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CHARLES DICKENS  IN EXETER

(1812 - 1870 )

 

From a letter published in the local press in 1916:

"For the sake of those who might be interested in the facts, it may be stated that Charles Dickens was a good deal at Exeter, and is credited with having secured at least four of his characters in the City and its neighbourhood. Joe, the Fat Boy who was Mr. Wardle's servant in The Pickwick Papers, was drawn from a youth at The Turk's Head in the High Street, a favourite haunt of Dickens, and Mrs Lupin of the Blue Dragon in Martin Chuzzelewit is  believed to have been founded upon the landlady of an Alphington Inn.

 

Dicken's first visit to Exeter appears to have been 1835 when he came down for the newspaper he was then employed by, for the election in which Lord John Russell was taking part, presideing a ta dinner of the newspaper Press Fund thirty years later, he related his experience in the Castle Yard and recorded two local colleagues - one being accepted as the late Mr. Thomas latimer - held a handkerchief over his notebook " after the manner of a state canopy over an ecclesiastical procession" in order to keep off the pelting rain."

 

Dickens was a prolific letter writer. Here's his own account of the same incident

 

"The very last time I was at Exeter, I strolled into the castle-yard there to identify, for the amusement of a friend, the spot on which I once took, as we used to call it, an election speech of my noble friend Lord Russell, in the midst of a lively fight maintained by all the vagabonds in that division of the county, and under such pelting rain, that I remember two good-natured colleagues, who chanced to be at leisure, held a pocket-handkerchief over my note-book, after the manner of a State canopy in an ecclesiastical procession.

 

The writer of the letter continues:

"Four years afterwards, he was again at Exeter and stayed at the New London Inn.  He had come down apparently, with the object of settling his father and mother here. Taking a walk as far as Alphington, he was much impressed with the village, the bustle of the stage coaches and so forth, and at once took Mile End Cottage*, which has since been modernised."

(*Although Dickens was a frequent visitor to the cottage during the three and a half years his parents lived there, he never lived there himself. )

 

Mile End Cottage, Alphington Road, Exeter

Mile End Cottage - now one single property.

In Dicken's day this was two cottages

 

No need to return to the newspaper to see how this went -  Dickens tells us himself in a letter written from the New London Inn on March 5 1839:

 

"I took a little house for them this morning, and if they are not pleased with it I shall be grievously disappointed. Exactly a mile beyond the city on the Plymouth road there are two white cottages: one is theirs and the other belongs to their landlady. I almost forget the number of rooms, but there is an excellent parlor with two other rooms on the ground floor, there is really a beautiful little room over the parlour which I am furnishing as a drawing-room, and there is a splendid garden. The paint and paper throughout is new and fresh and cheerful-looking, the place is clean beyond all description, and the neighborhood I suppose the most beautiful in this most beautiful of English counties.

Of the landlady, a Devonshire widow with whom I had the honor of taking lunch to-day, I must make most especial mention. She is a fat, infirm, splendidly-fresh-faced country dame, rising sixty and recovering from an attack 'on the nerves'--I thought they never went off the stones, but I find they try country air with the best of us. In the event of my mother's being ill at any time, I really think the vicinity of this good dame, the very picture of respectability and good humor, will be the greatest possible comfort. _Her_ furniture and domestic arrangements are a capital picture, but that I reserve till I see you, when I anticipate a hearty laugh. She bears the highest character with the bankers and the clergyman (who formerly lived in my cottage himself), and is a kind-hearted. worthy, capital specimen of the sort of life, or I have no eye for the real and no idea of finding it out. "

This good lady's brother and his wife live in the next nearest cottage, and the brother transacts the good lady's business, the nerves not admitting of her transacting it herself, although they leave her in her debilitated state something sharper than the finest lancet. Now, the brother having coughed all night till he coughed himself into such a perspiration that you might have 'wringed his hair,' according to the asseveration of eye-witnesses, his wife was sent for to negotiate with me; and if you could have seen me sitting in the kitchen with the two old women, endeavoring to make them comprehend that I had no evil intentions or covert designs, and that I had come down all that way to take some cottage and had _happened_ to walk down that road and see that particular one, you would never have forgotten it. Then, to see the servant-girl run backwards and forwards to the sick man, and when the sick man had signed one agreement which I drew up and the old woman instantly put away in a disused tea-caddy, to see the trouble and the number of messages it took before the sick man could be brought to sign another (a duplicate) that we might have one apiece, was one of the richest scraps of genuine drollery I ever saw in all my days. How, when the business was over, we became conversational; how I was facetious, and at the same time virtuous and domestic; how I drank toasts in the beer, and stated on interrogatory that I was a married man and the father of two blessed infants; how the ladies marvelled thereat; how one of the ladies, having been in London, inquired where I lived, and, being told, remembered that Doughty Street and the Foundling Hospital were in the Old Kent Road, which I didn't contradict,--all this and a great deal more must make us laugh when I return, as it makes me laugh now to think of.

Of my subsequent visit to the upholsterer recommended by the landlady; of the absence of the upholsterer's wife, and the timidity of the upholsterer fearful of acting in her absence; of my sitting behind a high desk in a little dark shop, calling over the articles in requisition and checking off the prices as the upholsterer exhibited the goods and called them out; of my coming over the upholsterer's daughter with many virtuous endearments, to propitiate the establishment and reduce the bill; of these matters I say nothing, either, for the same reason as that just mentioned. The discovery of the cottage I seriously regard as a blessing (not to speak it profanely) upon our efforts in this cause. I had heard nothing from the bank, and walked straight there, by some strange impulse, directly after breakfast. I am sure they may be happy there; for if I were older, and my course of activity were run, I am sure  I could, with God's blessing, for many and many a year.". . .

 

The lengthy 1916 letter which took up most of a column in the newspaper goes on to discuss whether Exeter was the model for the fictional town of Eatonswill in the Pickwick Papers and the setting for the election described in this book. Opinion today is that it was not because at that time, Dickens did not know the area as he came to know it later. But he did come here quite early on in his career, to give public readings. This was the means by which writers made their books known. The book was published in parts but the writer would visit selected places, read from the latest part and then give just a little taster of what was going to happen next, ensuring that the next part of his work would find some buyers. This was normally done by the author at his or her own expense but by the late 1850s, Dickens was being paid by libraries and book-sellers to travel round the country, giving what had become his enormously popular readings.

Again, another of his letters tells us about his relationship with Exeter:

 

This is what he wrote to  his publisher when he returned home at the end of what must have been a gruelling tour taking in several counties.

'On Friday we came from Shrewsbury to Chester;saw all right for the evening ; and then went to Liverpool. Came back from Liverpool and read at Chester. Left Chester at 11 at night, after the reading, and went to London. Got to Tavistock House (his London  home) at 5 A.M: on Saturday,  l eft it at a quarter past 10 that morning, and came down  here' (Gadshill - his home in the country -  15th of August 1858).

The greatest personal affection and respect greeted me everywhere. Nothing could have been  more strongly marked or warmly expressed; and the readings went quite wonderfully. What in this respect  most impressed me, at the outset, was Exeter. I think they were the finest audience I ever read to.  I don't think I ever read in some respects so well ; and  I  never beheld anything like the personal affection which they poured out upon me at the end. I shall always  look back upon it with pleasure."

 

 
 
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