Charles Dickens and Australia

Watercolour of Abel Magwitch from Great Expect...

Abel Magwitch, from Wikipedia

Two hundred years ago this year, Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth on 7 February.  As a result, we are about to be drowned in Dickensiana.  So I thought I’d get in early by looking at one common element in many of Dickens’ novels, his use of Australia as a plot device.

After a grim beginning working in a factory sticking on labels, Dickens started work as a reporter at the age of 16 in 1828.  He taught himself shorthand, giving him an edge in reporting parliamentary debates and court cases – all grist for the mill in his later novels.  His first book, Sketches by Boz, came out in 1836 – and he was on his way.

Like most Englishmen of his time, Dickens began with only a rudimentary knowledge of Australia, but when did that ever stop a novelist?  For most people, Australia was best known as the place where convicts were sent – and in his early novels he transports his baddies there: John Edmunds from Pickwick Papers (1836-7), Mr Squeers from Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9), and Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (1849-50) – who probably avoided transportation, since the last transport ship to Van Diemen’s Land sailed in 1851.

Fagin goes to the gallows in Oliver Twist (1837), but he is modelled on a real life character, Ikey Solomon, who ended his life in Van Diemen’s Land.  Solomon’s real story is far more fascinating than that of Fagin, the cardboard cut-out Jew.  The novelist Bryce Courtenay tells it in The Potato Factory (1995).

By the time Dickens wrote Great Expectations (1861), he created a convict, Abel Magwitch, who is a much more complex character than his early efforts.  Peter Carey has re-written the story as literary fiction in Jack Maggs (1997).

At first Dickens only saw Australia as a place of transportation, but by the 1840s, free emigration to the Australian colonies was becoming important.  This sparked Dickens’ interest.  He supported a number of emigration schemes, including the Family Colonization Loan Society, started by Caroline Chisholm.

In David Copperfield (1849-50), Dickens sends an absolute torrent of redundant characters – the Micawbers, Mr Peggotty and Little Em’ly, Mrs Gummidge – to New South Wales at the end of the book, and just to round things off nicely, he then has Mr. Peggotty return, 10 years later, to tell David just how successful they have all been.  Mr Micawber has become a magistrate!  Mrs Gummidge received an offer of marriage!! Martha has married a farm labourer, and they now live happily on their own land, 400 miles from the nearest settlement.

And Em’ly?  Well, the great thing about migration was that the past could be forgotten, and even a fallen woman could re-establish herself.  As Mr. Peggotty said as they left: ‘No one can’t reproach my darling in Australia.’

In 1851, gold was discovered in Australia, reinforcing the message of David Copperfield that emigration was a Good Thing.  Two of Dickens’ own sons, Alfred and Edward, migrated to Australia during the 1860s, perhaps influenced by their father’s optimism.  Both had their ups and downs – but at least they got away from their workaholic father and could put their parents’ scandalous marriage breakdown behind them.

Alfred Ducote, 1832

Alfred Ducote, E-migration, or a Flight of Fair Game

But what was the impact in Australia of Dickens’ emigration myth making?  Little Em’ly’s redemption made a good story – but it must have made things very much worse for many women who migrated to Australia during the following years.  Colonists were always wary of single women who travelled alone, outside the family group.  At best they were husband hunters; at worst, they must have something to hide.  Mr. Peggotty was wrong; colonists were more than eager to reproach young women who might have a tarnished history.

As was often the case, Dickens tried to have it both ways.  He supported the Family Colonization Society, and encouraged both Caroline Chisholm and Angela Burdett-Coutts, another advocate of female emigration.  But he also mercilessly lampooned Chisholm as Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House (1852-3), the philanthropist forever in pursuit of good causes, but without any time to care for her own family.  A bit like Charles Dickens himself, really.

12 responses to “Charles Dickens and Australia

  1. Another interesting (and unlikely) Australian link is that it’s been claimed that the story of the “jilted bride” Eliza Emily Donnithorne of Camperdown inspired the character of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

  2. Thanks, Josh. Yes, her story is in the Australian Dictionary of Biography here –
    The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has another candidate, Jane Lewson, 1699/1700-1816 (!!), but I think Eliza Donnithorne is much more likely. Her wedding was set for 1856, 5 years before Great Expectations was published.

  3. The most recent Sydney University Museums Newsletter featured articles both about Dicken’s connection to Sir Charles Nicholson (namesake of the Nicholson Museum – and perhaps some of reason for his penchant for Aust.) and also the plausible connection between Eliza Emily Donnithorne and Miss Havisham in Great Expectation. If anyone wanted wanted some further reading?

    • Thanks so much Suzanne. Both articles are interesting, and take the Dickens links so much further.

      I’m not sure what to make of the Eliza Donnithorne / Miss Havisham story. It certainly seems to have gone a long way past the original ADB article about Eliza, which is many years old. The link with Stuart Alexander Donaldson is interesting but puzzling. Donaldson was involved during the 1840s with a woman called Eliza. She got pregnant, and he sent her back to England to his brothers. There are a few elusive mentions of her in his correspondence with his brothers, but as I understand it, she was married so he couldn’t marry her – or maybe he was a serial jilter!

      It’s so hard reconstructing gossip. Fun though!!

  4. Mary-Ann Turnbull

    One of Dicken’s sons is buried in the Moree (NSW) cemetery, and am I right in thinking that another is buried in the Hamilton (Victoria) cemetery. He certainly was in the Hamilton area and a founding member of the Hamilton Club.

    • Hi Mary-Ann. I’ve just checked the Australian Dictionay of Biography. Edward Dickens died in Moree in 1912, and was buried there. Alfred lived in Hamilton until 1882, then moved to Melbourne – but he died in America on a lecture tour (talking about Dad?) in 1912, so presumably he’s buried there somewhere. Mind you, the ADB isn’t 100% accurate, especially as this was written just as an afterthought to the article on Charles D.

  5. Michael Allen

    Dear Mary Ann – thanks for the very interesting blog. If you can get hold of a copy I know you would be interested in my book “Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory”, a result of brand new research which suggests Fagin was based on somebody Dickens knew as a child called Henry Worms. He was transported to Australia for handling stolen goods in 1825, and I understand his descendants are still thriving there. He is a much more likely model for Fagin than Ikey Solomons.
    Best wishes, Michael Allen.

  6. Jacqueline Holdich

    My great-great-great grandfather, John Henry Barrow, Charles Dickens’ uncle, taught Charles shorthand. Barrow employed his nephew , Charles, as a reporter for the ‘Mirror of Parliament’, a superior rival of ‘Hansard’ at the time,no doubt because of more detailed recording of proceedings of The House of Commons and The House of Lords. Barrow was the owner and editor of this weekly publication.
    Jacqueline Holdich

  7. Hi thanks for this wonderful blog post. However, I don’t think Uriah Heep would have avoided transportation for the simple fact that David Copperfield, though written between 1849-1850, was actually set between the early 1810s (when David is born) to the early 1840s (about the time the novel ends wwhen Mr Peggooty visits David, Agnes and their family). The bulk of the novel’s action, including Uriah Heep’s crimes, occur in either the late 1820s or early 1830s, when transportation was going on. Just thought I’d mention that.

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