Father Philip Jones reading next to Dickens's baptismal font

Father Philip Jones reading next to Dickens’s baptismal font


On March 4 some 203 years ago young Charles Dickens, less than a month old, was brought to the Portsea Parish Church font to be formally welcomed into the Anglican religion. This week the Portsmouth Dickens Fellowship commemorated the occasion by reading from The Life of Our Lord, the story of Jesus Christ, which Dickens had written for his children.

Said chapter secretary Geoffrey Christopher, “It went well.” Click here.


I’m demonstrating how sifters sift the dust.

At the November gathering of the Dickens Fellowship in Philadelphia, I gave a talk on one of the main motifs of Our Mutual Friend—dust. Most of this “dust” consisted of ashes and cinders from coal fires, also the source of the famous London fog (actually smog). In the 1850s each London household burned an estimated average of 11 tons of coal a year.

Localities arranged for dust-contractors to haul away the contents of household dustbins, leading to huge dust heaps rising like volcanic mountains on the city’s outskirts. Profits from the heaps made the contractors wealthy. How do you get rich from trash? Almost every item collected from the city’s dustbins—the ashes and cinders, along with other household refuse–marrow bones, cabbage stalks, worn-out shoes, crumpled paper, dirty rags, and the like—was sold and put to use. Nothing went to waste.


A dust heap at King’s Cross

Two-man teams, each equipped with horse, cart, ladder, shovels, and baskets, went house to house, calling “Dust oh-ey,” to alert the household. The filler shoveled the dustbin’s contents into his basket. The carrier brought the full baskets to the cart and dumped them. Once their cart was full, they headed for one of the dust-yards to “shoot” their load onto the heap.


Flying Dustmen

Householders usually arranged for the dustmen to come by once a week. What if a householder or servant failed to heed the dustman’s cry? No fear. The flying, or running, dustmen to the rescue.

These chaps ran their own independent, somewhat shady, business. They’d offer to clean out the house’s dustbins, for which they expected a good tip. If the tip wasn’t to their liking, they were apt to drag their muddy boots along the carpet or smear the wallpaper with slime. Once their cart was full, they sifted through the dust for whatever of value they could find. Unlike the large contractors, they had no way of disposing of the ashes and cinders that made up the bulk of their cargo. So they’d wait until dark, drive out to some deserted road, open the back of the cart and let its contents spill out as they drove along.

At the yard, the dustmen’s wives and children processed the dust. A woman, usually, called a hillwoman, supervised operations. When a sifter, a woman aged 16 to 60+, held out her sieve and shouted, “Sarve!” a teenage boy, called a filler-in, tossed in a shovelful of dust from the heap. Each woman rapidly sorted the contents of her sieve, flinging marrow bones, worn-out shoes, bits of coal, crumpled paper, dirty rags, cabbage leaves, sometimes, if she was lucky, a dead cat into baskets. Then, giving the sieve a strong shake, she let the fine ashes, or soil, sift through, leaving only the cinders, or breeze, to dump into another basket, which the children carried off.

Small children helped their mothers sort. As soon as they were strong enough to carry a basket across the yard, they were paid a few pence a day. Despite the dire warnings in the press, the dustmen,  the sifters, and their children were a healthy lot. The smell didn’t bother them, they claimed. They rarely got sick. Neither the plague nor cholera seems to have touched them.


Children grew up into the business.

The contractor who owned the yard sold the soil and cinders to brickmakers and farmers. Mixed with clay, soil made fine bricks. Spread on fields, it made good fertilizer. Brickmakers used cinders to burn bricks. Other found items belonged to the hillwoman. Any rags, bones, or metal, for example, she sold to marine store dealers, old boots and shoes to manufacturers of a pigment called Prussian-blue. Tin objects, such as kettles, went to trunk makers, who used them to make clamps. Valuables like jewelry and coins were supposedly sold and the money shared between the hillwoman and the workers. Usually, however, despite the threat of immediate dismissal, a worker who found a valuable item quietly pocketed it.

Other Victorian scavengers included mudlarks, who searched the muddy shores of the Thames for coal from barges, rope, wood chips and the like, and dredgermen who searched the river for debris, including corpses. Many old woman were pure-finders, scavengers who collected pure, or dog dung, to sell to leather tanners. It was good for purifying hides, hence the name.

Something for dog owners to think about when they scoop poop. Victorians could find a use for anything.

On Monday, February 18, 2013, 65-year-old Danny Vanzandt burned to death in his home in Muldrow, Oklahoma. Although his head and legs were intact, the rest of his body was reduced to ashes. Yet surrounding furniture was undamaged. According to Sequoyah County Sheriff Ron Lockhart, a former arson investigator, “You could pour gasoline on somebody and he wouldn’t be as badly incinerated.” A lighter was found near his body but no accelerant. There was no suggestion of foul play. What happened?

Where is Mr. Krook?

Where is Mr. Krook?

In Chapter 32 of Bleak House, Dickens described a similar mysterious death. Krook, an alcoholic rag-and bottle dealer, is alone in his shop at night, imbibing freely. Soon after, Mr. Snagsby, strolling past, scents a greasy flavor in the air but supposes it’s due to not-quite-fresh chops being grilled at the tavern next door. Two young men, Guppy and Weevil, are in the apartment above Krook’s shop. “See how the soot’s falling,” Mr. Guppy remarks to his friend.

“See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won’t blow off–smears like black fat!”

Mr. Guppy pulls his hand from the windowsill.

“What, in the devil’s name,” he says, is this! Look at my fingers!” A thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. a stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.

They go down to the shop. Krook has vanished, but his cat is snarling at something near the fireplace.

Hold up 
the light. Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a 
little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is—is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it 
coal? Oh, horror, he IS here!

All that remains of Mr. Krook is a foul smell, greasy soot, a pool of oil, and a chunk of burnt thigh.

Krook’s death is attributed to spontaneous combustion, an iffy supposition, as Dickens  knew. In the Preface to Bleak House he assured his readers, “before I wrote that description I took pains to 
investigate the subject” and cited the well-known 1731 case of an Italian countess’s puzzling death. “The appearances, beyond all 
rational doubt, observed in that case are the appearances observed 
in Mr. Krook’s case.” Dickens claimed to know dozens of documented examples of such deaths.

In this 1951 death, nothing is left but a leg.

In this 1951 death, nothing is left but a leg.

Similar cases have been reported in modern times. In each case the body is burned to cinders but the surrounding area—and sometimes the victim’s extremities—remain intact. As in Mr. Krook’s case, greasy residue from the body may adhere to floor and walls. Like both Mr. Krook and Mr. Vanzandt, the victim is often a smoker and/or a drinker, and the body is found near a fireplace. In each case, the question arises: Did the victim, like a heap of oily rags in a bucket, spontaneously combust?

The issue resolves into two questions:

  1. How can a body catch fire without being ignited?
  2. How can a body burn so completely that even its bones are cremated and yet not burn anything around it, even its own limbs?

Technically, the term spontaneous human combustion (SHC) applies only to the first question and the answer to it is: it can’t. Dickens thought the alcohol inside Krook’s body caused him to explode, but scientists say no inner chemical reaction can cause a body to burst into flames. Something must ignite it, such as a smoldering ember, lit cigarette, or match. (A lighter was found near Vanzandt’s body.)

But why does the body burn from within? Why is surrounding furniture left untouched? The answer may lie in what scientists call the “wick effect.” The spark burns through clothing and skin to reach the fat beneath. The victim is already dead, perhaps from a heart attack, or drunk, or—gruesome thought—too disabled to douse the flame. Clothing absorbs the fat as it melts, fueling the flames as a candle’s wick fuels its wax, until all the fat has burned away. The fire is confined to the fat-rich torso, leaving the extremities intact.

Pig in a blanket

Pig in a blanket

Dr John DeHaan of the California Criminalistic Institute used a dead pig to demonstrate. (Something to think about: the fat content of a pig’s body is similar to yours.) The pig was wrapped in a blanket, a small amount of gasoline poured on, and a spark applied. Once the flames caught, the pig burned for over five hours. In human crematoria, with temperatures as high as 1600-1800F, bone fragments remain. Here, the heat was so intense even the bones were pulverized to ash.

Generally speaking, Dickens was not kind to women of a certain age. Mrs. Skewton, Sairey Gamp, Miss Havisham, Mrs. Squeers, Mrs. Clennam, Mrs. Corney, Madame Defarge, Mrs. Joe Gargery, Miss Murdstone, Miss Wade—horrors, one and all. In Bleak House, however, among the cruel aunts, neglectful mothers, and hard-hearted dispensers of good works, one older woman stands out as a pleasant exception. Mrs. Rouncewell, the housekeeper at Chesney Wold is, we are told, “a fine old lady, handsome, stately, wonderfully neat,” and an indispensable part of the grand Dedlock estate for fifty years.

Could Mrs. Rouncewell be based on Dickens’s grandmother—also a widow and mother of two grown sons—longtime housekeeper at Crewe Hall, another grand estate? Mrs. Rouncewell tells ghost stories to visitors to Chesney Wold. Lord Crewe’s grandchildren remembered Mrs. Dickens telling stories to them.

Dickens's paternal grandparents were servants at Crewe Hall.

Dickens’s paternal grandparents were servants at Crewe Hall.

Elizabeth Ball, born in Shropshire in 1745, began her career as a servant at Tong Castle near Wolverhampton. By the time she was 36 she was in London, a maid to Lady Blandford. There she met William Dickens, a manservant working for Lord Crewe, who had a townhouse in Lower Grosvenor Street, Mayfair. In November, 1781, despite a considerable age difference—William was in his 60s—he and Elizabeth married. Thirty-six was considered a bit long in the tooth in those days, so no doubt she felt lucky to get him. Especially when he was promoted to butler at Crewe Hall, the family’s estate in Cheshire. Elizabeth was taken into the household too, as housekeeper. The next year she bore her husband a son, also named William.

In 1785, Mr. Dickens died. A few months later, his widow bore a second son, John, who would become Charles Dickens’s father. John, unlike his older brother, was helped to rise out of the servant class. When he was 20, through the patronage of the Crewe family and their influential friends, he was appointed to a clerkship in the Navy Pay Office at five shillings a day. Claire Tomalin in Charles Dickens: A Life suggests he may have received this boost not to reward his mother for her faithful service, as is generally assumed, but because he was actually the son of Lord Crewe or one of his friends—plucking the virtue of household staff being a common pastime among the aristocracy of the day.

An attractive theory, with no hard evidence to support it, which transforms John into an Oliver Twist or Esther Summerson, someone whose status is raised through the sudden acquisition of an aristocratic ancestor. (Tomalin points out that even if John Dickens wasn’t an actual by-blow, he may have thought he was, which could account for the lordly sense of entitlement and lack of financial prudence that landed him in the Marshalsea.)

Whether Dickens used his grandmother as a model for Mrs. Rouncewell depends on how well he knew her and on whether he ever visited her at Crewe Hall. Elizabeth Dickens was 67 when Charles was born; he was 12 when she died, so it’s certainly possible. We know his father visited her. The Crewes’ granddaughter remembered “old Mrs. Dickens’ grumbling about ‘that lazy fellow John . . . who used to come hanging about the house” and how she’d given him “many a sound cuff on the ear.” If he was trying to cadge money, as was likely, why not bring his lively son along to soften her up? That she had money, we know. She left John enough in her will to get him out of debtor’s prison.

If Dickens did have his grandmother in mind when he created the Chesney Wold housekeeper, he cleaned her up. That “fine old lady” Mrs. Rouncewell is far too genteel to give anyone, certainly not one of her sons, “a sound cuff on the ear.”

Charles Dickens was born 201 years ago today. In celebration, his great-great-grandson Mark Dickens yesterday afternoon unveiled a replica of the Dog and Pot shop sign–a significant landmark in Charles’s early life–in the Southwark section of London. The sign consists of the figure of a dog, carved from elm wood, and an original iron pot.

Dog and Pot sign

Dog and Pot sign

The sign is at the junction of Blackfriars Road and Union Street. As a twelve-year-old, lonely, miserable, and bereft of the education he craved, Charles passed it daily on his homeward trek from his job at a blacking warehouse to his solitary lodgings in Lant Street. The rest of his family was in a debtor’s prison a few blocks away.

In an essay about his early life, Dickens wrote:
“My usual way home was over Blackfriars Bridge and down that turning in the Blackfriars Road which has Rowland Hill’s chapel on one side, and the likeness of a golden dog licking a golden pot over a shop door on the other.”
These words are now inscribed on a plaque set into a paved area surrounding the sign.

Members of the Canterbury Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, dressed in Victorian costume, attended the ceremony. So did pupils from Charles Dickens Primary School, who enlivened the occasion with a stirring–and appropriate–rendition of “How Much Is that Doggy in the the Window?”

Happy Birthday, Charlie!

See the full story and more photos here.

The graceful and elegant Mrs. Bouncer

The graceful and elegant Mrs. Bouncer

Dickens had a special fondness for Mrs. Bouncer, who belonged to his daughter Mamie. A Pomeranian, sometimes called a Spitz in the 19th century, she was by far the smallest of the Gad’s Hill dogs. Essentially, she was a miniature Spitz, with the typical pointed ears and curled tail, but, Mamie said, just “a tiny ball of white fluffy fur” when she arrived.

Dickens loved watching her, “so preposterously small,” yet “assuming great airs” among the huge mastiffs, bloodhounds, Newfoundlands, and St. Bernards surrounding her.

He thought about her when he was away, even dreamed of her. “In my mind’s eye I behold ‘Mrs. Bouncer,’” he wrote to his daughter, “still with some traces of anxiety on her faithful countenance, balancing herself a little unequally on her forelegs, pricking up her ears with her head on one side, and slightly opening her intellectual nostrils. I send my loving and respectful duty to her.”

My favorite Mrs. Bouncer story involves two other dogs, Gypsy and Fosco. Gypsy, a mongrel, was temporarily being cared for at Gad’s Hill. Since she wasn’t allowed in the drawing room, she spent her days dozing on a rug outside it. Fosco, a clever poodle, was invited with his master to Gad’s Hill drawing room expressly to display his tricks.

As soon as Fosco began his performance, Mrs. Bouncer trotted out to Gypsy and escorted her into the drawing room, as much as to say, Mamie writes, “If strange dogs are to be made much of, surely the dogs in the house may be at least permitted to enter the room.” Mrs. Bouncer sat with her back to Fosco throughout his performance, “the picture of offended dignity.” Once he’d left the house she escorted Gypsy back to her rug.

Mrs. Bouncer, who outlived Dickens, had a long and happy life. When the end came, several of her admirers felt compelled to write poems to her memory. Among these was Ellen Ternan, who shared some of Mrs. Bouncer’s qualities and of whom Dickens was also inordinately fond. According to Dickens scholar Michael Slater, Ellen penned a verse that began with these lines:

We miss your soft and dainty step,
Your bright eye’s loving gaze,
Your pretty head, your graceful mien,
Your thousand winning ways . . .


“I think his strongest love, among animals, was for dogs.” Mamie Dickens

Dickens's house at Gad's-hill. Note the dog.

Dickens’s house at Gad’s-hill. Note the dog.

At Gad’s-Hill Dickens surrounded himself with a pack of wonderful dogs. Two were usually tied to either side of the entrance gate to protect the house from the ruffians and vagabonds that tramped down the well-traveled road.

Charles Dickens and Turk

Charles Dickens and Turk

Turk, intelligent and affectionate, was Dickens’s favorite. In this wonderful photograph they appear well matched. Both look noble and dignified. Dickens grieved terribly when Turk died in a railway accident, not long after Dickens’s own traumatic experience in a railway crash at Staplehurst in 1865.

This is Governor, a 19th century mastiff.

This is Governor, a 19th century mastiff.

Mamie called Turk a “beautiful mastiff, ” but he doesn’t look like the mastiffs shown in 19th century illustrations. Libby Hall, in her wonderful collection of vintage dog photos, These Were Our Dogs, identifies Turk as simply, “a dog.” Can anyone solve the mystery?

thFor a convivial drink to celebrate the New Year why not concoct a bowl of Mr. Micawber’s punch. He makes it not once, but twice, in David Copperfield, initially, when David hosts his first dinner party. The Micawbers–“Mr. Micawber with more shirt-collar than usual, and a new ribbon to his eye-glass”–are among his guests.

I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

And when it’s ready:

“Punch, my dear Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, tasting it, “like time and tide, waits for no man. Ah! it is at the present moment in high flavour. My love, will you give me your opinion?” Mrs. Micawber pronounced it excellent. (From David Copperfield, Chapter 27)

The second occasion is on the eve of the Micawber family’s departure for Australia, when Mr. Micawber consents to compose “a moderate portion of that Beverage which is peculiarly associated, in our minds, with the Roast Beef of Old England. I allude to–in short, Punch.”

The Micawbers are already prepared for life at sea and in the Outback.

Mr. Micawber immediately descended to the bar . . . and in due time returned with a steaming jug. I could not but observe that he had been peeling the lemons with his own clasp-knife, which, as became the knife of a practical settler, was about a foot long; and which he wiped, not wholly without ostentation, on the sleeve of his coat. Mrs. Micawber and the two elder members of the family I now found to be provided with similar formidable instruments, while every child had its own wooden spoon attached to its body by a strong line. In a similar anticipation of life afloat, and in the Bush, Mr. Micawber, instead of helping Mrs. Micawber and his eldest son and daughter to punch, in wine-glasses, which he might easily have done, for there was a shelf-full in the room, served it out to them in a series of villainous little tin pots; and I never saw him enjoy anything so much as drinking out of his own particular pint pot, and putting it in his pocket at the close of the evening. (From David Copperfield, Chapter 57)

Mr. Micawber, so magnificently resilient and rhetorical, is based on Dickens’s father, John, also a master of the punch bowl. By the 1840s, the making of punch was fast becoming an outdated, old-fashioned custom but one his son loved. According to this Esquire article by David Wondrich, “When he was among friends, it was his custom to brew up a bowl of punch, complete with a running disquisition on the techniques he was using and the ingredients he was deploying.”

esq-holiday-punch-drink-1212-lgHere’s Charles’s  own recipe for making three pints of punch:

Peel into a very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double hand-full of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy–if it not be a large claret-glass, say two.

Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. [L]et it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to Time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame.

Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again. At this crisis (having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon) you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe it will be a little sweeter presently.

Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven ten minutes, or on a hot stove one quarter of an hour. Keep it until it comes to table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours, take half the lemon peel out, or it will acquire a bitter taste.

The same punch allowed to cool by degrees, and then iced, is delicious. It requires less sugar when made for this purpose. If you wish to produce it bright, strain it into bottles through silk. These proportions and directions will, of course, apply to any quantity. (From a letter to “Mrs. F.”–Amelia Austin Filloneau–January 18, 1847)

At the end of A Christmas Carol Dickens mentions another punch, made with red wine and oranges, called smoking bishop in reference to its deep red color, when he has Scrooge tell Bob Cratchit, “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!”

Although I haven’t tried either punch, I’ve seen  smoking bishop  on the menu  at Cavanaugh’s Dark Horse, where the Dickens Fellowship’s Philadelphia branch meets. If it’s still there at our next meeting, I’ll give it a try–after my talk.

Dickens Fellowship Meeting

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dutch-treat lunch, noon

Meeting, 1:15

Talk: Joan Kane Nichols, Dickens and Dogs

Guests welcome.

Cavanaugh’s Headhouse Square (formerly The Dark Horse)

Pickwick Room

421 South 2nd Street




1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence

In November 1838, 23-year-old Catherine Dickens, the happily married mother of two—a one-year-old son, Charley, and an eight-month-old daughter, Mary—received a letter from Charles, away on a trip. It ended with these words: “God bless you my darling—I long to be back with you again, and to see the sweet Babs—Your faithful and most affectionate Husband.”

1858 photo

1858 photo

In June 1858, twenty years later Charles wrote to his best friend, John Forster, bemoaning his present marital unhappiness and tracing its source to that same time:

Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it. It is not only that she makes me uneasy and unhappy, but that I make her so too . . . we are strangely ill-assorted for the bond there is between us. . . . What is now befalling me I have seen steadily coming, ever since the days you remember when Mary was born; and I know too well that you cannot, and no one can, help me.

What went wrong? How did “my darling” turn into “poor Catherine”? More to the point, when did the marriage begin to go wrong for Dickens—almost from the beginning as he suggests, or only in more recent years?

 Charlie Takes a Wife

In 1834 George Hogarth, editor of London’s Evening Chronicle, hired Charles Dickens to write some articles for him. Growing fond of the talented and ambitious young man, Hogarth invited him to meet his family at his home south of the Fulham Road, a somewhat rural neighborhood sandwiched between Kensington Gardens and the Thames. Charles was impressed with the Hogarths, who four years earlier had arrived in England from Edinburgh, where Mr. Hogarth had been a friend of Charles’s idol, the famous author Walter Scott. They were a cultured and contented family, definitely a cut above his own.

Best of all, he liked 19-year-old Catherine, the oldest of the Hogarth’s nine children. Cheerful, bright, and happy, with a good sense of humor (though rumored to have a penchant for bad puns), warm-hearted and compliant, Catherine was everything Charles could want in a woman. Pretty too, even sexy in a quiet way, with her heavy-lidded blue eyes, what are often called “bedroom eyes,” uptilted nose, red lips, and shapely figure.

Unlike Charles’s former love, Maria Beadnell, Catherine was intelligent, an avid reader and a serious musician, a companion with whom he could discuss his work. And she was versed in the practical arts of housekeeping and child care. Though richly endowed with culture and children, the Hogarths, had few servants. Along with her 15-year-old sister, Mary, her best friend and closest companion, Catherine attended to domestic chores, including caring for her youngest siblings, a pair of one-year-old twins.

1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence

1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence

But she also enjoyed a normal share of excursions, gossip, sleepovers, flirting, and parties, such as the one Charles invited her to for his 23rd birthday. She wrote, “Mr. Dickens improves very much upon acquaintance he is very gentlemanly and pleasant.”

He became a constant visitor to her home, played with the younger children, made himself agreeable. Once, dressed as a sailor, “he jumped in at the window, danced a hornpipe, whistling the tune, jumped out again.” Little more than six months after they met, he proposed. Catherine accepted. How could she resist this handsome, clever, ambitious, amusing young man?  He called her, “darling Tatie,” “darling Pig,” “dearest Mouse.” He sent her a thousand kisses in his letters. He demanded she come make breakfast for him, so he could see her smiling face as soon as he woke up.

He was always “Charles in Charge.” Less than three weeks into their engagement, Catherine, miffed for some reason, treated him to a dose of cool reserve. Furious, he  returned home and dashed off a letter. Her “sudden and uncalled for coldness” had “surprised and deeply hurt” him. “If a hasty temper produce this strange behavior, acknowledge it. If a feeling of you know not what—a capricious restlessness of you can’t tell what, and a desire to teaze, you don’t know why—give rise to it—overcome it.” If she’s grown tired of him, she’s to say so at once. “I shall not forget you lightly, but you will need no second warning.” If she feels anger when she reads this letter “or to use a word more current with your sex—‘spirit’,” she’s to let it go.

Heeding his implied threat, she was careful to avoid showing ‘spirit’ again. She did complain of his frequent absences, however, saying he was more interested in his writing than in her. Everything he did, he insisted, using a well-worn excuse, he did for her.

Whether for Catherine or to gratify his own ambition, Charles did work hard. A respected journalist, he had a growing reputation as an author of stories and sketches. A publisher suggested he gather his sketches into a book. Thrilled, he wrote more sketches to fill up the volume. On February 7, 1836, his 24th birthday, Sketches by Boz, illustrations by George Cruikshank, was published to great success.

Three days later, publishers Chapman and Hall told him a well-known artist, Robert Seymour, had an idea for a series of engraved illustrations showing the comic hunting and fishing mishaps of a club of sporting gentleman. Would Dickens write short bits of text to accompany the illustrations? Charles, who had a good share of chutzpah, agreed on two conditions: first, instead of him writing text to accompany Seymour’s drawings, Seymour would illustrate text that Dickens would write; second, since Dickens knew nothing about sports (the topic was old hat anyway), he’d write about a wide range of scenes and people. Chapman and Hall agreed. Seymour, though irked that his plan had been twisted out of shape by this hack upstart, had to agree too.

Contracts were signed, deadlines decided. Now all Charles had to do was write the book—after first coming up with characters and a plot. “I thought of Mr. Pickwick,” he said. Two days later The Pickwick Papers was underway. The first number came out on March 31, 1836. Two days later, on April 2, he and Catherine were married

<to be continued>