out to be the land of opportunity for these two that Dickens had hoped, but fortunately he was not around to see it!

A couple of Dickens’ letters to his sons are held at the National Library of Australia. One was written in 1868, not long before Plorn left England, and includes some fatherly advice:

Never take a mean advantage of anyone in any transaction, and never be hard on people who are in your power …

The more we are in earnest as to feeling religion, the less we are disposed to hold forth on it. (26? September 1868, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 2563)

One does rather wish that Dickens had taken his own advice regarding not being “hard on people who are in your power” in his treatment of his poor wife Catherine.

Eighteen days before he died in 1870, he wrote this to Alfred:

I am doubtful whether Plorn is taking to Australia. Can you find out his real mind? I note that he always writes as if his present life were the be-all and end-all of his emigration and as if I had no idea of you two becoming proprietors and aspiring to the first positions in the colony without casting off the old connexion (1870, Original in National Library of Australia, Ms 6420).

These are just two of the many letters that he wrote to (and about) his sons in Australia. More can be found in published editions of his letters. I have chosen these particular ones purely because we have them here in Canberra. It’s rather a treat to be able to see Dickens’ hand so far away from his home.

Do you enjoy close literary encounters of the handwritten kind?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2010 6:11 pm

    I like these little historical tidbits. I had an interesting coincidence the other day – I was reading Marsden’s Tomorrow series and at the same time a non fiction book on early Australian settlement featuring John Marsden’s ancestor the Rev Samuel Marsden, the hanging Parson.

  2. September 6, 2010 6:26 pm

    Wasn’t there some connection with Caroline Chisholm too? Yes, I’ve just found it – in a book I just bought remaindered the other day, called Australia Imagined, a collection of views of Australia taken from the British press between 1800 and 1900. It claims that Dickens supported a place called Urania Cottage, which was a centre for prostitutes, who were encouraged to emigrate to Australia after rehabilitation, and publicised Chisholm’s Family Colonisation Loan Society in his Household Words publication.

  3. September 6, 2010 6:44 pm

    Well, I hadn’t heard that one, thanks for making the connection. I had read that he mentioned Australia often (well a few times anyhow) in his Household Words. Might be ripe for more research in the future.

    • September 6, 2010 7:39 pm

      They met. He found her cause worthy and her children dirtier than he would have liked. “The dirty faces of her children are my continual companions,” writes he in a letter.

      Part of the Household Words article that came after their meeting has been transcribed online here:

      Apparently our climate is “a perpetual Sumer” which makes me wonder what the hell all that rain is doing outside my window.

      • September 6, 2010 11:40 pm

        Thanks DKS. I’ve pottered around that website before. It’s a rather interesting one isn’t it. LOL re “perpetual Sumer”. Perhaps by comparison it is – except of course one would never say THAT about Melbourne now would one!

    • September 6, 2010 10:43 pm

      ‘Here in Canberra’, I only just picked that up – where in Canberra? I’m in Ainslie.

      • September 6, 2010 11:36 pm

        zmkc, I’m in Isaacs. Didn’t I ask you on one of your blogs about your mentioning returning to Canberra? Maybe I just meant to. I’ve just spent the weekend at the Jane Austen Society of Australia conference that was held at the Marque Hotel on Northbourne. Some fascinating stuff.

  4. September 6, 2010 10:20 pm

    How fascinating! I had no idea Dickens had such a connection with Australia. I am, however, put out that my name is nowhere near as long and fantastical as his sons’ names were. I now want to be known only as Hannah Gwendoline D’Orsay Tennyson Bulwer [Last Name]. Okay?

    • September 6, 2010 11:37 pm

      Never let me hear you complain about your long name again! They are great names though. Particularly the Bulwer Lytton one given how that name is now remembered.

  5. September 7, 2010 1:41 am

    Sue, wonderful, thank you. How did you learn about Dicken’s letters at the National Library of Australia?

    • September 7, 2010 9:25 am

      I was coordinating a viewing of their Jane Austen letter (and other interesting Jane Austen related bits and pieces) for the Jane Austen Conference that was in town last weekend, and one of our local JA group members here suggested we added the Dickens letters. They are in the online catalogue, though, so easy to find.

  6. September 8, 2010 1:02 am

    I had no idea Dickens had such a connection to Australia. Thanks for the fascinating historical tidbits!

    • September 8, 2010 8:56 am

      It’s quite fascinating isn’t it, and I thought it was something a bit different. In future I might talk about some other literary connections that are interesting but my lips are sealed for now!!

  7. September 8, 2010 5:24 pm

    A fascinating post. There’s a lot here about the imagination of emigration which people in the home country indulge themselves with. Emigration is both terrible and also hopeful, a place of deserts and forests where everything can go terrible wrong, but also a place where the hopeless case can find a new start. I wonder how much these views hold true today. I know people who made good and others who didn’t

    • September 8, 2010 7:16 pm

      Thanks Tom … emigration is certainly a mixed bag, partly to do, I suppose with why you emigrate in the first place. A lot of Brits come and have come to Australia (as you know) – some love it, and others hate it. Personally, I would find emigrating to live elsewhere very difficult. Love travel, love to live somewhere else for a while, but leaving “my place” forever is another whole ballgame.

  8. September 8, 2010 9:03 pm

    An interesting post Sue, thanks for sharing the letters.

    Re Dickens and Australia, Mrs Jelleby in Bleak House is supposedly based on Caroline Chisholm-hardly a flattering portrait! I believe it’s also claimed that an Australian woman called Eliza Emily Donnithorne was the inspiration for Miss Havisham, as havng been left at the alter in 1856 she left the wedding breakfast to rot and became a recluse.

    • September 9, 2010 10:40 am

      Thanks Sarah for adding more connections. I’ve read both those Dickens novels but didn’t know those “models” for those characters. Mrs Jellyby and Caroline Chisholm – hmm, interesting. What are we to make of that? Men can ignore their wives and families and women can’t? Not of course that I agree with Mrs Jellyby’s actions but …

      • September 9, 2010 11:40 am

        Men can’t either, if their name is Dombey. My own impression is that Dickens praises warm and attentive parents of either sex. Bob Cratchit’s love for Tiny Tim is a point in his favour, Dombey’s selfishness is summed up in his treatment of his children, boys in Nickleby are handed over to Wackford Squeers by an uncaring father, and Little Nell would have lived if only her grandfather, who is filling the role of both parents, hadn’t been so weak. The Ackroyd biography moves from the Chisholm letter into a brief discussion of Mrs Jellyby, but he also ties it into Dickens’ “disgust at the way certain philanthropists attended to distant causes while ignoring those closer to home.” In other words, his disgust was general, but the dirty faces of Chisholm’s children showed him how he could capture it in shorthand.

  9. September 9, 2010 11:09 pm

    Fair enough DKS. I have read Dombey but over 30 years ago. I was probably thinking too much of Dickens’ own life and his treatment of his wife, rather than more deeply analyse his fiction and we should not, I think, judge an author by his/her life but by his/her work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: