144 Handwritten Letters By Charles Dickens Reveal Anguish, Holiday Mishaps... And A Secret Gin Supply

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 32 months ago
144 Handwritten Letters By Charles Dickens Reveal Anguish, Holiday Mishaps... And A Secret Gin Supply
Dickens was sometimes known as 'The Great Magician', because of his talent for conjuring great stories and characters

Notes on Charles Dickens's secret gin stash; recollections of the time he got stuck up a mountain with another famous author — and his regrets about marrying — feature in 144 handwritten letters acquired from a private collection in the USA, by the Charles Dickens Museum in central London.

Gin punch, Dickens wrote to a housekeeper, was to be kept 'in ice under the table all the evening [to be given] only to myself or Mr Lemon'. Mark Lemon was the editor of Punch magazine, of which Dickens was a member of the 'Brotherhood'.

A letter from Dickens recalling when he got lost up a mountain with another famous author, from September 1857. Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

In a missive from 9 September 1857, Dickens writes about an untrustworthy guide during a walking tour of Cumberland:

[He] might wander where he would, but we would follow a water-course we lighted upon...This necessitated amazing gymnastics. In the course of which performances, [Wilkie] Collins fell into the said watercourse with his ankle sprained, and the great ligament of the foot and leg swollen I don't know how big...

A gold pen and pencil with case, once belonging to Dickens

In an unpublished letter from November 1843, Dickens — who wrote around 15 novels, and countless other works — speaks of his unrelenting schedule, saying of A Christmas Carol:

I have half done the Christmas book, and am resting for two days before going to Chuzzlewit — that is, if I can call anything rest, with that before me. Yesterday I walked a great deal. Today I am going out on horseback, for a thirty mile ride.

In another letter, written in Lausanne in September 1846, Dickens states: "I have been writing my head off since ten o'clock."

Charles Dickens describes his anguish at writing Little Nell's death. Click to enlarge

Other letters are concerned with his the characters in his books. Describing his vision for an illustration for The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens mentions to the illustrator, George Cattermole, "I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it."

Little Nell was clearly inspired by Dickens's sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, who died age 17 — and another of the objects acquired is a heart-shaped locket containing a lock of Dickens's hair.

Mary Hogarth's heart-shaped locket containing a lock of Dickens's hair.

In his correspondences, Dickens is less favourable to his wife; in one missive to the mother of his mistress, Ellen Ternan, Dickens explains "When I was young I made a miserable mistake, that is all."

A sketch of Dickens by Lawrence in chalk and pastels, c.1837 - previously thought to have been lost
'Fagin In The Condemned Cell', by George Cruikshank, in pen, pencil and wash

In all, the museum has acquired 300 items, thanks to various grants, including a (previously believed lost) portrait of Dickens by Samuel Laurence; playbills for stage productions of Dickens novels; a golden writing implement doubling up as both pen and pencil; and original watercolours of Oliver Twist and Fagin by the illustrator George Cruikshank.

A playbill for Christmas story The Cricket On The Hearth, 1846

The exciting new collection will be catalogued and conserved before being put online and in the rooms of Dickens's London home in Doughty Street — aka the Charles Dickens Museum — over the next two years.

Last Updated 05 February 2020