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Charles Dickens 'treasure trove' goes to London museum | Books


Charles Dickens was precise with instructions for his dinner party: no champagne and as little wine as possible for guests before the food and definitely only he and his magazine editor friend to be given gin punch during the meal.

“Basically don’t get them too trolleyed beforehand,” said Cindy Sughrue, explaining Dickens’s detailed note to his butler. He was also worried that some guests would not be up to spirits. “Dickens made his own gin punch, he loved it and and it could be quite strong.”

The note is part of a remarkable collection of letters, manuscripts, original artworks and personal effects that have been acquired by the Charles Dickens museum in London.





Dickens’s note to his butler



Dickens’s note to his butler with precise instructions to serve as little as wine as possible before food. Photograph: Charles Dickens Museum

Sughrue, the museum’s director, said they were given the opportunity to cherry-pick the items that came from an enormous private collection in the US. It was a “treasure trove,” she said. “A true once-in-a-lifetime moment for the museum.”

More than 300 items have been purchased thanks to a £1.22m grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and contributions totalling £1.8m from the Art Fund, Friends of the National Libraries and the Dickens Fellowship.

There are some true gems in the collection, said Sughrue, including Dickens’s note to his butler regarding dinner party arrangements. Under the heading “Wine”, he writes: “At supper, let there be a good supply of champagne all over the table. No champagne before supper, and as little wine as possible, of any sort, before supper.”

Also: “Mitchell or John [his staff] to keep gin punch in ice under the table, all evening, and to give it only to myself or Mr Lemon [Mark Lemon, the founding editor of Punch].”

The newly acquired letters give fascinating insights into Dickens’s character and state of mind. They are often just great reads in their own right.

Sughrue said: “I love his letters whether published or unpublished because they are immediate, always passionate, often very funny and gloriously descriptive … you get unfiltered Dickens.”

A good example is an unpublished letter that Dickens wrote from a rented house in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1846 while he was writing Dombey and Son.

Lausanne itself is dull, he writes, but around it is glorious. “Fancy walking from this place, as I was doing every day last week on to a sea of ice, unfathomable in depth, five and 20 miles long, and tossed up into immense waves, like the spires of Gothic Churches!

“Picture me clambering over this, with a great leaping pole, and half a dozen iron points buckled on to the soles of my shoes, and washing my face with snow, and going down to drink melted ice like chrystal [sic], and staggering and hauling myself up into places like Dreams.”

The letters touch on his marriage, relationships, his reception in America and the time he got stuck up a mountain with Wilkie Collins. Some of the phrases he uses sound modern, not Victorian. “I have been writing my head off since ten o’clock,” he writes in one.

Another letter shines a light on the grief he felt at the sudden death of his 17-year-old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, on whom he based Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. The letter to his illustrator gives instructions for Nell’s death scene.





Charles Dickens’s note about his sadness over the death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth.



Charles Dickens’s note about his sadness over the death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. Photograph: Charles Dickens Museum

“I want it to express the most beautiful repose and tranquility and wear something of a happy look, if death can,” he writes. “I am breaking my heart over this story and cannot bear to finish it.”

The hoard also includes a delicate unfinished drawing of Dickens in chalk and pastels by Samuel Laurence. This original was assumed to have been lost.

Sughrue said the anonymous collector had been a devoted Dickens fan since he read Oliver Twist as a child. He amassed a huge collection “with a real connoisseur’s eye; he knew what he was looking for”.

The museum’s chair, Mark Dickens – great-great-grandson of Charles – said the purchase was highly significant. “The museum already holds an impressive collection of Dickens-related material, and his quite staggering material brings us even closer to the man himself, his character, feelings, family and friends.”

The new acquisitions will be researched, catalogued and conserved before going on display online and at the museum in Doughty Street in London.

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