Even in Death, Charles Dickens Left Behind a Riveting Tale of Deceit

From Smithsonian Magazine:

When Charles Dickens died, he had spectacular fame, great wealth and an adoring public. But his personal life was complicated. Separated from his wife and living in a huge country mansion in Kent, the novelist was in the thrall of his young mistress, Ellen Ternan. This is the untold story of Charles Dickens’ final hours and the furor that followed, as the great writer’s family and friends fought over his final wishes.

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While details such as the presence of Ternan at the author’s funeral have already been discovered by Dickensian sleuths, what is new and fresh here is the degree of maneuvering and negotiations involved in establishing Dickens’ ultimate resting place.

Dickens’ death created an early predicament for his family. Where was he to be buried? Near his home (as he would have wished) or in that great public pantheon, Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey (which was clearly against his wishes)?

“The Inimitable” (as he sometimes referred to himself) was one of the most famous celebrities of his time. No other writer is as closely associated with the Victorian period. As the author of such immortal classics as Oliver TwistDavid Copperfield and A Christmas Carol, he was constantly in the public eye. Because of the vivid stories he told, and the causes he championed (including poverty, education, workers’ rights, and the plight of prostitutes), there was great demand for him to represent charities, and appear at public events and visit institutions up and down the country (as well as abroad—particularly in the United States). He moved in the best circles and counted among his friends the top writers, actors, artists and politicians of his day.

Dickens was proud of what he achieved as an author and valued his close association with his public. In 1858 he embarked on a career as a professional reader of his own work and thrilled audiences of thousands with his animated performances. This boost to his career occurred at a time when his marital problems came to a head: He fell in love with Ternan, an 18-year-old actress, and separated from his wife, Catherine, with whom he had ten children.

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Dickens was careful to keep his love affair private. Documentary evidence of his relationship with Ternan is very scarce indeed. He had wanted to take her with him on a reading tour to America in 1868, and even developed a telegraphic code to communicate to her whether or not she should come. She didn’t, because Dickens felt that he could not protect their privacy.

On Wednesday, June 8, 1870, the author was working on his novel Edwin Drood in the garden of his country home, Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester, in Kent. He came inside to have dinner with his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth and suffered a stroke. The local doctor was summoned and remedies were applied without effect. A telegram was sent to London, to summon John Russell Reynolds, one of the top neurologists in the land. By the following day the author’s condition hadn’t changed, and he died at 6:10pm on June 9.

Accepted wisdom concerning Dickens’ death and burial is drawn from an authorized biography published by John Forster: The Life of Charles Dickens. Forster was the author’s closest friend and confidant. He was privy to the most intimate areas of his life, including the time he spent in a blacking (boot polish) warehouse as a young boy (which was a secret, until disclosed by Forster in his book), as well as details of his relationship with Ternan (which were not revealed by Forster, and which remained largely hidden well into the 20th century). Forster sought to protect Dickens’ reputation with the public at all costs.

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In his will (reproduced in Forster’s biography), Dickens had left instructions that he should be:

Buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial; that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed; and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity.

Forster added that Dickens’ preferred place of burial—his Plan A—was “in the small graveyard under Rochester Castle wall, or in the little churches of Cobham or Shorne,” which were all near his country home. However, Forster added: “All these were found to be closed,” by which he meant unavailable.

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Forster claims in the biography that the media led the way in agitating for burial in the abbey. He singles out the Times, which, in an article of January 13, 1870, “took the lead in suggesting that the only fit resting place for the remains of a man so dear to England was the abbey in which the most illustrious Englishmen are laid.” He added that when the dean of Westminster, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, asked Forster and members of the Dickens family to initiate what was now Plan C, and bury him in the abbey, it became their “grateful duty to accept that offer.”

The private funeral occurred early in the morning of Tuesday, June 14, 1870, and was attended by 14 mourners. The grave was then left open for three days so that the public could pay their respects to one of the most famous figures of the age. Details of the authorized version of Dickens’ death and burial were carried by newspapers in the English-speaking world and beyond. Dickens’ estranged wife Catherine received a message of condolence from Queen Victoria, expressing “her deepest regret at the sad news of Charles Dickens’s death.”

The effect that Dickens’ death had on ordinary people may be appreciated from the reaction of a barrow girl who sold fruits and vegetables in Covent Garden Market. When she heard the news, she is reported to have said, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine