Derbyshire in the life of Charles Dickens

PUBLISHED: 00:18 17 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:19 20 February 2013

Derbyshire in the life of Charles Dickens

Derbyshire in the life of Charles Dickens

Peter Seddon reveals the county's links with the master storyteller whose tales have become a Christmas favourite and about whom a global festival is planned for next year – <br/><br/>the 200th anniversary of his birth

Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back the delusions of our childish days, that can recall to the old the pleasures of their youth, and transport the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and quiet home.

That sentiment from Pickwick Papers evokes the traditional festive idyll to which the adjective Dickensian is routinely applied. Roast chestnuts, lamp-lit windows, a lavish table, roaring fires, cheery family gatherings and above all the heart-warming gift of benevolence to ones fellows.

Indeed historians consider the master storyteller Charles Dickens (1812-70) to have had more influence on the way we celebrate Christmas today than any other individual. His vivid prose in such iconic tales as A Christmas Carol (1843) sparked the romantic revival of Yuletide traditions just when the festival had fallen out of favour. So what better time for Dickens with a Derbyshire twist?

Alas the county has no claim on the scribes birthright. Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Portsmouth, on 7th February 1812, second of eight children. He moved as a boy to Chatham, Kent, thence to London, and later in life to his home Gads Hill in Higham, Kent, where he died in June 1870 aged 58. He had married, sired ten children, separated, taken solace with a young actress, and made his name as the most popular author of the Victorian age.

Yet during that remarkably full life he did find time to visit Derbyshire, twice giving public performances in Derby, and cultivating working relationships with three eminent characters firmly linked to the county the 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House, his Graces celebrated gardener Joseph Paxton, and Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts of Foremarke Hall, who on inheriting a vast fortune left Derbyshire to pursue philanthropic causes in London.

But prior to making such grand acquaintances, Dickens had known hardship, witnessing first hand the seedier side of life so ably portrayed in many of his works. Nevertheless a sound education and enquiring mind led Dickens into journalism and writing. His debut novel Pickwick Papers was published in 1836, and when he first visited Derby in 1852 he was already a literary celebrity working on his ninth bestseller.

The genesis of that visit owed a great deal to the Bachelor Duke of Devonshire, William George Spencer Cavendish (1790-1858). Dickens had begun to produce theatrical entertainments as an adjunct to his writing, and in 1851 agreed to stage the new comedy Not So Bad As We Seem written by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton. Indeed, on a wave of optimism Dickens promised a Royal Gala performance for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Yet the budget was tight and hire of theatres fit for royalty did not come cheap. Hoping his celebrity might carry weight, Dickens made a bold move. On 4th March 1851 he wrote to the Duke at Chatsworth asking if his grand London residence Devonshire House might be put at his disposal for use as a theatre. The two men had met previously only in passing. But the Duke proved a fervent admirer, replying within hours: I am truly happy to offer you my earnest and sincere co-operation. My services, my house and my subscription will be at your orders. And I beg you to let me see you before long, because I have long had the greatest wish to improve our acquaintance a resounding result for Dickens. And the star-struck Duke fulfilled his own wish too, Dickens making a social visit to Chatsworth in October that year. He also stayed on a number of occasions at the coaching inn on Chatsworth Estate, the Devonshire Arms at Beeley.

Yet more Derbyshire-linked support came from his erstwhile business partner Joseph Paxton (1803-65). In 1845 Paxton had been instrumental in launching a new newspaper, the Daily News, and had appointed Dickens its editor. Although the novelist quit after ten weeks, the two men remained on amiable terms. And for the Devonshire House extravaganza, the designer of the Crystal Palace tellingly dubbed by a vastly overworked Dickens The busiest man in England created a remarkable portable stage which transported from venue to venue.

The royal performance in which Dickens himself had an acting part proved a huge success, cementing his second persona as a theatrical impresario and performer. In consequence he took the production to walk the 16 miles between the towns. On arrival in Derby the entire troupe put up at the Royal Hotel, and the next days performance at the Mechanics Institute Lecture Hall proved a soaring triumph.

The Derby Mercury reported that a host of luminaries had attended, including the Duke, who provided his own private orchestra for the occasion and for whom great cheers went up as the popular nobleman entered the hall. On stage Dickens carried all before him, delivering a series of hilarious caricatures in various guises. But the visit was fleeting next day, after a brief tour of the Arboretum Park with which Dickens expressed himself much pleased, he left Derby bound for a performance in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Charles Dickens treasured the patronage of the Duke of Devonshire, and knew the art of flattery. He wrote to Chatsworth: We thought the Derby people very quick and intelligent. They put us in high spirits, and I hear they were most thoroughly pleased. Yet to a neutral correspondent he archly observed: At Derby we encountered no end of minor radiances. But the major one stayed loyal to his literary friend until his death at Haddon Hall in 1858 the ebullient Bachelor Duke roundly espoused the Dickens name in aristocratic circles.

Notwithstanding such admirers, Dickens made his greatest mark as a man of the people. His works were shot through with social conscience. Recognition of this drew him into a lasting friendship with Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906).

Daughter of Sir Francis Burdett of Foremarke Hall, she later recalled her ideal childhood in rural Derbyshire. But through her mothers father Thomas Coutts, founder of the famous London bank she inherited at the age of 23 a vast 3million fortune. Adding Coutts to her name as specified in the will, she moved to London and embarked on a philanthropic mission to help the less fortunate, a quest which earned her the laudable sobriquet Queen of the Poor.

She recognised in Dickens a kindred spirit. Having previously made his acquaintance, she wrote to him in May 1846 about setting up a new style of improvement home for the redemption of fallen women. Dickens embraced the cause, founding the ground-breaking Urania Cottage in London and taking an active part in its running. He and Angela Burdett-Coutts became firm friends and confidantes. For over 20 years they devoted their energies, and Angelas money, to helping the poor.

She also encouraged Dickens in his writing, earlier serving up the template for the fabled inebriate nurse Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit on a long tour the next year, the large company arriving in Derby on 24th August 1852 from their previous venue in Nottingham. Despite the arduous schedule the 40-year-old novelist chose (1844). Sarah Gamp was based on a ghastly character who briefly nursed Angelas closest female companion. Angela described the wretched woman to Dickens in such amusing detail that he could not resist the material. That he valued Angelas friendship is clear. He dedicated the novel to Miss Burdett-Coutts with the true and earnest regard of the author.

Dickens career continued to flourish on several fronts, including the popular public readings he delivered in London and the provinces, when he read from his works in flamboyant theatrical style. This afforded him a close connection with his following, and brought him to Derby for a second appearance at the Mechanics Hall on 22nd October 1858. But this time he was less well-received. The packed house was sorely disappointed that he delivered extracts from his less popular works rather than the advertised favourite Christmas Carol.

His controversial selections included sundry tales of Mrs Gamp, and the Derby Mercury stirred up a great furore about the change of programme and its vulgar tone: We think Mr Dickens very ill-advised. It was a breach of good taste to obtrude the gross remarks of Mrs Gamp on the ears of the young ladies who formed so large a part of the audience. We are inclined to doubt whether Mr Dickens would refill the Lecture Hall on a subsequent visit. He has certainly seriously damaged the future of his reputation and influence.

Needless to say, Dickens took the flop in his stride along with the substantial takings. His reputation survived the suitably shocked
blushes of Derby maidenhood to such
a degree that he remains one of the best-selling authors in literary history. And when he died on 9th June 1870 large sectors of the nation genuinely mourned his passing.

Let us part company with Charles Dickens in festive spirit. He wrote of the Christmas season: It is a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time, the only one I know of in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut up hearts freely, and think of other people. With that noble sentiment in mind have a Dickens of a Christmas!

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