Dickens's bonfire destroys literary heritage

More than 160 letters from Dickens to Wilkie Collins survive. Over 100 of these were published in 1892 as The Letters of Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins (1) and the Pilgrim edition of Dickens's letters (2) fills in most of the others, though the odd one turns up from time to time (3).

We can presume that Collins wrote a similar number to Dickens but out of the nearly 3000 of Collins's letters which have now been identified, only three out of those he wrote to Dickens survive. The rest were destroyed by Dickens together with almost all his other correspondence.

On 4 September 1860 Dickens wrote to William Henry Wills, the sub-editor of Household Words

"Yesterday I burnt, in the field at Gad's Hill, the accumulated letters and papers of twenty years. They set 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."

The burning field
The field at Gad's Hill, 4 May 1997

Dickens, who liked to call himself 'The Inimitable', surely became on that day 'The Inimical' destroying a priceless part of the literary heritage that belongs to us all. And while Dickens burnt these irreplaceable letters from his friends, they carefully preserved his letters to them. More than 14,250 letters from Dickens are known.

The bonfire took place when Dickens moved from Tavistock House in London and took up permanent residence at Gad's Hill Place, Rochester, Kent. Traditional accounts say that he was assisted by three of his children, including Katie, then aged 20. Katie's friend and biographer Gladys Storey gives this account of what Katie told her of the burning.
"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!'" (4)

Kate.JPG - 30Kb
Kate in 1865.
Painting by Marcus Stone R.A.

This account is not true. On 3 September 1860, Kate was in fact in France on her honeymoon with Wilkie Collins's younger brother Charles whom she had married on 17 July. From letters Charles wrote to his mother and his published account of their journey we know that on the day of the bonfire Charles and Kate were travelling between St. Omer and St. Pol and as Dickens set fire to his letters they were probably lunching in an auberge in a small village called St. Hilaire (5). Other evidence from Dickens's and Collins's letters shows that the two children certainly present at Gad's Hill on 3 September were the 16 year old Frank and Dickens's youngest son Plorn. It seems likely that they conveyed the news to their elder sister Kate when she returned from France some months later. Nor is there any evidence that Henry was involved. His own two books of reminiscences make no mention of this historic event and he himself was most likely at school in Boulogne on 3 September (6).

But whatever the confusion about who helped Dickens there is no doubt the letters were burnt. Following Dickens's own account the following day to Wills, he wrote about it to two other correspondents.

First in 1864 to the Dean of Rochester, Samuel Reynolds Hole. He 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 on 20 December

"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."

Less that three months later Dickens wrote in similar vein to his friend, the actor William Charles Macready

"Daily seeing improper uses made of confidential letters in the addressing of them to a public audience that have 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." (7)

And there was a similar response in a conversation with the American diplomat John Bigelow when he enquired about letters from Sydney Smith. Bigelow recalled in his autobiography published in 1913 that Dickens had told him

‘he had great quantities of these letters which he burned. I told him he deserved to have been burned with them’. (8)

A year before his death on 30 March 1869 Dickens wrote again to Wills confirming that he held by his resolution to carry on burning.

‘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.’

Other letters from relatives confirmed Dickens's actions. Wilkie Collins wrote to the published George Bentley on 24 November 1871

"It is possible that your father's letters are already destroyed. After you left this house, i called to mind that Dickens had told me. some time before his death, that he had  burnt a great sheaf of letters". (9)

And at the turn of the century his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth implied that he had another bonfire at Gad’s Hill in 1869 in which he burned ‘all the letters he had kept from every one’, though she may have been mistakenly referring to the original conflagration.(10)

Family troubles
The traditional reason for this destruction was found in Dickens's personal life. In August 1857 he met a young actress, Ellen Ternan, who joined his amateur company to play a part in Collins's play The Frozen Deep and most students of his life now agree that they became lovers (11). Whether they did or not, Dickens's marriage soon effectively ended and from May 1858 he lived separately from his wife.

HW.JPG - 27Kb

Household Words Saturday 12 June 1858, XVII No.429 p601

In June 1858 he published a statement about his circumstances and the rumours about his personal life on the front page of his journal Household Words. He wrote

"Some domestic trouble of mine, of longstanding, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement...By some means, arising out of wickedness or folly, or out of inconceivable wild chance or out of all three, this trouble has been made the occasion of misrepresentation, most grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel - involving, not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart...I doubt if one reader in a thousand will peruse these lines, by whom some touch of the breath of these slanders will not have passed, like an unwholesome air." (12)

He was also saddened by the marriage of Katie to Charles Collins, the artist and Wilkie Collins's younger brother. He blamed himself. On the day of her wedding, 17 July 1860, after Katie had left for her honeymoon, Dickens was found by his daughter Mamie sobbing into her wedding gown saying "But for me, Katey would not have left home" (13).

Collins's role
However, there is also an interesting context in Wilkie Collins's work for Dickens's action. During the time when his marital troubles were beginning, he became closer to his friend Collins. Apart from working together on The Frozen Deep they collaborated on Christmas numbers of Household Words and Dickens's letters show that between his letter of 29 August 1857 and that of 23 October 1857 he changed from writing 'My dear Collins' to 'My dear Wilkie', a form of address he stuck with for the rest of his life.

4th.JPG - 30Kb

Between 1854 and 1860 Collins wrote three times in Dickens's periodicals about burning letters. In the Christmas 1854 edition of Household Words Collins wrote 'The Fourth Poor Traveller'. The storyteller, a lawyer, says

"My experience in the law, Mr. Frank, has convinced me that if everybody burnt everybody else's letters, half the Courts of Justice in this country might shut up shop" (14).
A few months later in 1855 Collins wrote 'The Yellow Mask' also for Household Words. Father Rocco, a priest and the scheming villain of the piece, says

"private papers should always be burnt papers" (15).

Dickens edited Household Words and paid careful attention to all its contents. He would have read carefully these two passages by his friend. In particular, on 1 December 1854 Dickens wrote to Mrs Richard Watson that the Christmas 1854 number would require "my utmost care and assistance" (16).

A few years later, and just a few months before Dickens made his 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 to her dying father to marry someone else.

wiw.JPG - 48Kb

Hartright takes his leave
Illustration by John McLenan
The Woman in White Harper & Brothers, New York 1860 p52

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." (17)

As with Household Words, Dickens edited All The Year Round with assiduous care. Dickens had been sent the manuscript of what was to form the first volume of the book - including this key passage near the end - 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 perhaps Collins played a part in his friend's destruction of so much of our literary heritage on 3 September 1860 at Gad's Hill Place, Rochester, Kent.

Long after Dickens's letters were safely ashes, Wilkie returned to the theme in The Haunted Hotel. In chapter 4, Agnes Lockwood, jilted by her lover Lord Montbarry who is now marrying someone else, decides to rid herself of his letters. Chapter 4

On the day of the marriage Agnes Lockwood sat alone in the little drawing-room of her London lodgings, burning the letters which had been written to her by Montbarry in the bygone time....There were none of the ordinary signs of grief in her face, as she slowly tore the letters of her false lover in two, and threw the pieces into the small fire which had been lit to consume them. Unhappily for herself, she was one of those women who feel too deeply to find relief in tears. Pale and quiet, with cold trembling fingers, she destroyed the letters one by one without daring to read them again. She had torn the last of the series, and was still shrinking from throwing it after the rest into the swiftly destroying flame, when the old nurse came in, and asked if she would see 'Master Henry,'...."'He says, he's going away, my dear; and he only wants to shake hands, and say good-bye.'" This plain statement of the case had its effect. Agnes decided on receiving her cousin. He entered the room so rapidly that he surprised her in the act of throwing the fragments of Montbarry's last letter into the fire.

HHB.JPG - 88KbLater in the book, a manuscript which explains the fraud and the murder which are central to the plot, is thrown on the fire.

"Lord Montbarry quietly took up the manuscript, and threw it into the fire. 'Let this rubbish be of some use,' he said, holding the pages down with a poker."

Illustration by Arthur Hopkins (1848-1930).
Belgravia November 1878 p.126

Dickens was not alone in destroying a valuable literary heritage. Henry James, the american novelist, also burnt 40 years of correspondence near the end of his life. Leon Edel writes in vol.V of his biography of James , referring to his illness and money worries in 1909 or 1910
"It was one day shortly after this, in a fit of sadness, perhaps prompted by fantasies of death, that he gathered his private papers--forty years of letters from his contemporaries, manuscripts, scenarios, old notebooks--and piled them on a rubbish fire in his garden...He was ruthless. A great Anglo-American literary archive perished on that day." (18)
Paranoia about the use to which private letters might be put is found among several of Dickens's contemporaries. Elizabeth Gaskell told her daughter Marianne "Pray burn my letters. I am always afraid of writing much to you, you are so careless about letters." (19) And Geraldine Dewsbury wrote to Jane Carlyle in 1849 "for pity's sake take care of your letters. I have burned all yours which could be misunderstood." (20)

Collins was not the only person to write about destroying letters. Thackeray wrote in chapter 19 of Vanity Fair published in 1847

"There ought to be a law in Vanity Fair ordering the destruction of every written document (except receipted tradesmen's bills) after a certain brief and proper interval."
And in Cranford, published in 1853, Elizabeth Gaskell called Chapter V 'Old Letters' and it contained this affecting passage about burning the love letters exchanged by her parents
"We must burn them, I think," said Miss Matty, looking doubtfully at me. "No one will care for them when I am gone." And one by one she dropped them into the middle of the fire, watching each blaze up, die out, and rise away, in faint, white, ghostly semblance, up the chimney, before she gave another to the same fate. The room was light enough now; but I, like her, was fascinated into watching the destruction of those letters, into which the honest warmth of a manly heart had been poured forth." Cranford
Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1860-1920)
Cranford Macmillan, London 1892 p.75

  1. The Letters of Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins 1851-1870, Selected by Georgina Hogarth, edited by Laurence Hutton, James R Osgood, McIlvanie & Co, London 1892
  2. The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed House, Storey, Tillotson, Oxford University Press.
  3. Paul Lewis 'My Dear Wilkie' Wilkie Collins Society Journal New Series V 2002 pp 3-23
  4. Dickens and Daughter, Gladys Storey, London 1939.
  5. Charles's letters are in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Details are given in Paul Lewis 'Burning: The Evidence' The Dickensian Winter 2004 pp197-208. Charles Collins A Cruise Upon Wheels London 1862.
  6. Henry Dickens Memories of My Father 1928 and The Recollections of Sir Henry Dickens, K.C. 1934. Details of the evidence for the whereabouts of Dickens's children are in Paul Lewis 'Burning: the Evidence' op.cit.
  7. To W C Macready, 1 March 1865. Note that the date of this letter is wrongly given on p3 of The Letters of Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins as 1 March 1855.
  8. John Bigelow Retrospections of an Active Life 1867-1871 IV p128
  9. Baker, Gasson, Law, Lewis The Public Face of Wilkie Collins 2005 II 302
  10. To Lady Lytton 20 March 1900, see Pilgrim I xxx and fn1
  11. For the most thorough and recent treatment see Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman, Viking 1990
  12. Household Words 12 June 1858, vol XVII, p429
  13. Dickens and Daughter op.cit.
  14. Household Words, Christmas Number, 14 December 1854, p21. Republished in After Dark 1856 as 'The Lawyer's Story of the Stolen Letter')
  15. Household Words, 14 July 1855, vol XI, chapter VI p571
  16. To the Hon. Mrs Richard Watson, 1 December 1854
  17. All The Year Round 4 February 1860 II p334
  18. Henry James Leon Edel, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1953-1972, pp436-437
  19. Elizabeth Gaskell - A Habit of Stories Jenny Uglow, Faber London 1994 p243
  20. Selections from the Letters of Geraldine Endsor Dewsbury to Jane Welsh Carlyle ed. Mrs. Alexander Ireland, London 1892 p.337

Burning letters version 3.0
July 2005

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