Dickens letter

A letter written in 1868 by Charles Dickens, the bicentenary of whose birth falls today, to his son Henry, who had newly arrived at Cambridge, reveals a touching concern for Henry’s welfare in matters physical, moral and spiritual.

If you ever find yourself on the verge of perplexity or difficulty, come to me. You will never find me hard with you while you are manly and truthful.

Charles Dickens to his son Henry, 1868

There are pivotal moments in family life when parents feel compelled to pick up a pen and share their wisdom with their children.  It must have been just such an occasion when the author Charles Dickens, who was born 200 years ago today, sat down in a Liverpool hotel to write to his son Henry, who had newly arrived at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to study mathematics.

Henry Fielding Dickens, who was born in January 1849, was the eighth of the ten children born to the author and his wife Catherine. He was named after one of the 18th-century writers whom Charles most admired – Henry Fielding, a humane and perceptive magistrate as well as the author of Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749) – and Henry Dickens was to follow his namesake into a successful career in the law.

The letter that Charles wrote to Henry (My Dear Harry) in October 1868 was given to Trinity Hall in the 1950s by a great-great grandson of the author. It is held in the college’s Old Library.

In the present context of austerity and student debt, Charles’s letter makes fascinating reading. It begins with a list of practical matters relating to Henry’s allowance (£250 a year – “handsome for all your wants”), his requirements for furniture and clothing (“I strongly recommend you to buy nothing in Cambridge”) and the copious bottles of wine to be sent from London in order that the young undergraduate should enjoy life.

Charles tells his 19-year-old son that he has ordered by the same post “3: Doz Sherry, 2:Doz port and 3:Doz: light claret to be sent down to you”.  A footnote adds “* and 6 bottles of brandy”, considerably upping the quota of alcohol.  Having given the details of this generous supply, Charles then exhorts Henry to be prudent in his handling of money. “Now observe attentively,” he urges. “We must have no shadow of debt.”

Henry was the first in his family to study at university – and the decision to send him to Cambridge wasn’t taken lightly. As Claire Tomalin describes in her acclaimed biography (Charles Dickens, 2011), Charles had planned for Henry to take the Indian civil service examination – but the boy announced that he wanted to study at Cambridge. Not wishing his funds to be wasted, Charles consulted the headmaster of Henry’s school who advised him that his pupil was able.  Henry was allowed to study for a further three years, and had private tutors in a number of skills, including mathematics and fencing.

Charles was keen to see rewards from his investment in his son and the letter is telling on this front: he reminds his son that he is benefitting from advantages in life that his father never had. “You know how hard I work for what I get, and I think you know that I never had money help from any human creature after I was a child,” he writes. Charles softens this expectation by instructing Henry to confide in his father: “If you ever find yourself on the verge of perplexity or difficulty, come to me.  You will never find me hard with you while you are manly and truthful.”

Debt, and the importance of good accounting, is mentioned several times (a reminder of the prominence of ‘indebtedness’ as a theme of Charles’s fictional writing: on the one hand, the metaphor of ‘credit’ serves to illustrate important ways in which human lives are inextricably interrelated; on the other hand, Charles is always quick to suggest that while we should feel gratitude for what we ‘owe’ to others, we must remain fiscally independent and responsible). In the 19th century debtors were imprisoned until they could pay off their debts (and the prison fees), and Charles’s own childhood experiences were formative:  he had seen his father John falling into debt (he owed £40 10s). When he failed to repay it, he was taken to Marshalsea debtors’ prison in Southwark.

Charles was sent to the pawnbroker’s with the family books and much of their furniture: even more significantly for a sensitive child, he was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory at around the age of 12, and for the rest of his adult life he regretted that his family had apparently been prepared to sacrifice his education – and indeed the happiness of his childhood – for their temporary economic survival.  In an autobiographical fragment published in his friend John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (1872-4), Charles sighed “I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber, or a little vagabond”.  More poignantly, Charles recalled that his parents did not feel for his disappointment: “My father and mother were quite satisfied […] They could hardly have been more so, if I had been 20 years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge.”

But Charles rescued himself from a possible life of penury and crime by the tireless efforts of his own labour.  His Christian faith survived, too, and the letter to Henry speaks of the “priceless value of the New Testament” as “the one unfailing guide in Life”.  Thanks to the brilliant productions of Charles’s prodigious genius, his own children were to enjoy a very different – and much more stable – childhood.  As if fulfilling the alternative career that his father had imagined for himself, Henry, in particular, did well at Cambridge.  After a year, he was awarded one of the principal scholarships at Trinity Hall, worth £50 a year.

In a memoir, Henry described telling his father about the award at Higham railway station in Kent. “He said ‘Capital, capital’ – nothing more.”  Henry felt disappointed but in the pony carriage on the way to Gad’s Hill, the family home, his father broke down. “Turning towards me with tears in his eyes and giving me a warm grip of the hand, he said, ‘God bless you, my boy; God bless you!’ That pressure of the hand I can feel now as distinctly as I felt then, and it will remain as strong and real as the day of my death.”

Sadly, Charles died in 1870 (aged only 58) and he did not see his son’s subsequent success – but he would have been proud.  After graduating with a good degree in mathematics in 1872, Henry was called to the Bar: after 20 years of successful advocacy in the Common Law Courts, Henry became Common Serjeant of London (a senior judicial appointment at the Old Bailey that he held until 1932).  While his father’s fiction had engaged rather combatively with the work of the legal profession, regularly criticising the etiquette and ethics of the then newly-professionalised criminal Bar, Henry by all accounts excelled in his chosen vocation.

The letter from Charles to Henry is dated 15 October, 1868, and the address at the top is the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. It was given to Trinity Hall by Christopher Dickens, one of Henry’s grandchildren, who was a student at Trinity Hall, matriculating in 1957.

The time that Henry spent at Trinity Hall is just one of several strong connections between Charles Dickens and the college. Graham Storey (1921-2005), the editor of the ten volumes of the Pilgrim Edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens (1965-98), read law at Trinity Hall before becoming a Fellow in English in 1949.  Generations of Dickens scholars have subsequently been indebted to his scholarship.  Both the College’s current Fellows in English, Alison Hennegan and Dr Jan-Melissa Schramm, teach and publish on Dickens’s work.  Trinity Hall has historically been known in Cambridge as ‘the lawyers’ College’, and like Graham Storey, Dr Schramm read law as an undergraduate.  She has written on Dickens’s engagement with legal evidence and rhetoric in two books for Cambridge University Press: the second of these, Atonement and Self-Sacrifice in Nineteenth-Century Narrative, will appear in June 2012 as part of the wider scholarly programme to commemorate the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth.

Full transcript of Charles Dickens' letter to his son Henry, 1868

Adelphi Hotel Liverpool


Thursday Fifteenth October 1868

My Dear Harry,

I have your letter here this morning. I enclose you another cheque for £25, and I write to London by this post, ordering 3 Doz: Sherry, 2 Doz: Port, and 3 Doz: light claret to be sent down to you*. I also enclose a cheque in favour of the Rev: F.L. Hopkins for £5..10..0.

Now, observe attentively. We must have no shadow of debt. Square up everything whatsoever that it has been necessary to buy. Let not a farthing be outstanding on any account, when we begin together with your allowance. Be particular in the minutest detail.

I wish to have no secret from you in the relations we are to establish together, and I therefore send you Joe Chitty’s letter bodily. Reading it, you will know exactly what I know, and will understand that I treat you with perfect confidence. It appears to me that an allowance of £250 a year will be handsome for all your wants, if I send you your wine. I mean this to include your tailor’s bills as well as every other expence; and I strongly recommend you to buy nothing in Cambridge, and to take credit for nothing but the clothes with which your tailor provides you. As soon as you have got your furniture accounts in, let us wipe all these preliminary expenses clean out, and I will then send you your first quarter. We will count in it, October, November, and December; and your second quarter will begin with the New Year. If you dislike, at first, taking charge of so large a sum as £62..10..0 you can have your money from me half quarterly.

You know how hard I work for what I get, and I think you know that I never had money help from any human creature after I was a child. You know that you are one of many heavy charges on me, and that I trust to your so exercising your abilities and improving the advantages of your past expensive education, as soon to diminish this charge. I say no more on that head.

Whatever you do, above all other things keep out of debt, and confide in me. If you ever find yourself on the verge of any perplexity or difficulty, come to me. You will never find me hard with you while you are manly and truthful.

As your brothers have gone away one by one, I have written to each of them what I am now going to write to you. You know that you have never been hampered with religious forms of restraint, and that with mere unmeaning forms I have no sympathy. But I most strongly and affectionately impress upon you the priceless value of the New Testament, and the study of that book as the one unfailing guide in Life. Deeply respecting it, and bowing down before the character of Our Saviour, as separated from the vain constructions and inventions of men, you cannot go very wrong and will always preserve at heart a true spirit of veneration and humility. Similarly, I impress upon you the habit of saying a Christian prayer every night and morning. These things have stood by me all through my life, and you remember that I tried to render the New Testament intelligible to you and loveable by you when you were a mere baby.

And so God bless you.

Ever your affectionate Father

Charles Dickens


*and 6 bottles of brandy

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