This piece was published in Winter 2004
The text here may not be identical to the written text and does not include the footnotes

From The Dickensian Winter 2004 Vol 100 No.464 pp197-208


How and why Dickens burned tens of thousands of letters

There is no doubt that Charles Dickens burned most of his letters and papers, first in a bonfire in 1860 and then routinely afterwards. But apart from three letters of his own which describe the event, there is only one other eye-witness account of this bonfire of the vanities at Gad’s Hill Place on 3 September 1860. This essay shows that account to be false; deduces who really was with Dickens that day; and offers a new explanation of why he consigned papers and letters from the greatest literary and social figures of the nineteenth century to the flames that summer day.

The start
On Tuesday 4 September 1860, Dickens wrote a long letter to William Henry Wills, the sub-editor of his weekly periodical Household Words, who was staying in Wales. At the end of it, almost as an afterthought, he added

‘Yesterday I burnt, in the field at Gad’s Hill, the accumulated letters and papers of twenty years. They sent up a smoke like the Genie when he got out of the casket on the seashore; and as it was an exquisite day when I began, and rained very heavily when I finished, I suspect my correspondence of having overcast the face of the Heavens.’

It was not of course his correspondence that went up in smoke. It was letters to him. Four years later Dickens confirmed the value and quantity he had burnt. Late in 1864, the Dean of Rochester, Samuel Reynolds Hole was considering writing a biography of the artist and cartoonist John Leech who had just died. He wrote to Dickens asking if he had any letters or notes from Leech. Dickens replied

‘There is not in my possession one single note of his writing. A year or two ago, shocked by the misuse of private letters of public men, which I constantly observed, I destroyed a very large and very rare mass of correspondence. It was not done without pain, you may believe, but, the first reluctance, conquered, I have steadily abided by my determination to keep no letters by me, and to consign all such papers to the fire.’

Dickens’s reasons behind the burning were set out the following year in a letter to his friend, the actor William Charles Macready who was also enquiring about letters Dickens may have had, in this case from Cornelius Felton.

‘Daily seeing improper uses made of confidential letters, in the addressing of them to a public audience that has no business with them, I made, not long ago, a great fire in my field at Gad’s Hill, and burnt every letter I possessed. And now I always destroy every letter I receive - not on absolute business, - and my mind is, so far, at ease.’

Dickens had seen a letter of his own misused in this way or, as he put it, ‘violated’. Written in 1858 at the time of his separation from his wife, Dickens sent the letter privately to his business associate Arthur Smith setting out his version of the reasons for the end of his relationship with Catherine. It accused ‘two wicked persons’ of linking the separation with ‘a young lady…virtuous and spotless’. Smith was told that he should show it ‘to any one who wishes to do me right, or to any one who may have been misled into doing me wrong.’ But in August 1858 it found its way into an American newspaper and thence into newspapers in the UK. Dickens was mortified. It even resurfaced in the New York Times in 1869.

The resultant rows led to his parting with several close friends, including Mark Lemon, and to the sale of Household Words and the establishment by Dickens of its successor All The Year Round.

The year of the bonfire was an emotional time for Dickens. His children were growing up and leaving home and his daughter Kate, aged 20, married in July 1860. He had bought Gad’s Hill Place in March 1856 and taken vacant possession of it a year later. But he had stayed on at Tavistock House, the family home in London, until the end of August 1860. The weekend before he lit his bonfire he had moved his final possessions to Gad’s Hill Place and left the keys for Tavistock House for the new owner.

We can get some idea of how many letters were in the ‘very large and very rare mass of correspondence’ burned in the ‘great fire in my field at Gad’s Hill’ from the letters Dickens wrote. Pilgrim identifies 14,252 letters from Dickens – and those are just the survivors of 130 years or more. It is reasonable to assume that he received a similar number. And they were just about all burned, either on 3 September 1860 or as part of his subsequent policy.

We know from the letters to Hole and Macready that he burned letters from Cornelius Felton and John Leech. There is little direct evidence who the others were from. But we can assume they included letters from people he wrote to such as publishers Bradbury & Evans, Richard Bentley, and Chapman and Hall; literary figures including Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Henry Lewes, Alfred Tennyson, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and Edmund Yates; artists like John Millais and Daniel Maclise; and other Victorian giants such as Charles Babbage and Thomas Carlyle. Tens of thousands of key historical documents perished in Dickens’s flames. Not so much the inimitable as the inimical.

Georgina Hogarth, Dickens’s sister-in-law and housekeeper, claimed that some letters were spared – at least in 1860. At the turn of the century she wrote in a letter that he had another bonfire at Gad’s Hill in 1869 in which he burned ‘all the letters he had kept from every one’.

The bonfire of thousands of letters from major literary and political figures was not referred to openly in the immediate aftermath of Dickens’s unexpected death on 9 June 1870. His friend John Forster took on the role of official biographer and chose not to mention it in his partial and chronologically confused Life of Charles Dickens published in 1874. But when the first edition of Dickens’s letters appeared in 1880, edited by his daughter Mary and his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, the two key letters to Wills and Morley were included in it and the bonfire entered the public domain. More information emerged in 1891 when many of Dickens’s surviving letters to Wilkie Collins were published in New York and then London. They were edited by Lawrence Hutton and in his introduction he quotes the passage Dickens wrote to Macready (though with the wrong date of 1 March 1855) to explain why ‘It is not possible to print herewith Collins’s replies’.

In 1892 The Reverend Samuel Hole published the letter to him and a decade later Dickens’s biographer Frederic Kitton made explicit reference to the bonfire, quoting from the Wills and Macready letters and adding

‘This is probably the most valuable bonfire on record as regards the nature of its constituents; it is difficult to conceive what sum could be obtained at the present time by the disposal of such an extensive collection of autographs, which must have had a remarkable literary value as well as a pecuniary one.’

In 1912, the 1860 letter to his sub-editor Wills was printed again in a collection of Dickens’s letters to him, together with this new letter to Wills, dated 30 March 1869

‘All well and brilliant personally. I have had a great burning of papers in your room – have destroyed everything not wanted – and have laid in a stock of Dictionaries and reference-books.’

This letter adds nothing to the accounts of the bonfire but confirms that Dickens kept his resolution to burn his papers to within a year of his death.

In 1913 John Bigelow, at one time the Consul to the US Embassy in Paris, wrote in his autobiography that Dickens had told him ‘he had great quantities of these letters [from Sydney Smith] which he burned. I told him he deserved to have been burned with them’.

Further editions of Dickens’s letters, including the much more comprehensive Nonesuch edition, which printed many previously unseen letters and restored many censored passages, added nothing to the knowledge about the bonfire – even Samuel Hole’s letter was omitted. For nearly 70 years after Dickens’s death these three letters remained the key sources for the bonfire.

In 1939 Gladys Storey published her book Dickens and Daughter. Storey had befriended Dickens’s second daughter Kate who married the writer and artist Charles Allston Collins in 1860. He died in 1873 and within a year she married another artist, Carlo Edward Perugini.

In her book, Storey passes on her recollections of Kate’s reminiscences. But Kate was already an old woman when she recounted these tales to her friend during ‘the many interesting chats and laughter which evolved on those Sunday afternoons, evenings, and other days spent in [her]…company.’ Storey does not say when she wrote down her recollections of Kate’s reminiscences, but her book was not published until ten years after Kate died. So the account is old recollections of someone else’s even older reminiscences. For that reason, Dickens scholars have treated the information in her book with care. Rightly so.

The book contains the following account, apparently by the eye-witness Kate, of Dickens burning his letters.

‘On the afternoon of September the 3rd, Dickens having decided to destroy his accumulation of papers and letters, a bonfire was made in a field at the back of the house, whence Katie and her two brothers helped to carry basket after basket full of correspondence from all sorts of people, including old friends like Washington Irving, Carlyle, Thackeray, Tennyson and others, which proceeding greatly distressed Katie, who begged her father to save even a few letters.

‘We should always remember,’ he said in reply, ‘that letters are but ephemeral: we must not be affected too much either by those which praise us or by others written in the heat of the moment.’ As the contents of the last basket was emptied on the burning mass Dickens remarked most seriously:

‘Would to God every letter I had ever written was on that pile.’

Henry Dickens recollected years afterwards that he and his brother had ‘roasted onions on the ashes of the great!’’

Despite a certain scepticism about Storey, this account at least has been widely believed and quoted in evidence of the events. Even the definitive Pilgrim edition of Dickens’s letters uses the passage to state that ‘Katie and her two brothers…carried ‘basket after basket’ of letters from correspondents’ and states that the two brothers present were ‘probably Henry and Plorn’. At the time they would have been 11 and 8.

But it is now clear that Kate was not there. On 17 July 1860 she had married Charles Allston Collins at the church of St Mary the Virgin at Higham, near Gad’s Hill Place and that same day they went to Dover en route to France for their honeymoon. The trip turned into a very long stay. Charles decided early in August 1860 to extend their honeymoon and take a slow journey round France, travelling in a small horse drawn carriage. He intended to write a book about their experiences. We know exactly where Charles and Kate were on the day of the bonfire from his letters to his mother – now at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York – and from the book he wrote A Cruise Upon Wheels published in 1862.

In the first few days of September Kate and Charles travelled from Calais to Amiens on their way to Paris in a small carriage pulled by ‘a very handsome white mare’ called Bijou. Kate spent Monday 3 September 1860, the day her father lit his bonfire, approximately 95 miles from Gad’s Hill travelling from St. Omer to St. Pol.

If Storey was wrong about Kate being there, was she right about the time at which the burning took place? She says the bonfire was in ‘the afternoon’. Dickens does not mention the time though he is very specific about the weather ‘it was an exquisite day when I began, and rained very heavily when I finished’.

The closest meteorological record to Gad’s Hill for 3 September 1860 was kept at Greenwich Observatory, 20 miles west and slightly to the north. That report says there were clear skies during the morning up to mid-day, but the afternoon was cloudy with showers of rain. It was a warm day, peaking at 66F (19C) with little wind. That implies Dickens began the fire in the late morning, the baskets of letters and papers were carried to it for a couple of hours, and then as he finished, perhaps around 1.30pm, it ‘rained very heavily’. The distance between Greenwich and Gad’s Hill Place means that we cannot be certain as to when the rain reached Gad’s Hill. Depending on the wind and temperature, it could have been in the late morning or the early afternoon. But finishing before two would have fitted in with lunch.

Within that time slot – about midday to 3 o’clock – Kate and Charles were half-way through the day’s journey, lunching in an auberge in a small village called St. Hilaire.

It is strange that the editors of the Pilgrim letters missed the contradiction between the account in Dickens and Daughter and the well-known dates of Kate’s honeymoon in France. The evidence is just a few pages after the letter to Wills. On 14 September 1860 Dickens wrote in a letter to Mrs Richard Watson

‘Katie and her husband are in France and seem likely to remain there for an indefinite period – as long as their money will last.’

So if it was not Kate, who was it who witnessed this event and passed the news on to her before she passed it on to Gladys Storey as if she had been there? Dickens’s most recent biographer, Peter Ackroyd, gives this account of the bonfire.

‘…he burnt all of his past correspondence. It was part of the general clear out necessitated by the selling of Tavistock House…He burnt the letters in the field behind Gad’s Hill Place; Mamie and two of her brothers brought out basketful after basketful of them, from Carlyle, Thackeray, Tennyson, Collins, George Eliot…the letters of twenty years. Mamie asked him to keep some of them but he refused.’

Ackroyd, typically, gives neither source nor reason for substituting the name of Dickens’s oldest daughter Mamie (Mary) for that of Kate in what is clearly an account taken straight from Gladys Storey. But Mary was not at Gad’s Hill then either. In the same letter to Wills of 4 September in which Dickens tells him of the bonfire, he says that ‘Mary is in raptures with the beauties of Dunkeld’ a small town about 12 miles north of Perth in Scotland. Mary, who was ‘not very well in health’, was staying there with the Reverend James White and his family, and did not return until October at the earliest.

The letter to Mrs Watson, quoted above, was written by Dickens just eleven days after the bonfire and gives this list of the family members at Gad’s Hill

‘Sydney has just passed his examination as a Naval Cadet, and come home, all eyes and gold buttons…Mary is on a month’s visit in Scotland. Georgina [Hogarth], Frank, and Plorn are at home here; and we all want Mary and her little dog back again.’

If the other members of the family at Gad’s Hill had not changed in the previous eleven days, not only was Mary not there on 3 September, but nor was Henry. His exact whereabouts are not certain. However, the evidence is that he was also in France. In 1858 he had followed his brothers and gone to school in Boulogne under the care of Rev. Matthew Gibson and was still there in May 1860. However, two months earlier Dickens had written to Gibson’s assistant saying he intended reluctantly to withdraw Harry ‘from your care…I fear I shall be obliged to do so at Midsummer’. The purpose was to send him and Plorn to Rochester Grammar but no record of their attending that school exists and certainly Plorn, who in May still had ‘a private tutor at home’, was at Gad’s Hill with Dickens, though Henry was not, on 14 September when Dickens wrote to Mrs Watson. Henry himself reports that he went to school at Wimbledon ‘about the year 1861’ and it seems likely that Plorn went then too. At least he was at some school by November of that year.

So it could be that Henry remained at the school in Boulogne until 1861 and having had August off, was returned to France before the bonfire on 3 September. It is also possible that Henry was there for the bonfire and returned to school, wherever that was, before 14 September. However, one further piece of evidence that Henry was not present is that he does not mention the bonfire in either of his own books of reminiscences. Seventy years later there would have been no reason to hide this major event and it would be a strange omission if he had taken part in the bonfire.

If Gladys Storey’s account of Henry’s recollection of the bonfire is also false, who were the brothers who helped Dickens with the fire?. Charley was in Hong Kong. Walter was in India. Dickens’s fourth son Alfred was at school in Wimbledon. The fifth, Sydney, listed present in the letter to Mrs Watson on 14 September, had not arrived at Gad’s Hill Place on 3 September – a letter to the Rev. Ashton Burrow on 27 August makes it clear he was then at the Naval School at Southsea and a letter from Wilkie Collins confirms that he arrived back in London from naval school on 11 September. So the only two of his children at Gad’s Hill Place to help Dickens burn the literary heritage of a generation were the sixteen-year-old Frank and his youngest son Plorn.

So who was the source of the detailed account of the bonfire in Storey, including verbatim comments by Dickens, and a later account by Henry who was not present?

It is unlikely that Plorn aged 8 would have pleaded with Dickens not to destroy the letters and papers. Even the 16-year-old Frank may have been happier to stoke a fire than worry about the value of what was being burned. Such pleas would fit more easily with someone of Kate’s age (20) or Mary’s (22) but as neither Kate nor Mary were in fact there, these remarks were more likely made when, on their return, they discovered from a brother what their father had done and remonstrated with him.

The date of Mary’s return is unclear. She was still in Dunkeld towards the end of September. On 23rd she was still unwell and Dickens wrote to her there ‘Don’t come back too soon. Take time and get well restored.’ adding news of the changes at Gad’s Hill since she left. But she was certainly back home and well enough to ride a month later – no later than 23 October she fell off her horse near Gad’s Hill Place.. If she learned of the events on her return in late September or early October then it was not from Frank, who had by then left Gad’s Hill Place to stay with friends of his father in London while working for a time on All The Year Round.

Kate did not return from the continent until the end of February 1861, nearly six months after the bonfire. Dickens rented a London home that year in Hanover Terrace, Regents Park where he stayed from February to June. Henry and Alfred were home by then, though Plorn and Mary were probably at Gad’s Hill. Frank was still working at the office of All The Year Round. So Kate may have learned of the bonfire from Henry who may have learned about it from the eight-year-old Plorn, or possibly from Frank. He either claimed to Kate that he had been there or she mis-remembered which brothers had been present. Or of course Dickens himself may have told her. Either way she may then have had the conversation with Dickens which is quoted in Storey. Many years later she passed on the tale to Gladys Storey together with an eye-witness account of the burning by one of her brothers put into the character of Henry.

So our sole eye-witness turns out to be an erroneous and possibly fourth-hand account (Plorn/Frank-Henry-Kate-Storey) published 79 years after the event and ten years after Kate had died. It is worth remembering that the publication of Dickens and Daughter is closer to our time than to the events of 1860.

Despite these concerns about Storey, there is of course no doubt that Dickens did burn his letters. Not only do we have his own accounts, but there is the very low survival rate of letters from contemporary literary figures addressed to him. For example, his close friendship with Wilkie Collins lasted more than 19 years, from their meeting on Wednesday 12 March 1851 until Dickens’s death on Thursday 9 June 1870. A total of 169 letters from Dickens to Collins have been identified but just three from Collins to Dickens have survived. One fulfils the 1865 Dickens criterion for preservation from the flames of being ‘on absolute business’. Dated 7 August 1860, it is Collins’s acceptance of terms for working on All The Year Round for two years from 31 July 1860 for seven guineas a week and a one eighth share of the profits. The other two were less significant letters and the reason for their survival is a mystery – and a miracle. All the rest have gone – destroyed, presumably, by Dickens.

The clear evidence that the account in Gladys Storey’s book is wrong in its detail must also make us question other events for which she is the only source. Two of these relate to Dickens’s relationship with Ellen Ternan, the young actress who was part of his life from the day they met on Tuesday 18 August 1857. Gladys Storey refers to ‘the association of Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan and their resultant son (who died in infancy)’. The revelation that Dickens and Ternan had a child was taken up by Thomas Wright and Felix Aylmer in later books about Dickens and Ellen Ternan but no other evidence for it has ever been found.

She is also the source for the story that Dickens ‘at the commencement of the affair…told his wife to call upon the girl with whom he had fallen in love’. The account says that Kate heard her mother crying in the bedroom

‘Entering the room, she found her mother seated at the dressing-table in the act of putting on her bonnet, with tears rolling down her cheeks. Inquiring as to the cause of her distress, Mrs Dickens – between her sobs – replied:

‘Your father has asked me to go and see Ellen Ternan.’

‘You shall not go!’ exclaimed Mrs. Perugini, angrily stamping her foot. But she went.’

Gladys Storey is also the origin for this account of what Dickens did immediately after the wedding of Kate to Charles Collins on 17 July 1860. Though in this case we know, of course, that Kate was not the eye-witness and must have been told the story later, probably by her sister Mary.

‘After the last of the guests had departed, Mamie went up to her sisters bedroom. Opening the door, she beheld her father upon his knees with his head buried in Katie’s wedding-gown, sobbing. She stood for some moments before he became aware of her presence; when at last he got up and saw her, he said in a broken voice:

‘But for me, Katey would not have left home,’ and walked out of the room.’

This passage is often interpreted as showing Dickens’s self-reproach about the effect on his children of leaving his wife. It has been given as one motive for his burning the letters and papers a few weeks later. That may be so. But his friend Wilkie Collins may also have played a part.

The discovery and – sometimes – the destruction of letters lay at the heart of the plots of many of Wilkie Collins’s novels and stories. Before Dickens lit his own bonfire, Collins wrote about burning letters four times in Dickens’s periodicals. In 1854 and 1855 characters in three of Collins’s stories in Household Words recommended burning papers and letters. Dickens of course read and checked carefully all the material published in Household Words.

Then, just a few months before the historic bonfire, Collins wrote of burning a letter in The Woman in White. Marian Halcombe has received a letter from Walter Hartright. Her half-sister Laura loves Hartright but has agreed to fulfil her promise made to her dying father to marry someone else. Hartright has gone away and is about to embark on a ship for South America. Marian decides not to tell Laura about the contents of the letter. And adds

‘I almost doubt whether I ought not to go a step farther, and burn the letter at once, for fear of it one day falling into wrong hands. It not only refers to Laura in terms which ought to remain a secret forever between the writer and me; but it reiterates his suspicion – so obstinate, so unaccountable, and so alarming – that he has been secretly watched...But there is a danger in my keeping the letter. The merest accident might place it at the mercy of strangers. I may fall ill; I may die – better to burn it at once, and have one anxiety the less.

It is burnt! The ashes of his farewell letter – the last he may ever write to me – lie in a few black fragments in the hearth.’

The book was serialised in All The Year Round – the successor to Household Words – which Dickens edited with assiduous care. He had received the first part of the manuscript – including this key passage – early in the new year of 1860. He wrote to Collins on 7 January 1860

‘I have read this book with great care and attention...I have stopped in every chapter to notice some instance of ingenuity, or some happy turn of writing…So go on and prosper, and let me see some more when you have enough…to shew me.’

Although the burned letter is not crucial to the plot, a marriage register is. Later in the book one is duly burned in the vestry of the parish church, along with the novel’s villain Sir Percival Glyde. At the inquest into the death, Walter Hartright, who had been outside the church at the time, says

‘I did not feel called on to volunteer any statement of my own private convictions; in the first place, because my doing so could serve no practical purpose, now that all proof in support of any surmises of mine was burnt with the burnt register.’

Just six weeks after that part of The Woman in White was published, Dickens was lighting his own bonfire. Perhaps among the letters and papers he consigned to the flames in his garden at Gad’s Hill Place was the ‘proof in support of any surmises’ about his separation from his wife and his relationship of three years with the 21-year-old Ellen Ternan. A man with a secret like that would certainly find his ‘mind…at ease’ after he burned the evidence.

The day after, 4 September, he travelled to London and stayed there overnight, either at his flat above the Wellington Street office of his weekly periodical All The Year Round or perhaps at 2 Houghton Place, Ampthill Square – a house he had probably bought in 1859 and which had been given to Ellen six months before the bonfire on her 21st birthday. Perhaps he told her that night what he had done at Gad’s Hill Place on Monday.

Winter 2004

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