Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the great and popular Victorian novelist, author of famous works such as Great Expectations, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. Biographers say Dickens did keep diaries but that he destroyed them regularly; only one appears to have survived and this has been used to shed light on Dickens’s illicit affair with an actress. Otherwise, though, Dickens can be found as a main character in the diaries of his great friend, the actor William Charles Macready.
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, the BBC reports, have led global celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth - on 7 February 1812. Prince Charles laid a wreath at the author’s grave in Poets’ Corner as part of a service at Westminster Abbey; and the Royal couple have also visited the Charles Dickens Museum in London. Meanwhile, a special website has been set up with news of bicentenary events, exhibitions, and performances. The British Library has its own online exhibition.
There is plenty of biographical information about Dickens available online. Apart from Wikipedia, try the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, and Victorian Web. Several out-of-copyright biographies and memoirs are also freely available at Internet Archive (such as those by Mamie Dickens, John Forster, John Camden Hotten, and Sir Adolphus William Ward), as are countless versions of Dickens’s novels.
There is very little evidence of any diary writing that Dickens might have done. Biographers says he destroyed his diaries at the end of every year, as well as any letters he could get hold of. One diary - that for 1867 - was mislaid or stolen and didn’t resurface until 1943. The diary was edited by Felix Aylmer and published by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1959 as Dickens Incognito, a title that alludes to the secret nature of his adulterous relationship with the actress Nelly Ternan.
The same theme was tackled by Claire Tomalin - whose Charles Dickens: A Life, was published last year by Viking - in her 1990 book Dickens and Ternan: The Invisible Woman (also from Viking). Although not available online, it was reviewed by John Sutherland in the London Review of Books. Tomalin said, in her 1990 book, that scholars had squeezed the 1867 diary ‘like a tiny sponge for every drop of information it can yield’. She does admit, though, that the diary shows Dickens was spending about a third of his free time with Ternan, and lying about his movements. Otherwise, there is no trace of any Dickens diaries - the National Archives certainly has no mention of any.
But there is plenty of Dickens in the diaries kept by the actor William Charles Macready. He was born in London in 1793, and worked mostly on or with the London stage for 35 years from 1816-1851, including stints managing Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Though Dickens was 15 years younger, the two became firm friends soon after meeting in 1837. Macready’s diaries, edited by William Toynbee, and published in two volumes by Chapman & Hall in 1912, contain hundreds and hundreds of references to Dickens. The majority of these are in lists of people attending social gatherings of one sort or another, but many also give intimate glimpses of Dickens. Not only did Dickens dedicate his third novel, Nicholas Nickleby, to Macready, but he also gave his third child, Catherine, Macready as a middle name.
And so, to celebrate the bicentenary, here are a collection of Macready’s diary entries about his friend - all taken from the editions freely available at Internet Archive. (The image above of a young Dickens is also from the same source.)
16 June 1837
‘Sent to the theatre about the rehearsal, and after looking at the newspaper to ascertain the state of the King’s health - what an absurdity that the natural ailment of an old and ungifted man should cause so much perplexity and annoyance! - went to the Haymarket and rehearsed, with some care, Othello. Acted Othello in some respects very well, but want much attention to it still. [. . .] Forster came into my room with a gentleman, whom he introduced as Dickens, alias Boz - I was glad to see him.’ Editor’s footnote: ‘Thus began a friendship of the happiest and most genial description that was only terminated by Dickens’s death, thirty-three years afterwards. Dickens was then not more than twenty-five, and had not yet published any of his novels, though the Sketches by Box had brought him a good deal of reputation as a magazine contributor.’
5 December 1838
‘Dickens brought me his farce, which he read to me. The dialogue is very good, full of point, but I am not sure about the meagreness of the plot. He reads as well as an experienced actor would - he is a surprising man.’
17 September 1839
‘Letitia mentioned to-night that Forster had told them that Dickens intended to dedicate Nickleby to me. I was sorry he had mentioned it, for such an honour as great a one as a man can receive should not be divulged, for fear of accident.’
22 September 1839
‘Received a most kind letter from Dickens with the proof sheet of the dedication of Nickleby to me. Surely this is something to gratify me. . . Answered Dickens‘s letter, thanking him, as well as I could, for the high compliment conferred on me.’
5 October 1839
‘My whole morning was occupied in endeavouring to think of something to say in the speech for which I am engaged to propose Dickens‘s health. I went to town with Edward. Dressed, went with Edward to the Albion, Aldersgate Street, where we met Dickens, Maclise, Forster, [. . .], the publishers Bradbury & Evans, etc., the printers of Nickleby. We sat down to a too splendid dinner - the portrait of Dickens by Maclise was in the room. I had to begin what the Duke of Sussex terms “the business“ of the day, by proposing Dickens‘s health. I spoke of him as one who made the amelioration of his fellow-men the object of all his labours - and whose characteristic was philanthropy.’
23 February 1840
‘Walked out with Edward and called on Dickens, having seen his solicitor’s advertisement versus Bartley in the Examiner. Urged on him the necessity of arranging the quarrel with Bartley, and dissuaded him from answering any attack that B might make upon him next week. He showed me a letter he had prepared, but I requested him not to send it. He is quite in the wrong. He makes a contract, which he considers advantageous at the time, but subsequently finding his talent more lucrative than he had supposed, he refused to fulfil the contract.’
3 July 1840
‘After dinner read the number of Master Humphrey’s Clock very humorous wonderful Dickens! He had told me, as I left his house, that he should now stick to the single story.’
16 August 1840
‘Went to dine with Dickens, and was witness to a most painful scene after dinner. Forster, Maclise and myself were the guests. Forster got on to one of his headlong streams of talk (which he thinks argument) and waxed warm, and at last some sharp observations led to personal retorts between him and Dickens. He displayed his usual want of tact, and Dickens flew into so violent a passion as quite to forget himself and give Forster to understand that he was in his house, which he should be glad if he would leave. Forster behaved very foolishly. I stopped him; spoke to both of them and observed that for an angry instant they were about to destroy a friendship valuable to both. I drew from Dickens the admission that he had spoken in passion and would not have said what he said, could he have reflected; but he added he could not answer for his temper under Forster’s provocations, and that he should do just the same again. Forster behaved very weakly; would not accept the repeated acknowledgment communicated to him that Dickens regretted the passion, etc., but stayed, skimbling-skambling a parcel of unmeaning words, and at last finding he could obtain no more, made a sort of speech, accepting what he had before declined. He was silent and not recovered no wonder! during the whole evening. Mrs Dickens had gone out in tears. It was a very painful scene.’
20 August 1840
‘Called on Dickens, and walked with him to the sale of Louis Napoleon’s effects, where truly enough we saw manifest indications of the one idea being all his intellectual stock. Talked much with Dickens, whose views on politics and religion seem very much to square with mine.’
19 October 1840
‘Forster gave me a mem. of the toasts to be drunk at Dickens’s dinner to-morrow. What would I not do for dear Dickens?’
8 October 1841
‘Coming home - having ordered the driver to pass on when I stopped at Dickens’s - found Forster had been there, and that Dickens, who had been very ill, wished to see me after dinner. I immediately went to him, and to my great concern and distress found him in bed, having this morning undergone an operation. I suffered agonies, as they related all to me, and did violence to myself in keeping myself to my seat. I could scarcely bear it. My nerves are threads, or wires, that tremble when touched. I sat with him above an hour. Poor fellow! Thank God all is so well!’
12 March 1844
‘Dickens’s misjudgment is as clear to me as the noonday sun, and much is to be said in explanation and excuse, but Dickens is a man who fills such a place in the world’s opinion, the people cannot think that he ought to need an excuse alas! the greatest man is but a man!’
21 December 1845
‘Read the paper, in which was a most savage attack on Dickens and his last book The Cricket that looks to me like the heavy and remorseless blow of an enemy, determined to disable his antagonist by striking to maim him or kill if he can, and so render his hostility powerless. I was sorry to see in a newspaper so powerful as the Times an attack so ungenerous, so unworthy of itself; [. . .] Alas! for my poor dear friend Dickens! [. . . Forster] told me that Dickens was so intensely fixed on his own opinions and in his admiration of his own works (who could have believed it?) that he, Forster, was useless to him as a counsel, or for an opinion on anything touching upon them, and that, as he refused to see criticisms on himself, this partial passion would grow upon him, till it became an incurable evil. I grieved to hear it.’
12 March 1847
‘Looked over The Old Curiosity Shop of Dickens. He is a great genius.’
3 December 1847
‘After tea we had two rubbers at whist! Dickens gave me the bound volume of Copperfield. [. . .] Read last number of Copperfield, which is very, very clever full of genius. Certainly he, dear Dickens, is a most extraordinary man!’