Fanny Dickens: the sister set to be more famous than Charles by Lucinda Dickens Hawksley

Highgate cemetery west

Highgate Cemetery West where Fanny Dickens is buried. [via]

When Charles Dickens was a child, he felt in the shadow of his older sister. Frances (known in the family as Fanny) was born in 1810, and John and Elizabeth Dickens anticipated that it was she who would make the family name famous.

In March 1823, Fanny became a student at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London*, at a time when family finances were already very strained. Years later, Charles admitted to John Forster (his first biographer) how much it hurt to see his adored sister go off to school and win prizes, when his own education seemed to have been forgotten and he had been sent out to work.

At that time, the Royal Academy of Music was in the former home of an earl, at 4 Tenterden Street near Hanover Square. Fanny’s sponsor was a piano-maker from Soho named Thomas Tomkison, who was, perhaps, a friend of her parents. She was taught piano by Ignaz Moscheles,** a Jewish emigrant from Bohemia. Moscheles had previously lived in Vienna, and was a friend and pupil of Ludwig van Beethoven. The Academy’s archives record that examinations took place on 23 June 1824 and Fanny won two prizes: “Miss Dickens for general good conduct [and] improvement in music” and “Miss Dickens 2nd prize piano, silver pencil case.”

Fanny’s schooling was, however, often marred by her father’s inability to pay her fees. A letter survives from John Dickens, dated 25 May 1826, in which he suggests a payment plan, offering to pay “£10 quarterly from the 24th June next and the same to continue until the account is finally closed”. The Academy’s minutes noted “To be answered:  the Committee will be satisfied with £15 a quarter provided it be properly secured.” On 22 November 1826, a letter was sent to John Dickens warning him that, if he didn’t pay, Fanny would have to leave the Academy.

In 1827, Fanny was taken on as a sub-professor and paid “seven shillings for two hours, three times per week.” She seems to have held this position until 1829, when, as she only had one pupil, the Academy could not afford to keep paying her. Fanny went on to become a professional musician. A review of her singing a Haydn ballad in an Academy concert survives from the Morning Chronicle of 1835:

“...we have no hesitation in saying we never before heard it sung in so pure and simple a style, or with a more true and touching expression. It was encored with expressions of the warmest delight.”

Fanny influenced several of her brother’s fictional characters, including “Little Fan”, the younger sister of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and Florence Dombey, beloved older sister of Paul in Dombey and Son.

Fanny Dickens by S. Laurence 1836Fanny Dickens by Samuel Laurence 1836 

This portrait, believed to be of Fanny, was painted in 1836. The artist is Samuel Laurence, a family friend. The following year, Fanny married Henry Burnett, a fellow musician. They settled in Manchester and had two sons, Harry and Charles. Harry was a very sickly child, who inspired Charles Dickens to create the characters of both Paul Dombey and Tiny Tim. When Fanny became very ill with consumption (tuberculosis), Charles tried desperately to find a doctor who could cure her, but Fanny died on 2 September 1848, and Harry died soon afterwards. They were buried together at Highgate Cemetery in North London.

Frontispiece to the Haunted Man J. Leech

Frontispiece to The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain by John Leech

That year Dickens wrote the Christmas book, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. It included the touching words: “My sister, doubly dear, doubly devoted – lived on to see me famous, – and then died – died gentle as ever, happy, and with no concern but for her brother.”


* See the Royal Academy of Music’s student register from 1823 to 1824  and accounts from 1828

** Coincidentally, many years later Ignaz Moscheles’ granddaughter, Marie Roche, would marry Fanny’s nephew, Henry Fielding Dickens. Henry was the eighth child of Charles and Catherine Dickens and my great great grandfather.


Select Bibliography:

Carlton, William J. “Fanny Dickens: Pianist and Vocalist” The Dickensian vol.53 (1957), pp.133-143

Collins, Philip, Dickens: Interviews and Recollections, Springer, 1981

Hawksley, Lucinda, Katey, The Life and Loves of Dickens’ Artist Daughter, Doubleday, 2006

Hawksley, Lucinda Charles Dickens and his Circle, NPG, 2016

Langton, Robert, The Childhood and Youth of Charles Dickens, F.R. Hist. Soc., 1883

Rintoul, M.C., Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction, Routledge, 2014

Slater, Michael, Dickens and Women, Stanford, 1983

With thanks to Ilse Woloszko at the Royal Academy of Music archives and to my cousin Henry Roche, both of whom provided me with extra information.


Lucinda is a great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles and Catherine Dickens, and therefore a great x4 niece of Fanny Burnett. She is an author, lecturer and broadcaster, and a patron of the Charles Dickens Museum. Her recent books include Charles Dickens and His Circle (National Portrait Gallery, 2016) and Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home (Thames & Hudson, 2017).


Loved my visit to the museum. I grew up in Kent, surrounded by Dickens and have visited many of the places that he is associated with. I have performed as Nancy and am also proud to call Gerald Dickens a friend. I now live in Hampstead and but did not realise that Fanny and Harry are buried in Highgate just down the road! Great article.

Very interesting article. I love the way Dickens used his personal experiences to develop his characters.

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