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The Morgan Library & Museum is celebrating Dickens’s upcoming 200th birthday with a wonderful exhibit entitled Dickens at 200. Drawing from their Dickens holdings, which are the largest in the United States, the exhibition is comprised of manuscripts of his novels and stories, letters, books, photographs, original illustrations, and caricatures.

The exhibit was curated by Declan Kiely, the Robert H. Taylor Curator and Department Head of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the Morgan, and focused on four distinctive areas of Dickens’s life: literary, artistic, theatrical, and philanthropic. This was the most appealing aspect of the exhibit, in my eyes; it presented an extremely well- rounded portrayal of Charles Dickens the man, rather than confining its focus to Charles Dickens the writer. In this piece, I will mention just a few of features of the exhibit that I found of personal interest.

I was previously unaware of Dickens’s altruistic efforts alongside Angela Burdett Coutts, the wealthiest heiress in Victorian Britain. In 1847 they founded a home, Urania Cottage, as a shelter for destitute women who had fallen into prostitution or petty crime, and the letters on display show Dickens’s devotion to and administrative involvement in this venture. He developed a mission for the house and laid out a detailed framework for daily operations, purchased dresses and linens for the residents, and conferred with personnel about residents’ behavior and progress. All this, keep in mind, was while Dickens continued to write and, by this point, had achieved a certain celebrity status. His dedication to social welfare and his work to improve the lots of others never wavered, though. In 1855 he wrote to Angela Burdett Coutts, “I am a Reformer heart and soul. I have nothing to gain—everything to lose (for public quiet is my bread)—but I am in desperate earnest, because I know it is a desperate case.”¹

Dickens’s ability to multitask, even when writing incredibly complex novels, was staggering; much of the composition of Nicholas Nickleby overlapped with Oliver Twist as well as with Barnaby Rudge. To boot, he was writing The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby simultaneously, which means there was most likely a period while he was composing three to four books at the same time. A feat for any author, this is an especially impressive display of literary mastery when you consider the complexity of a Dickens novel.

To put this concurrent composition into perspective, “when Dickens was writing The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby simultaneously, he needed to write between 18,816 and 19,584 words to meet each month’s deadline and between 26,800 and 33,376 words when writing The Old Curiosity Shop and Master Humphrey’s Clock.”² Incredible! It must have been helpful, then, to have a portable ink well and thus have been prepared to write anywhere (a modern convenience we are apt to take for granted); Dickens’s own portable ink well was featured in the exhibit and is pictured at right.

The collection of manuscripts and letters on display were quite impressive, and there is something to be said for reading a text in the author’s hand. It is also interesting to compare Dickens’s early manuscripts with later manuscripts as the comparison clearly illustrates his growth as an artist; the early manuscripts are largely free of edits and the later manuscripts have copious revisions. The exhibit includes the complete manuscript of Our Mutual Friend and manuscripts for three of five of Dickens’s Christmas stories.

The exhibit featured a number of original illustrations from Dickens’s novels, which were published serially. Dickens worked very closely with artists to seamlessly integrate illustrations with his text. He provided artists with a general outline of a novel’s plot well in advance of its publication so that they would have ample time to create cover illustrations. Likewise, “for each monthly installment he sent suggestions for scenes and characters for the plates that accompanied the letterpress, and offer critiques draft compositions and called for changes before giving final approval.”³

More than anything else, I was impressed by Dickens’s stamina—the man seemed to have a hand in every pot and make the most of every waking hour. Taking this into account with his tremendous literary accomplishments makes Dickens quite the exemplary being.

I’ve only provided a small taste of what Dickens at 200 has to offer, and I recommend visiting the exhibit to learn more about the man and to see some intriguing artifacts in person.

Dickens at 200 is on exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum through February 12, 2012.  

¹Letter 6, to Angela Burdett Coutts, May 11, 1855, Dickens at 200, Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY.
²Case label, Dickens at 200, Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY.
³Introductory text for "Collaboration", Dickens at 200, Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY.