A Very Dickens Birthday by Emily Smith
150 years ago, Charles Dickens celebrated his 56th birthday. This birthday was like no other as it fell during his American Reading Tour.
Charles Dickens was born on the 7th of February 1812. His birthday remained a special occasion throughout his adult life. He wrote in a humorous letter to young master W H Hughes (who was five years old at the time) ‘I always go to bed at eight o'clock except when it is my birthday, and then I sit up to supper.’
An image of young Wilkie Collins, who was often invited to walk and dine with Dickens on his birthday.
Dickens’s annual celebration usually consisted of an intimate dinner surrounded by his closest friends. His letters frequently detail who was lucky enough to be invited to the ‘Inimitable's Birthday.’ The most frequent guests included John Forster, Thomas Beard, Peter Cunningham and Wilkie Collins. The dinner was often held at home, or one of Dickens's favourite restaurants. Sometimes the day also included one of Dickens’s favourite past times, a long walk. He quite frequently asked some of his friends to join him, but they had to make sure to bring ‘a clean pair of boots, for comfort's sake, in a carpet bag.’ On one of these walks, Dickens spotted his future home, Gad’s Hill was up for sale. He wrote ‘The spot and the very house are literally a dream of my childhood.’ Little could prevent Dickens from taking a birthday stroll, even the weather. On his 43rd birthday, Dickens ‘walked from Gravesend to Rochester between walls of snow varying from three to six feet high’. The birthday tradition of a walk and a meal shows that this is likely to have been Dickens’s favourite way to celebrate this special day.
Dickens’s walking stick, with an engraved handle. Charles Dickens Museum Collection (DH717).
Dickens’s usual birthday routine was broken when he travelled to America from November 1867 to April 1868. His birthday fell halfway through his Reading Tour and he was suffering from a severe cold while staying in Washington. He writes to Georgina Hogarth that if anyone saw him in the morning, it would cause doubts ‘that I could not possibly read at night. But I have always come up to the scratch.’ Even a severe cold would not stop Dickens from entertaining his audience. However, this birthday would prove to be a memorable one for a far different reason. Dickens said ‘I couldn't help laughing at myself on my birthday at Washington. It was observed as much as though I were a little boy.’ The American newspapers wrote that it was his birthday and as a result, he was sent a tremendous number of gifts. ‘Flowers and garlands (of the most exquisite kind) bloomed all over the room, letters radiant with good wishes poured in, a shirt pin, a handsome silver travelling bottle, a set of gold shirt studs, and a set of gold sleeve links were on the dinner-table.’
Two stereoscopic images of Dickens aged 56. When viewed with a stereoscope, a three-dimensional image would be seen. Charles Dickens Museum Collection (E198).
He was delighted, and the gifts came from ‘all sorts of people’. But that was not all. The very same day, Charles Dickens also met President of the United States, Andrew Johnson. Dickens describes his meeting with the president in much less detail than the gifts he had received and his head cold. Dickens does not indicate what the two men spoke about, but he does say that the president was ‘a man of very remarkable appearance indeed, of tremendous firmness of purpose. Not to be turned, or trifled with.’ It does not appear to have been the friendliest of meetings as Dickens also says, ‘each of us looked at each other very hard, and each of us managed the interview (I think) to the satisfaction of the other.’
President Andrew Johnson. The two men met on Dickens’s birthday in Washington, 1868. Image source: http://bit.ly/2DQfXS1
After his meeting with the president, Dickens prepared for his readings, predicting that there would likely be more presents waiting for him in the Hall that evening. When he had finished his reading that night ‘the whole audience rose and remained standing and cheering until I went back to the table and made them a little speech.’ He concludes by saying ‘my audiences have been superb.’
Dickens’s 56th birthday was most certainly a memorable one. The number of gifts shows Dickens was greatly admired by his American fans. What is most interesting is that Dickens seems to have been more delighted by the gifts and encounters with his American audience, than his meeting with the American president.
Emily Smith is a PhD student working with the Charles Dickens Museum. She is researching Charles Dickens and the Heritage Industry at Royal Holloway.
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