Happy Birthday, Dickens

Image: Charles Dickens, via Lenin Imports

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of someone who, hopefully, needs no introduction: Charles Dickens — a man who wrote so many letters (some 15’000 have survived) it’s a wonder he ever found time to write the novels he did. Last month I featured the bleakest of letters, in which Dickens informs his wife of the death of their daughter; today, in an effort to redress the balance, I’ve picked a few of his more light-hearted missives.

First, a lovely letter to a Mary Talfourd, the daughter of a close friend, in 1841. Mary had recently invited Dickens to her forthcoming birthday party, but unfortunately he couldn’t attend. Instead, he sent her the following endearing explanation.

(Source: Charles Dickens, by Belle Moses.)

Dec. 16th. 1841

My dear Mary,

I should be delighted to come and dine with you on your birthday and be as merry as I wish you to be always; but as I am going within a few days afterward, a very long distance from home, and shall not see any of my children for six long months, I have made up my mind to pass all that week at home for their sakes; just as you would like your papa and mamma to spend all the time they could possibly spare with you, if they were about to make a dreary voyage to America; which is what I am going to do myself.

But, though I cannot come to see you on that day, you may be sure I shall not forget that it is your birthday, and that I shall drink your health and many happy returns in a glass of wine, filled as full as it will hold. And I shall dine at half-past five myself, so that we may both be drinking our wine at the same time; and I shall tell my Mary (for I have got a daughter of the same name, but she is a very small one as yet) to drink your health, too, and we shall try and make believe that you are here, or that we are in Russell Square, which is the best thing we can do, I think, under the circumstances.

You are growing up so fast that by the time I come home again, I expect you will be almost a woman; and in a very few years we shall be saying to each other, ‘Don’t you remember what the birthdays used to be in Russell Square?’ and ‘How strange it seems!’ and ‘How quickly time passes!’ and all that sort of thing, you know. But I shall always be very glad to be asked on your birthday, and to come if you will let me, and to send my love to you, and to wish that you may live to be very old and very happy, which I do now with all my heart.

Believe me always,

My dear Mary,

Yours affectionately,


In 1838, as he completed his third novel, Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens received a helpful letter from a 6-year-old fan named Hasting Hughes. Young Hasting had been reading the previously serialised version of the story, and had some changes to suggest with regard to certain characters; Dickens replied as follows (take note of the clever excuse, in the final paragraph, for the letter’s brevity).

(Source: The Letters of Charles Dickens from 1833 to 1870.)

Doughty Street, London.

Dec. 12th. 1838.

Respected Sir,

I have given Squeers one cut on the neck and two on the head, at which he appeared much surprised and began to cry, which, being a cowardly thing, is just what I should have expected from him—wouldn’t you?

I have carefully done what you told me in your letter about the lamb and the two “sheeps” for the little boys. They have also had some good ale and porter, and some wine. I am sorry you didn’t say what wine you would like them to have. I gave them some sherry, which they liked very much, except one boy, who was a little sick and choked a good deal. He was rather greedy, and that’s the truth, and I believe it went the wrong way, which I say served him right, and I hope you will say so too.

Nicholas had his roast lamb, as you said he was to, but he could not eat it all, and says if you do not mind his doing so he should like to have the rest hashed to-morrow with some greens, which he is very fond of, and so am I. He said he did not like to have his porter hot, for he thought it spoilt the flavour, so I let him have it cold. You should have seen him drink it. I thought he never would have left off. I also gave him three pounds of money, all in sixpences, to make it seem more, and he said directly that he should give more than half to his mamma and sister, and divide the rest with poor Smike. And I say he is a good fellow for saying so; and if anybody says he isn’t I am ready to fight him whenever they like—there!

Fanny Squeers shall be attended to, depend upon it. Your drawing of her is very like, except that I don’t think the hair is quite curly enough. The nose is particularly like hers, and so are the legs. She is a nasty disagreeable thing, and I know it will make her very cross when she sees it; and what I say is that I hope it may. You will say the same I know—at least I think you will.

I meant to have written you a long letter, but I cannot write very fast when I like the person I am writing to, because that makes me think about them, and I like you, and so I tell you. Besides, it is just eight o’clock at night, and I always go to bed at eight o’clock, except when it is my birthday, and then I sit up to supper. So I will not say anything more besides this—and that is my love to you and Neptune; and if you will drink my health every Christmas Day I will drink yours—come.

I am,

Respected Sir,

Your affectionate Friend.


P.S. I don’t write my name very plain, but you know what it is you know, so never mind.

Finally, a humorous letter of complaint written by Dickens in 1863 to Sir John Bennett, the watchmaker responsible for recently cleaning a clock of his.

(Source: A Week’s Tramp in Dickens-Land, by William R Hughes.)

Gad’s Hill Place,
Higham by Rochester, Kent,
Monday night, Fourteenth September, 1863

My dear Sir,

Since my hall clock was sent to your establishment to be cleaned it has gone (as indeed it always has) perfectly well, but has struck the hours with great reluctance, and after enduring internal agonies of a most distressing nature, it has now ceased striking altogether. Though a happy release for the clock, this is not convenient to the household. If you can send down any confidential person with whom the clock can confer, I think it may have something on its works it would be glad to make a clean breast of,

Faithfully yours,