Great novelist celebrated against his dying wishes
Charles Dickens forbade any memorials or statues of himself. But as the 200th anniversary of his birth approaches, plans for a monument are afoot. Should we let him rest in peace?
‘I don’t want to be examined at the inquests and I don’t want to write about it. It could do no good either way, and I could only seem to speak about myself, which, of course, I would rather not do. I am keeping very quiet here.’
In this letter to a friend after he nearly died in the terrible Staplehurst train crash, Charles Dickens, then one of the most famous men in the country, explained that he wanted to keep a low profile.
Partly, he wanted to stay out of the way to keep his complicated personal life secret: he was with his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan and her mother when their train ran off a damaged bridge.
But this urge to lie low extended to the novelist’s final wishes as well.
He was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey after a public campaign to recognise him alongside other great writers and composers. But the funeral was a quiet, private affair. His will, written in 1869 the year before his death, commanded: ‘I conjure my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial, or testimonial whatever.’
‘I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works, and to the remembrance of my friends.’
But next year the city of Portsmouth, where he was born, wants to mark the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth with a monument. A worldwide fundraising campaign is underway.
Rochester also wants to get in on the act, claiming to have been 'his spiritual home'. He lived in the city as a child and his final home, Gad's Hill, was nearby. It features as a location in several novels, including his last, unfinished thriller, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’.
It looks as though Dickens’s dread of statues is to be ignored.
And humility was not always the hallmark of this energetic and larger-than-life character.
Dickens loved acting as well as writing, and the sell-out public readings of dramatic moments from his novels were so affecting that audiences regularly fainted or were made ill by emotion.
The exertions of acting out scenes such as Nancy’s murder from Oliver Twist also destroyed the performer’s health, and forced him to abandon the limelight.
What the Dickens?
If, for this great man, the book or the play was the thing, should we ignore him and put up the monument whose very idea made him ‘shiver and tremble’?
Or should the author who created so many memorable characters, and who was such a compelling character himself, be properly commemorated?
- Should a person’s dying wish be respected?
- If you admire someone’s creative work, their writing or painting or music, do you have to admire their character too?
- Design a monument that commemorates a great writer or artist, Dickens himself maybe, without using their own portrait.
- Write a speech celebrating the life of someone you admire and perform it. Try to get your audience emotionally involved.
Some People Say...
“We don’t need any more statues of dead white males.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Wouldn't anyone be proud if they had a public memorial?
- Dickens, although a major celebrity in his day, wanted to be more like his hero, William Shakespeare, a man of obscure birth and hardworking low social rank. 'I believe Shakespeare has left his best monument in his works,' Dickens wrote.
- But he earned considerable amounts through self-promotion and his reading tours.
- Dickens grew up very poor. His father was in debtors' prison and young Charles had to work ten hours a day in a factory. So when he 'made it' he was interested in money. He also had ten children, a wife and a secret mistress to support.
- Maybe all these pleas to be left in peace are humbug then?
- Perhaps. And there are already enough Dickens-themed tourist attractions to offend him. The only life size statue, though, is in the USA.