Charles Dickens: A Life Communicated Through the 19th-Century Press

Emily Bowles
University of York

In answer to the strand on thematic overviews, concepts of the public sphere and definitions of the press, this paper uses Dickens’s relationship with the press as a case study to show the role newspapers had in blurring the line between the public and private lives of literary figures and in shaping literary biography in the mid-nineteenth century.

While in his carriage near Gadshill, Charles Dickens meets a child who tells him,

my father, seeing me so fond of it, has often said to me, “If you were to be very persevering and were to work hard, you might some day come to live in [Gadshill].” (The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens’ Journalism: ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ and Other Papers, 1859-70, 86)

According to Charles Dickens Jr., this moment from “Travelling Abroad” (1860) has been quoted more extensively than anything his father ever wrote (the assumption being that the child is Dickens himself). That a short article had such impact is particularly remarkable for a writer so loved for his fiction, and it owes this to the 19th-century press.

When Dickens touched on his life, however briefly, the information was collated to flesh out biographical articles. Speeches in which he tailored anecdotes to his audience were transcribed and widely reprinted, taken out of context as simple facts about the author’s life. Dickens used this to shape the trajectory of his life from inventive child to famed novelist in the public’s mind. What was created, and solidified after his death in the many memoirs and biographies that collated materials from newspapers, including John Camden Hotten’s Charles Dickens: The Story of His Life (1870), was a life told through playful anecdotes and subtext. This was challenged by John Forster’s seminal Life (1872-74), but the stories continue to shape Dickensian biography today. I will discuss the ‘biographies’ of the 1870s and their use of newspaper articles to tell the story of Dickens’s life, centering on the way in which Forster’s Life weaves the stories Dickens told with revelations about his childhood to create an authoritative ‘life’ in the face of decades of newspaper biography. Later in the century Dickens’s family would also interact with the press, publishing denials and corrections in The Times in response to a proliferation of biographical articles claiming to give ‘revelations’ about the author.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900