The Death of Charles Dickens

In May 1867, Charles Dickens began considering a second tour of America. His motivations were purely financial and, as much as he hated the thought of leaving his mistress, Ellen Lawless Ternan, behind, he believed that a series of public readings in the US would be far more profitable than another novel. Thus, on 19 November 1867, after a farewell banquet, he set sail for Boston, arriving on 2 December, and departed from New York on 22 April 1868.

Charles DickensFinancially the American tour was a great success. Dickens gave 76 readings to over 100,000 people and made a profit of £19,000 (around £860,000 in modern currency). His reputation, however, did not fare so well. The American press criticised him heavily for his legal separation from his wife, Catherine, and rumours of adultery. He was also regularly portrayed as greedy and materialistic. Poor health, particularly exhaustion, also plagued the tour.

Back in England, Dickens enjoyed a brief rest before planning a farewell tour across Britain. He began in London in October 1868 and, by the following January, had added a new piece to his repertoire, the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist. It mesmerised and terrified his audience but left Dickens visibly drained of all energy. Despite health warnings from friends and doctors, he refused to abandon the Nancy murder scene.

The Final Novel

He did, however, have to abandon the tour on 22 April 1869 after completing 74 of his scheduled 100 performances. His health may have deteriorated but his mind was fitter than ever and he began working on his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Set in the fictional town of Cloisterham, the novel focuses on the supposed murder of Edwin Drood and the possible guilt of his uncle, John Jasper.

During composition of the novel and before the first instalment appeared on 31 March 1870, Dickens completed twelve public readings in London which he finished with the famous words: ‘from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful and affectionate farewell’. On 9 March he met with Queen Victoria and discussed the issue of class divisions in England, a problem he hoped ‘would get better in time.’

After writing six instalments of the novel, Dickens suffered a stroke on 8 June at Gad’s Hill from which he died the following day. It has been suggested that Dickens experienced the stroke at his home with Ellen in Peckham and was transferred to Gad’s Hill in secret to avoid a scandal but this story remains unconfirmed. Though he wished to be buried ‘in the small graveyard under Rochester Castle wall’, he was, in fact, buried at Westminster Abbey on 14 June 1870.

Dickens In An HourKaye Jones

For more, see Kaye’s Charles Dickens: History In An Hour published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and audio.

See also Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory and Dickens and the Marshalsea Prison.