Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm meets Charles Dickens

This year marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. He was born February 7 1812, and died at only 58 years of age in 1870. His output was so prolific – vast novels with hundreds of characters – and his life was so frenzied, that it seems miraculous that he lived as long as he did.

Apart from his writing, theatricals, travels, and editing magazines, he gave popular public readings from his books which were sell out performances. Audiences came in their thousands, and were disappointed to be turned away.

On August 21 1858 he came to Dublin, and gave two readings at the Rotunda theatre ( later the Ambassador ) to an audience of 3,000 each night.

Of his Dublin audience he remarked: “ Of their quickness as to the humour there can be no doubt.”

He also visited Cork, kissed the Blarney Stone, and performed at the Athenaeum (now the Opera House ) remarking; “ Cork was an immense success. We found upward of a thousand stalls let for the three readings. A great many people were turned away.”

Then he continued to Belfast where he exclaimed that his success was 'enormous!' (Dickens loved to be loved! ) 'better than Dublin; and the personal affection was something overwhelming.'

He made two journeys to America. He was mobbed wherever he appeared. His books were hugely popular, but Dickens disliked America mainly because it ignored any attempt at copyright; and pirated all his books.

Still his American tours made him vast sums of money (which he always appreciated ), and many friends. Here is an extract from Claire Tomalin's excellent Charles Dickens – A life ( published by Viking, 2011 ), which gives us a good picture of the man, and an affectionate meeting with a precocious young girl.

' The day after his reading in Portland, a 12-year-old girl who had not been able to attend, and who happened to be travelling on the same train, contrived to slip into an empty seat next to him. She was a spirited child and soon engaged him in conversation. She told him she had read almost all his books, some of them six times, adding ‘Of course I do skip some of the very dull parts once in a while; not the short dull parts but the long ones.’ Dickens found her irresistible, pressed her on which were the dull bits and made notes of what she said, laughing all the time. They held hands, he put his arm around her waist, and she gazed at his face, ‘deeply lined, with sparkling eyes and an amused waggish smile that curled the corners of his mouth under his grizzled moustache.’

She told him that David Copperfield was her favourite, and he said it was his too. He asked her if she had minded missing his reading very much, and in telling how much she had, tears came into her eyes, and to her astonishment she saw tears in his eyes too. Her flattery enchanted him and they talked all the way to Boston, where she remembered her mother was somewhere on the train and Dickens went with her to find her and introduce himself. The child’s name was Kate Douglas Wiggin.

Dickens and Kate Wiggin walked hand in hand along the platform as far as the carriage sent to meet him before saying good-bye. This was the year Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, a novel that established New England girls as modern heroines, and Kate Wiggin was in the same mould. She grew up to become a successful writer herself, produced her own best-seller, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and in 1912 published her account of the meeting with Dickens.


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