Posted - 20-02-2012


The Mystery of Charles Dickens

Following the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens on 7 February, let me draw your attention to his mysterious activities in the days before his death, aged 58, on Thursday, 9 June 1870. In 1965, the National Library purchased numerous items from the library of G.V. Roberts of Tenby, a keen collector of literary manuscripts. Among those items was a cheque for £21, signed by Dickens on 6 June 1870, made payable to ‘home and sundries’, and cashed at Rochester (NLW MS 19400D).
On the afternoon of Monday, 6 June 1870, the ailing Dickens walked from his home at Gad’s Hill Place into Rochester to post letters. He was observed staring there at a building which would later posthumously appear in his unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Seemingly, he also went into a bank to obtain some cash, the equivalent today of over £1,500 pounds. There is nothing unusual in such behaviour from a wealthy man, but the wider context would seem to suggest that something was afoot …

Claire Tomalin, in her recent biography of Dickens, draws attention to another short journey undertaken by the novelist, this time on the morning of Wednesday, 8 June 1870 – the day of his fatal illness – to visit his neighbour, the landlord of the Falstaff Inn, and to cash a cheque for £22. Having raised £43 (the equivalent of over £3,200 today) during the last 3 days of his life, a substantial amount of money should have been discovered at Gad’s Hill Place when Dickens died that Thursday evening. However, one of the first actions of his housekeeper and sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth after his death was to write to the family solicitor to say that only £6.6s.3d had been found in the pockets of Dickens’s suit. What had happened to the remaining £36.13s.9d?

Claire Tomalin in The Invisible Woman: the story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1991) attempted to construct an alternative narrative to the widely accepted account of Dickens’s last day of consciousness, Wednesday, 8 June 1870. Drawing on some eyewitness accounts, Tomalin suggested that Dickens secretly travelled to London that day to visit his mistress, Nelly Ternan at their house in Linden Grove, where he gave her ‘housekeeping money’. It was there that he collapsed, and from there that he was taken in a closed-carriage to die respectfully at home in Rochester.

The Tomalin theory has been wildly debated, but it seems that the National Library’s cheque may be another of the small pieces that make up a new picture of Charles Dickens’s final days. The recipient of our £21 may well have been the mysterious Nelly Ternan …

Maredudd ap Huw

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