Tragedy Writ Large for Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was to write a compassionate letter to his wife after their daughter's death
Charles Dickens was to write a compassionate letter to his wife after their daughter's death

by Ray Setterfield


April 14, 1851Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine had ten children – an expensive number that the author apparently resented, having said privately that he wanted to stop at four.

Before he became famous and rich Dickens certainly found that supporting ten children was a challenge to his income. Astonishingly, he blamed his wife – who herself had come from a large family – for the predicament.

He also, it seems, was disappointed that none of his children appeared to possess the drive and determination that had been a feature of his own life, lamenting that he had “brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves.”

This is not to say Dickens did not love them. On that fatal day of April 14, 1851, his oldest daughter Mary recorded that her father had spent much of his time "playing with the children and carrying little Dora about the house and garden.”

Dora Annie Dickens was two days short of being eight months old. She was born at the time her father was writing David Copperfield and he gave her the same name as the child-bride of the book’s main character.

Some time after Dora’s birth her mother suffered a psychological breakdown and Dickens sent her to the countryside – Malvern in Worcestershire – to help her recover.

He visited her there frequently and did so on that terrible day of April 14. Dickens returned to London from Malvern because he was due to give a speech at the annual dinner of the General Theatrical Fund.

He was accompanied to the dinner by his friend, the biographer and critic John Forster. In his book, The Life of Charles Dickens (1871), Forster tells how he informed the author of his daughter’s death:

"Half an hour before [Dickens] rose to speak I had been called out of the room by one of the servants from Devonshire-terrace [the author’s London home] to tell me his child Dora was suddenly dead. She had not been strong from her birth; but there was just at this time no cause for special fear, when unexpected convulsions came, and the frail little life passed away.

“My decision had to be formed at once; and I satisfied myself that it would be best to permit his part of the proceedings to close before the truth was told to him. But as he went on . . . to speak of actors having to come from scenes of sickness, of suffering, aye, even of death itself, to play their parts before us, my part was very difficult.”

In a book of reminiscences about her father Mary wrote: "I remember what a change seemed to have come over my dear father's face when we saw him again . . . how pale and sad it looked.”

The next task for Dickens was to pass on the awful news to his recuperating wife Catherine. Fearing how she would be affected, he decided not to speak of death but to say that Dora was “very ill.” He wrote:

My Dearest Kate,

Now observe, you must read this letter very slowly and carefully. If you have hurried on thus far without quite understanding (apprehending some bad news) I rely on your turning back and read again.

Little Dora, without being in the least pain, is suddenly stricken ill. She awoke out of a sleep, and was seen in one moment to be very ill. Mind! I will not deceive you. I think her "very" ill.

There is nothing in her appearance but perfect rest. You would suppose her quietly asleep. But I am sure she is very ill, and I cannot encourage myself with much hope of her recovery. I do not – and why should I say I do to you, my dear? – I do not think her recovery at all likely.

. . . You will not like to be away, I know, and I cannot reconcile it to myself to keep you away. Forster, with his usual affection for us, comes down to bring you this letter and to bring you home, but I cannot close it without putting the strongest entreaty and injunction upon you to come with perfect composure — to remember what I have often told you, that we never can expect to be exempt, as to our many children, from the afflictions of other parents, and that if, – if – when you come, I should even have to say to you, "Our little baby is dead," you are to do your duty to the rest, and to shew yourself worthy of the great trust you hold in them.

If you will read this steadily I have a perfect confidence in your doing what is right.

Ever affectionately, Charles Dickens

Dora was interred in a tomb at London’s Highgate Cemetery where she would be joined by her mother when she died 28 years later.

Published: April 5, 2020

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