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Why Charles Dickens avoided Chicago

In 1867-8 Charles Dickens made his second and final visit to the United States. Unlike his first visit in 1842, when he only 30 and not long into his career as a novelist, he was now a famous personality and much sought-after as a public speaker.

Indeed, the main purpose of this visit was to give a series of public reading performances of passages from his works, much as he had done, very successfully, in Britain since 1858. The readings given in the States were hugely popular and made Dickens a lot of money. However, in certain quarters his popularity was less assured.

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Why Dickens Excluded Chicago

One such “black hole” for Dickens was Chicago, and for a very particular reason. Dickens decided to cut back on his original programme of readings and omit several cities from his itinerary. By this time in his life Dickens was in declining health, caused in part by the strain he put upon himself by the dramatic nature of his readings. One of the cities to miss out was Chicago, for which Dickens gave an inadequate apology, in the eyes of Chicagoans, by stating that it was better that Chicago should go into fits than he should.

However, another reason for giving Chicago a miss was that his younger brother, Augustus Dickens, had settled there in 1858 and indeed he had died there the year before Charles made his tour. Charles foresaw problems, but cutting Chicago from his itinerary was not going to make the problems go away – quite the opposite, in fact.

Augustus Newnham Dickens

Augustus Dickens had married Harriet Lovell, in London, in 1848. However, Harriet went blind two years later and Augustus separated from her. In 1858 Augustus left Britain for America, accompanied by Bertha Phillips, the daughter of an Irish barrister. The couple eventually settled in Chicago, where they lived as husband and wife and Bertha adopted the name of Bertha Dickens. They had three children together. However, the family was not well off financially and Augustus asked Charles for money, which Charles, who was offended by his brother’s conduct, refused to send. Augustus died from tuberculosis at the age of 39, leaving Bertha and her children in considerable need.

Criticism of Charles Dickens

When the Chicago Tribune got hold of the story it became a rod with which to beat the mean-spirited writer who had refused to visit their city and, even worse, refused to help his “sister in law” in her hour of need.

Charles was accused, in no uncertain terms, of gross hypocrisy in his “total want of consideration for the widow and children of his deceased brother”, given that his novels were full of incidents of generosity being shown to the poor and needy by characters who were made aware of their social responsibilities. Charles was accused of disregarding the tie of brotherhood and giving “more than a hint of chronic heartlessness”.

The Truth About Augustus and Bertha

However, what Charles Dickens knew, but the people of Chicago did not, was that Bertha was not the widow of Augustus at all. Indeed, Charles had been more than generous to Augustus’s real widow, Harriet, who was still living in England. Charles had no obligations at all to Bertha, but likewise no wish to reveal the truth and expose her as an adultress.

It was only after Charles had left the United States that the truth was eventually made known and apologies made in the American press, in May 1868. This revelation had nothing to do with Dickens, and it had the consequence that Dickens had wished to avoid, namely the exposure of Bertha. This in turn led to the worst possible outcome, because Bertha went into a decline and appears to have taken her own life, by an overdose of morphine, in December 1868.

Was Charles Dickens Right or Wrong?

So was Charles Dickens at fault in not supporting his brother’s mistress and her family? There is some evidence that he did in fact do so, in the form of an annuity shortly before her death. However, to have offered public support would have been very difficult for him.

For one thing, it would been insulting to Augustus’s true widow had he been seen to give support to the woman for whom Augustus had abandoned his wife when she had been in dire need. There is also the question of Charles and Augustus having broken off all communications, such that the Chicago Dickenses were no longer part of Charles’s family circle.

It should also be borne in mind that Charles had spent much of life being importuned for financial help from three generations of relatives, notably his father, several of his siblings and his children. Charles would have been in no hurry to set a precedent by supporting Bertha and her children.

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    • A few years ago I did a massive indexing job that meant that I had to read a massive amount of material about Dickens – this was one of the stories that came up. Dickens would have been in the wrong whatever he did, because the American newspapers were very “anti” at the time. Dickens had never been forgiven for the criticisms of Americans that he had written in Martin Chuzzlewit and elsewhere. He was also campaigning for international copyright laws that would have prevented American publishers from producing pirated editions of his works and not paying him a penny.

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