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Charles Dickens Museum Acquires Trove of Author’s Unpublished Letters

The London museum recently purchased more than 300 literary artifacts assembled by a private collector in the U.S.

Charles Dickens, seen at his desk in 1858 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonianmag.com

On Charles Dickens’ 208th birthday, the London museum that bears his name celebrated by unveiling more than 300 recently acquired artifacts related to the esteemed author. The museum purchased the items—including letters, writing implements, jewelry, artwork and books—from a private collector based in the United States for £1.8 million, or about $2.3 million USD.

The acquisition represents a “treasure trove,” says Cindy Sughrue, director of the Charles Dickens Museum, in a statement, “ … a true once-in-a-lifetime moment for the museum.”

Located in Dickens’ first family home, the museum testifies to the literary giant’s life and career, exhibiting his writing desk, handwritten drafts and original home furnishings. Dickens moved to the west London townhouse, where he wrote such classics as Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, in 1837.

Reading the first of these novels, Oliver Twist, inspired the anonymous American collector to begin amassing mementos of Dickens’ life, reports Mark Brown for the Guardian. The individual spent 40 years curating his holdings—described in the statement as the “most substantial private collection of Dickens material in the world”—with a “real connoisseur’s eye,” as Sughrue tells the Guardian.

Unlike recent research centered on Dickens’ surprisingly controversial death and burial, the 300-plus items acquired by the museum focus on the author’s personal life and creative process. The trove includes 144 handwritten letters, 25 of which are previously unpublished.

One letter, headlined “Wine,” includes instructions for a dinner party. Dickens writes, “At supper, let there be a good supply of champagne all over the table. No champagne before supper, and as little wine as possible, of any sort, before supper.”

The author adds that his favorite drink will be too strong for all party guests except Mark Lemon, founding editor of British satirical magazine Punch. Per Dickens, “[Staff members] Mitchell or John to keep gin punch in ice under the table, all evening, and to give it only to myself or Mr. Lemon.”

In a rare set of complete correspondence between Dickens and a fan, meanwhile, the author gives advice to a young Danish woman and writer.

“Let me have the great gratification of believing, one day, that the correspondence you have opened with me, had done some good, and made a lighter and more cheerful heart than it found in you,” says Dickens, as quoted by BBC News’ Rebecca Jones.

Other letters suggest exercise was key to maintaining the author’s writing routine. Dickens regularly regaled colleagues with tales of long walks, horseback rides and boating.

“Picture me clambering over this, with a great leaping pole, and half a dozen iron points buckled on to the soles of my shoes, and washing my face with snow, and going down to drink melted ice like chrystal [sic], and staggering and hauling myself up into places like Dreams,” writes Dickens in one letter, according to the Guardian. In another, he says, “I have been writing my head off since ten o’clock.”

Besides letters, the new additions to the museum’s collection include an unfinished portrait of the author, lockets belonging to him and his sister-in-law, a gold pen-pencil writing implement, and original Oliver Twist watercolor illustrations by artist George Cruikshank. The items will be cataloged and conserved before they are exhibited online and in the museum.

“150 years after the death of Dickens,” says Sughue in the statement, “it is wonderful to be able to bring such a rich and important collection to the museum at his first family home.”

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