Charles Dickens Was a Busy Man and a ‘Mild Diva’

Eleven never-before-seen letters go on display at the Charles Dickens Museum

Two portraits of English novelist Charles Dickens
English writer Charles Dickens, circa 1860 Photo by John & Charles Watkins / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

“There are many people in this village of Higham, probably, who do not receive or dispatch in a year, as many letters as I usually receive and dispatch in a day,” Charles Dickens wrote in an 1866 letter to an I.H. Newman.

That letter, along with ten other of the author’s unpublished correspondences, are on display for the first time at the Charles Dickens Museum in London and online. The letters offer insight into the author’s writing projects, reading habits and relationship to his own celebrity status.

In the aforementioned letter to Newman, Dickens has what the Washington Post’s Adela Suliman describes as a “mild diva moment” when he complains about his English village of Higham, Kent, potentially losing Sunday postal service.

“I beg to say that I most decidedly and strongly object to the infliction of any such inconvenience upon myself,” Dickens writes. “I am on the best terms with my neighbours, poor and rich, and I believe they would be sorry to lose me. But I should be so hampered by the proposed restriction that I think it would force me to sell my property here, and leave this part of the country.”

The letter is “a great example of Dickens showing self-importance, his awareness of his great fame and position in society coming to the fore,” Emily Dunbar, the museum’s curator, tells the Guardian’s Jamie Grierson.

In other words, “he could be a bit of a diva,” Peter Orford, a scholar of English literature at the University of Buckingham and a biographer of Dickens, tells the Washington Post.

The Charles Dickens Museum acquired the 11 letters from a private seller in the United States in 2020. The purchase also included over 300 of the author’s personal items: portraits, sketches, playbills, books and other objects. The acquisition, valued at just over $2 million, was a “treasure trove—a true once-in-a-lifetime moment for the museum,” said Cindy Sughrue, the museum’s director, in a statement at the time. The letters went on display at the museum (and in its digital archives) yesterday.

Many of the Dickens letters are brief discussions of plans, alluding to a busy social calendar. Speaking to the Washington Post, Orford compares such letters to “text messages.” Even in those, though, the author flaunts his writing chops and signature flourishes.

In an 1836 letter, Dickens invites a James Harley to a meal with friends. “Say ‘no’ and I never forgive you,” he writes. “Say ‘yes’ and join us here at ten minutes past six next Thursday, and I shall always remain / Faithfully yours / CHARLES DICKENS.”

Like many Victorians, Dickens was a “prolific letter writer,” Orford tells the Washington Post. (This fall, an exhibition on Dickens’ interest in the paranormal will also feature his letters; in one, he even asked a friend if he knew of any haunted houses.) But before his death in 1870, Dickens destroyed many of his letters, even hosting a bonfire in 1860. The letters that have survived are a “major resource,” Orford says, for academics and enthusiasts like himself.

“There’s no diary,” Orford says, “so this is the best we get of what he’s thinking at the time.”