It was in February 1852 that Charles Dickens turned 40; this would be the year he would commence writing what many consider to be his most accomplished novel (and the only one to mention dinosaurs), Bleak House.
As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Bleak House, Chapter One.
The reference, far from being prehistoric, is entirely contemporary. The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace just two years earlier had allowed for lifesize models of the exciting new finds – Megalosaurus and Iguanadon – to be unveiled to an amazed public as yet unfamiliar with the name of dinosaur (in the event, the reconstruction of Megalosaurus by Gideon Mantell, faithfully followed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, was quite incorrect, imagining the biped as a lumbering quadruped more like a crocodile). With the exhibition over by 1851, in 1852 the models were on their way to their current home in Crystal Palace Park.
As for the 40-year old Dickens, Bleak House marked a transition in his writing from the comic novels of Pickwick and Nickleby to the darker social commentaries of Little Dorrit and Dombey (although there was a limit to his political ambitions – on 9 June 1852 he wrote to once again refuse an invitation to run for parliament). His contemporaries were divided on this new direction in his writing: Bentley’s Miscellany noted ‘the almost entire absence of humour’ while H F Chorley said ‘There is progress in art to praised in this book – and there is progress in exaggeration to be deprecated’, and it would be some time before Dickens’ later novels would begin to attract the praise given to his earlier works.
Aside from Megalosaurus, Bleak House also famously contains a rather poisonous depiction of Dickens’ friend Leigh Hunt in the figure of Skimpole, and Dickens’ letters show his concern over making this less barbed and explicit- ‘I think I have made it much less like’ (18 March 1852) – changing the character’s first name from Leonard to Horace (avoiding a shared initial with Hunt’s first name). Elsewhere the 40-year-old Dickens was praising the work of the ‘charming’ Elizabeth Gaskell whose work he had found ‘delightful, and touched in the tenderest and most delicate manner’ (21 Dec 1851) – Gaskell’s Cranford was being published serially in Dickens’ journal Household Words from late 1851 to early 1852. But perhaps the most significant liaison with another writer at this time, for Dickens personally, was his introduction to Wilkie Collins. They had met in late 1851 through their involvement as actors in Bulwer Lytton’s play Not So Bad As We Seem, which had been written to spearhead Dicken and Bulwer Lytton’s initiative for The Guild of Literature and Art (it was not unusual for Dickens to do such things, in April 1852 he also co-wrote ‘Drooping Buds’ with Henry Morley for Household Words to raise awareness for the Great Ormond Street Hospital and save it from financial ruin). By 1852 Collins had swapped parts for a bigger role, and he and Dickens were playing together on the London stage and the foundations were laid for a profound relationship.
Personally Dickens was adjusting to life in Tavistock House, which he had recently moved to in late 1851, and which would be the scene of many private theatrical events. 39 had been a difficult age for Dickens; both his father, John, and his infant daughter Dora had died in 1851, and though by the time of his 40th birthday Dickens and Catherine were expecting what would be their last child, Edward Plorn Dickens, the loss of the other child made him fearful of complications with this next one: after visiting Dora’s grave in Highgate cemetary he wrote to Forster ‘Sad to think how all journeys tend that way’, whilst simultaneously anticipating Plorn’s birth (9 March 1852).
Last but not least, I have to mention the facial hair. Once in his 40s, the clean-shaven Dickens began experimenting with a moustache and beard, partly in response to the growing fashion and partly as playful competition with Wilkie Collins – ‘the moustache remains, and now looks enormous: but the beard I have sacrificed as a dread warning to competitors’ (25 October 1853). His friends feared it aged him, but in embracing it Dickens moved on from the fair-faced youth depicted by Maclise to become the far more familiar and iconic figure by which we know him today. In his management of his own image, the death of his father, and his literary progression from comic novel to social satire, Dickens in his 40th year was setting aside his youth and commencing a new phase of maturity.
Dickens at Buckingham: Charles Dickens is a key figure to a great deal of the department’s research; recent projects we have launched include Dickens Journals Online and The Drood Inquiry, while Dickens’ novels and journalism feature respectively in our undergraduate modules on Victorian Fiction and Literary Journalism.