Bill curates: Charles Dickens and Australia

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

I’m such a fan of Monday Musings – I guess we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t all enjoy talking about books, and writing, and authors, and translators, and publishers – that all the posts that jump out at me, seem to be MMs. From Sept 2010 Sue discusses the Australianness of an author who was never in Australia. As Hannah Gwendoline D’Orsay Tennyson Bulwer [Last Name] wrote in Comments “I had no idea Dickens had such a connection with Australia.”


My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Charles Dickens and Australia

Charles Dickens, c1860

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?

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


What an interesting choice of Bill’s but I am glad to be reminded of this post as I have been wanting to read more of Dickens’ journalistic writings. Whether I will is another thing but, you never know.

Are you a Dickens fan?

22 thoughts on “Bill curates: Charles Dickens and Australia

  1. Yes, I’m up for this – I’m a Dickens fan. My two favourite Dickens books were Dombey & Son and Nicholas Nickleby. Dombey & Son I’d read three times by the time I was about 14. Psychoanalyse that – a reflection of the step-father… I had cousins who lived just a couple of miles from Gad’s Hill in Kent. My wife and I would visit them – alighting at Chatham Station – amused by the painted sign on a house opposite the station entrance which announced that Dickens did NOT eat, drink or sleep there! And another time when a taxi-driver (a woman) announced to us as we flashed by folk in mid-19th century attire that Chatham was celebrating its “Dick’n’Sigh-on” Festival. It was only when I caught sight of clear Dickens characters that I recognised her version of Dickensian! Ah, well… Great re-posting! Thanks!

    • Haha thanks Jim for these anecdotes. I particularly like “Dick’n’Sigh-on”!

      BTW Dombey and Son is one of my favourites, though I don’t think there is anything to analyse ab out that as my background was very traditional nuclear.

      • My wife and I were at a family wedding in April 2011 in Shropshire – near Telford, near Iron Bridge – the wedding held at St Batholomew’s in the village of Tong. In the churchyard was the grave of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop! Why there? Dickens’ grandmother had been the Housekeeper of nearby Tong Castle – and long since demolished to make way for a nearby Motorway… Dickens was quite honestly everywhere!

  2. I’m working, but I like to watch the comment stream. Can I say anything relevant? Barely. I’m not a Dickens fan but I liked the connections you made.
    On the literary encounters front, I have a number of books about DH Lawrence in Australia (apart from his WA connection) and I should do something with them.

    • Not a Dickens fan, Bill? Have you read him recently? My first Dickens was Great expectations when I was a young teen. I just could not like it. It took other Dickens a few years later to turn me around, and it wasn’t until my third go that I finally liked Great expectations.

      I would like to look more into DH Lawrence’s Australian time. My knowledge is very bitsy-piecy.

      • I didn’t like Dickens when I was younger, either, possibly because they seemed like too much hard work. After a gap of more than thirty years I tried again and can now say I’m a huge fan. The humour in the stories I’ve read are a delight and I can’t help but admire how Dickens kept so many characters and plotlines going without tangling them up, all the while educating readers about social issues without coming across as heavy-handed.
        The connections you’ve made between Dickens and Australia are interesting.
        As for your query regarding hand-written literary encounters, I visited Canberra years ago to see an exhibition (It might have been Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries) and feeling as if I wanted to cry with joy when I looked at various hand-written manuscripts. Not sure if this is what you meant in the last question of the post.

        • Yes, exactly Rose … it’s Dickens humour with which he explores the social conditions of the time that helps make his books so engaging. I discovered that at university, with Dombey and Son, though I did also read A tale of two cities at school and loved it.

          And yes, that would have been the Treasures exhibition. It was the NLA’s first big blockbuster. They ended up having to be open well into the night to get everyone through. It was exciting wasn’t it.

        • I wish I’d discovered Dickens (for the second time) sooner. A Tale of Two Cities will be a reread for me but I’ve still got Dombey to look forward to 🙂
          It was wonderful! I was living in Batemans Bay at the time and drove up (in my first car, which broke down on the Clyde Mountain) without realising I needed to book. I was devastated when I arrived and learned that the exhibition was completely booked out day and night for the rest of the exhibition, but the staff very kindly took pity on me and snuck me in later in the day. It was extraordinarily generous of them and added to my pleasure in seeing the exhibition.

        • I was in tears three times that day (I was very young). Once when my car broke down, the second time when the staff let me in to the exhibition and the third time while viewing a portion of a Jane Austen manuscript. I’ve hardened up since then but still cry with joy sometimes.

        • Ha, Rose, I cried a lot more in my 20s (which I’m guessing is roughly where you were given you mentioned it was your first car?) than I do now. But I still cry with joy occasionally.

          I nearly mentioned the Jane Austen ms. I think it was from Persuasion, though that was quite a while ago now.

        • I think I was around 20 or 21. I took the day off work to go to the exhibition.
          I best remember the illuminated manuscripts with the most glorious gold and blues ever seen on paper, a piece of music by Mozart, something from the Dead Sea Scrolls and some lyrics by The Beatles (it might have been Yesterday) but it was Jane Austen’s handwriting that choked me up.

  3. Yes ! – but nothing in comparison with my beloved late father: he was a Dickens fanatic ! He had a series on foolscap pages stuck together top to bottom and written on sideways that was a spreadsheet of EVERY DICKENS CHARACTER, and how this one and that one were the same under different names in different novels.
    Maybe you should be reading my friend Simon Johnson’s blog, currently deeply involved in Dickensian exploration, ST .. but he’s writing from a legal p.o.v., so perhaps not.

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