Money or emotion: the different values of Victorian wills

Louisa Price is the curator at the Charles Dickens Museum

By Louisa Price

New exhibitions at the Charles Dickens Museum never cease to surprise me, frequently introducing me to subjects which I must investigate myself before I can hope to explain them to visitors - the history of street furniture  and the weird and wonderful world of Droodiana to name just two! This year’s exhibition, The Other Dickens: Discovering Catherine Dickens, has been a particularly steep learning curve as I needed to grapple with the difficult area of historical wills. I’ve learnt a huge amount about how to read these special legal documents, both in terms of language and form, as well as being challenged about how to present them to the public.


Last will and testament of Catherine Dickens

The Last Will and Testament of Catherine Dickens, Ministry of Justice

For The Other Dickens, the Museum teamed up with the author of Catherine Dickens’s biography, Professor Lillian Nayder.  As we began to consider what documents to focus on in the exhibition, Catherine and Charles Dickens’s wills were brought up. Professor Nayder explained that middle-class Victorian men and women wrote their wills in different ways. Men generally combined property, focused on business interests and gave priority to male relatives. Women commonly did the reverse; emphasising personal and emotional values and spreading items and small amounts of money among a wide range of relatives and friends. 

Michael Slater, in his biography of the novelist, points out that Dickens’s will can be seen as his last great literary work – ‘a composition… which he knew would be read by vast numbers of people’. Dickens makes a point of defiantly naming his mistress Ellen Ternan first in the document (though interestingly, he then tries to conceal the nature of their relationship by bequeathing her the same amount as his daughter Mamie). He only mentions some of his children, he calls Catherine simply ‘my wife’, heaps praise on his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth and fails to mention his only surviving sister, Leticia Austin (Nayder supposes this to be because of her close ties to Catherine).  The will is Dickens’s way of explaining his personal life, or, as Slater puts it, ‘Dickens’s second public attempt to impose his own masterful interpretation on his domestic history’.

Lat will and testament of Charles Dickens

The Last Will and Testament of Charles Dickens, Charles Dickens Museum

Catherine Dickens’s will is also the subject of one of the chapters in Nayder’s book, The Other Dickens. Catherine’s will is far more democratic: she acknowledges each of her children, followed by their spouses, her brothers and sisters, her grandchildren, servants and friends. Dickens is often mentioned. His photograph and books are left to family members. Catherine also often explains where an object comes from and who had owned it before. In doing so, she leaves her heirs with a sense of family history which is interconnected and inclusive as well as positioning herself at the centre of the family rather than at its margins.

Painting of Charles Dickens as Sir Charles Coldstream in the Play ‘Used up’, 1850s

Painting of Charles Dickens as Sir Charles Coldstream in the Play ‘Used up’, 1850s. The painting was owned by Catherine Dickens and bequeathed to her son Charley Dickens, Charles Dickens Museum

A bracelet bequeathed by Catherine Dickens to her daughter Katey Perugini

A bracelet bequeathed by Catherine Dickens to her daughter Katey Perugini, on loan to the Museum, Charles Dickens Museum

A Victorian will is also a very difficult document because all their fascinating insights into a person’s life comes wrapped up in stylised, hard-to-read script and dense legal language. For The Other Dickens, we were faced with the challenge of pulling back the curtain of impenetrable font and legal-ese to reveal the details of Catherine Dickens’s will for our visiting public. We turned to sound artist Felicity Ford and illustrator Millie Nice for help.

For the exhibition we received an Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts to fund a project called Hearing Catherine.  Felicity Ford was commissioned to create six sound pieces made up of carefully sourced field-recordings with extracts of text to give presence to the memory of Catherine Dickens at 48 Doughty Street. Felicity chose Catherine’s will as the subject of the last piece. It begins with the text of the will read aloud by actress Rachel Moffat, overlaid with field recordings to suggest the texture and origin of some of the items mentioned. It feels like you are privy to a very intimate moment: Catherine reads her will, acknowledging each person whilst naming and touching the special items that she plans to give them. Felicity describes the piece as celebrating the will ‘as an expression of Catherine’s material and emotional ties with her extended family.’

 Will Installation for Discovering Catherine

Installation of Catherine Dickens's Will, Charles Dickens Museum

One of the goals of the exhibition was to give Catherine a voice in the house and to achieve this we decided to paint large excerpts from the will down the staircase of the Museum. We asked illustrator Millie Nice, to take on this task. With ornate, feminine script, flowers and flourishes, Millie brought out the beauty in Catherine’s will and also demonstrated the interconnectedness between object and person in the document.

Illuminated text of Catherine Dickens's Will by Millie Nice

Illuminated text of the Last Will and Testament of Catherine Dickens on the stairs of the Charles Dickens Museum by Millie Nice

Getting at legal documents can be a problem. Fortunately the government has recently launched their ‘Wills and Probate’ database, allowing users to access the wills of those who have died after 1858. For many, this service assists with complicated family matters after the death of a relative. For other historically-minded people like us, the service is a means to access one of the best source documents for historical research. We are grateful to the Ministry of Justice who kindly gave us access to scanned versions of Catherine’s will for this exhibition and for Felicity Ford and Millie Nice who helped reveal the details of this important document to our visitors in new, creative ways.

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Museum Blog

This blog takes you behind the scenes at the Charles Dickens Museum, giving fresh insight on everything from discoveries new and old in our collection, to exhibitions, events and learning initiatives.

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