Charles Dickens and the limited Welsh connection

Friday 20 January 2012, 10:00

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Charles Dickens is probably the most famous and best-loved British novelist ever to have lived. In a relatively short life - he was born on 7 February 1812 and died on 9 June 1870 - he produced a series of novels and stories that have remained popular to this day. And while many of them are rooted in places he visited and people he knew, he made little reference to Wales in his writing.

Jeremy Nicholas, Nigel Stock, Alan Parnaby and Clive Swift in the BBC's 1985 adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel The Pickwick Papers

Jeremy Nicholas, Nigel Stock, Alan Parnaby and Clive Swift in the BBC's 1985 adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel The Pickwick Papers

Even in traditional novels such as Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby there are no mentions of Welsh places or Welsh people. Even accepting that Dickens's real stamping grounds were London and the northern part of Kent, such an omission remains mystifying.

His one really powerful piece of writing about Wales was a journalistic account of the worst shipwreck ever to take place in the British Isles. It is so dramatic and heart-rending that the reader is left wondering what Dickens could have achieved had he really delved into Welsh society and the Welsh soul.

Despite this omission, however, there are still connections to be made between Dickens and Wales. As a young journalist he travelled all over Britain, reporting on parliamentary elections, and it is unlikely that he would have missed out on many Welsh hustings and meetings that took place during this early stage of his career. This does remain mere speculation, but an interesting one, nonetheless.

The first recorded instance of Dickens visiting the land beyond Offa's Dyke came in the autumn of 1839, after he had completed the serialisation of Oliver Twist in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany. Leaving his young wife Catherine behind, he set off in the company of his illustrator, Hablot Browne (better known as Phiz), for a tour of the area around Warwick and parts of north Wales.

It was not an auspicious visit. Dickens, after a period of heavy and intense writing - he was working on Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby at the same time - became ill and was forced to return to Liverpool without seeing very much of the country.

The story of the shipwreck and loss of the Royal Charter are too well known to recount again here. Dickens wrote about the event in an article in The Uncommercial Traveller. However, contrary to what most people believe, he did not actually travel to Wales in time to witness the disaster.

The Royal Charter was thrown up on the rocks outside Moelfre in the great gales of October 1859. Dickens did not come to Ynys Mon until December and by then the wreck had already settled onto the seabed. He came to interview and report on the activities of the rector of St Gallgo Church at Moelfre, a man by the name of Stephen Hughes.

Hughes not only gathered up and buried so many of the bodies from the wreck - over 450 men, women and children perished in the waves - he also wrote to the grieving relatives and friends of the deceased. With selfless dedication he actually wrote over 1,000 letters of condolence and was thoroughly deserving of Dickens' attention.

Dickens journeyed down Thomas Telford's trunk road from London and duly arrived on Ynys Mon in the middle of December 1859. He remained on the island for several days, staying at the Bull Hotel in Beaumaris, before returning home to write one of his most moving pieces of journalism, an article that even now manages to catch at the heartstrings of any reader.

Towards the end of his life Charles Dickens toured Britain and America giving hugely popular readings of his work. His depiction of the death of Nancy at the hands of Bill Sikes, from Oliver Twist, reputedly had the power to frighten ladies into fits of hysteria. And there are certainly those who claim that the physical and emotional stress required for the performance hastened Dickens into an early grave.

Scott Funnell as the young Oliver Twist in the 1985 BBC adaptation

Scott Funnell as the young Oliver Twist in the 1985 BBC adaptation

Dickens came twice to Wales to give readings, firstly at Swansea on 4 April 1867 and then at Newport on 21 January 1869, the latter just over 12 months before he died.

As with all of Dickens' readings there were huge crowds on both occasions; those who could not obtain tickets for the performances peered in through the windows and doors. As always, there was a healthy black market, with tickets changing hands at rates well above the normal purchase price - a practice that Dickens certainly hated.

It is more than likely that Dickens also visited Wales as a tourist during the final years of his life. His tour manager, George Dolby, lived in Rhos on Wye and Dickens came to stay on several occasions, both for rest and to discuss future reading tours.

With Rhos being so close to the Welsh border it is unlikely - unthinkable, almost - that such an avid and ardent traveller as Dickens would not have ventured into Wales, at least once or twice. Once again it remains a matter of conjecture - clearly there is more research to be done.

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    Comment number 1.

    I can't imagine why Dickens had such limited contact or connections with Wales and the Welsh. You would have thought, with his gift for accents, the Welsh would be an easy target. Having been brought up in Tewkesbury and Cheltenham I know he had contact with the border regions during his days as a young, cub reporter but even his one foray into Wales for the Royal Charter disaster wasn't really about Wales. Strange. Perhaps there is more waiting to be discovered.

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    Comment number 2.

    I can well imagine that Dickens' own portrayal of the murder of Nancy would have been powerful. As a pre-teen reader coming to Oliver Twist I was utterly fascinated by that scene. But if we want to search for a Welsh connection, isn't there a remarkable similarity to be found with the career of Dylan Thomas? Each a flamboyant writer, each a hugely powerful reader of his own work, each reduced to serious exhaustion, maybe death, be demanding reading tours of America ...

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    Comment number 3.

    The comment on the similarities of Dickens and Thomas - their lives, at least - is very true. Both men were lovers of life although Dickens was probably more driven, in terms of his writing. Dylan was always more conscious of living the life of a poet than actually producing a strong body of work. And the reading tours - of Britain as well as the USA - undoubtedly hastened the demise of both men.

 
 

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