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A Previously Unrecorded Letter by Charles Dickens, Recovered from Rutgers University Libraries' Special Collections and University Archives

August 22, 2016
Charles Dickens letter

The three-page letter is Dickens's response to a pamphlet by John Dufton. Credit: Michael Joseph.

Charles Dickens's signature.

Charles Dickens's signature. Credit: Michael Joseph.

In preparing a pop-up exhibition for the Northeast Victorian Studies Conference in April, we turned up a previously unknown and unrecorded letter from Charles Dickens bound into one of the Libraries’ books. Written by Dickens on November 24, 1849 to the Reverend John Dufton, the three-page letter responds to Dufton’s pamphlet, The Prison and the School: a Letter to Lord John Russell, M.P. (London: John W. Parker, 1848). Dickens writes warmly in support of the pamphlet, though he registers a disagreement with Dufton’s apparent enthusiasm for the “reformatory influences” of the new “model prisons,” noting, with a Dickensian touch, that the reformatory spirit cannot “[survive] the unnatural air of the solitary cell.”

Penal reform was a complex and pressing topic, then as now. The skepticism of the reforming capacities of prison Dickens shared with Dufton anticipates his 1850 essay “Pet Prisoners,” as well as David’s cynical views of the “model prison” in chapter 61 of David Copperfield, which Dickens would begin writing in 1849. Despite their disagreement on what Dickens calls a “momentous”—and Phillip Collins in Dickens and Crime (1968) a “blood-heating”—issue, Dickens concludes his letter on amiable terms by inviting Dufton to visit him in London. Quite familiarly, he invites himself to visit Dufton: “if I should find myself near Ashford as I generally do, sometime in the autumn I shall make bold to remind you for a few minutes, of our correspondence.” No such visit has been recorded.

Dickens thought well enough of Dufton’s pamphlet to keep and annotate it, and it has survived into our time. Regrettably, however, it is currently unavailable to scholars. In 2010, it was sold by Henry Sothern Limited to a private collector in Switzerland (see Piccadilly Notes 56 [2010] item 100, no. 11).

Dickens and Dufton were not strangers. Elsewhere in the volume housing the Dickens letter (noted below) is a manuscript note, dated 1846, from George Cruikshank to Dufton, written on behalf of Dickens and the Committee of the Ashford Mechanics’ Institution, thanking Dufton for sending a lecture, as requested.

The letter is captioned Devonshire Terrace. Dickens lived at 1 Devonshire Terrace (now 15-17 Marylebone Road, Marylebone), near Regent’s Park, from December 1939–1851.

John Dufton was rector of Warehorne, in the Ashford Borough of Kent and the author of other ephemeral publications including National Education, What it is and What it Should be (1848).

The letter has escaped detection because it was all but buried within an extra-illustrated copy of Blanchard Jerrold’s Life of George Cruikshank (1882). As Ron Becker, head of Special Collections and University Archives, discovered in a search of the archives of the Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries, Don Sinclair, curator emeritus of Special Collections, recorded the acquisition of the volume in 1956:

Without doubt the most striking single gift is that of the Class of 1933, which had presented earlier an extra-illustrated set of Benjamin West material. The present gift, preserved in the same form, is the Jesse Metcalf collection of George Cruikshank prints and manuscripts. It is interleaved in a first edition of Blanchard Jerrold’s Life of George Cruikshank (1882), published originally in two octavo volumes, here expanded to seven gilt-edged, large folio volumes bound in scarlet crushed Levant morocco. The items have not been counted, but a careful estimate places the number of prints at nearly a thousand, with perhaps six dozen manuscript letters. Virtually all types of Cruikshank’s artistic work are represented (oil paintings excluded): etchings, some in color, woodcuts, at least one original watercolor, etc.; caricatures, book illustrations for Dickens and others. His well-known Temperance series, The Bottle (1847) and The Drunkard's Children (1848), are present. The first volume also contains his famous Specimen of a Bank Note—not to be imitated (1818), a bitter, effective caricature inspired by the hanging of several women convicted of passing counterfeit notes. Engraved in banknote style, it shows eleven hooded figures hanging by the neck, and other macabre decorations. (19:2)

George Cruikshank (1792–1878) was an important caricaturist, illustrator, and print-maker, perhaps best known now for his illustrations of Sketches by Boz (1836) and Oliver Twist (1838). In George Cruikshank, Life, Times and Art: Volume 1, 1792–1835, Robert E. Patton notes that Ruskin thought him second only to Rembrandt in etching (8). “He infused his pictures with a humor at times bawdy, crude, sentimental, inconsequent, grotesque, bathetic, or pathetic. Like Dickens, to whom he was frequently compared, he was both a ‘special correspondent to posterity,’ focusing a journalist’s eye on the rapidly changing world around him, and a visionary humanist, outraged by injustice, greed, and folly, sympathetic to the defenseless and neglected,moralistic toward those who abused their power, their prerogatives, their neighbors, or their bodies.” (8)

Michael Joseph, rare book librarian
Kevin Mulcahy, humanities librarian