To Charles Dickens, who has made millions of people roar with laughter and the same millions weep with tears; who, using a technique superior in every way to governmental pressure, court orders, brute force, strikes, sit-ins, and freedom rides, could and did, by writing honest and truthful descriptions of social evils then rampant, put into motion the great force of public opinion which alone had the power to wipe away these injustices.

All the world, particularly the overworked and underprivileged poor, the sick, the weak, the debtors, the prisoners, the unwanted and unhappy children of his day, owed to him an everlasting debt of gratitude. We too have our debt.

Let us raise our glasses to his immortal memory!

This toast was delivered at the reception for the Yale Library Associates in the Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, in 1962. The reception celebrated the opening of an exhibition which commemorated the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s birth. Now, fifty years later, we raise our glasses again to mark the milestone of the Dickens bicentennial with ‘Chapter One. I Am Born: 200 Years of Charles Dickens’, an exhibition celebrating the beloved author’s literary life and afterlife.

Two centuries after his birth in Portsea, a district of Portsmouth, England, Dickens continues to exert a strong pull upon the mind and imagination. Indeed, he became an inspiration for the founder of Reed Publishing and book collector, A. H. Reed (1875–1975). During his mid to late teens, Reed worked hard labour with his father on the North Island gum fields. It was at this time that he read Dickens’s semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield from which the title of this exhibition comes.

Reed was so inspired by the story that he followed in its protagonist’s footsteps and learned shorthand. Reed, then twenty, took his new skill to Auckland where he was employed by the New Zealand Typewriter Company. In 1897, the company relocated Reed to Dunedin where he eventually established the publishing firm that bore his surname. A decade after Reed arrived in Dunedin, he began to collect editions of the English Bible, association books, autograph letters, the works of Samuel Johnson and, most importantly for this year, books by and about his literary idol, Charles Dickens.

Thanks to Reed's donations and subsequent library acquisitions, the Dunedin Public Library currently houses one of the largest collections of Dickensiana held by an institutional or public library in Australasia. The fifty-two items on exhibit range from the nineteenth to twenty-first century. First editions of Dickens’s works, among them The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (case 3), Oliver Twist (case 4), and A Christmas Carol (case 7), take centre stage along with the novels David Copperfield (case 9), Bleak House (case 10) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (case 12) in their serialised monthly parts. Another important feature of the exhibition is the nine original letters by Dickens, which accompany some of his works (cases 2, 3, 8, 9, 10) and offer glimpses into his final decade (case 13).

Though perhaps best known for his novels, Dickens also wrote operettas and travel narratives, and ‘conducted’ two serial publications. Examples of each are on display in the form of first editions of The Village Coquettes (case 2), which includes an original playbill tipped in; American Notes and Pictures from Italy (case 6), and a volume of his long-running weekly All the Year Round (case 11). Some of Dickens’s novels, as well as numerous short stories, appeared for the first time in All the Year Round (and in his previous weekly Household Words). On exhibit is the 1863 Christmas issue, opened to the beginning of Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings and accompanied by the only known surviving manuscript fragment of the story.

Dickens’s life and writings have inspired countless biographies, and a selection from the nineteenth century to the present day is displayed. The biographies range from the 1872/4 three-volume Life of Charles Dickens (case 17) by his friend and contemporary, John Forster, to recent publications by such scholars as Michael Slater (case 21) and Claire Tomalin (case 22). Included in the cases on biography are two volumes from an extra-illustrated copy of Forster’s Life (case 18), expanded to twenty slim volumes by Reed who inserted over 520 letters and manuscripts, engravings, and pieces of ephemera combined.

Rounding out the exhibition is a range of secondary material demonstrating how Dickens’s legacy has been conveyed in literary and popular culture. Dickens societies are found around the world and some ephemera from the former Dunedin Dickens Fellowship, which ran from 1952 to 1988, are on exhibit (case 16). There are scholarly works, like the twelve-volume Pilgrim Edition of Dickens’s letters, the Dickens Studies Annual (both in case 15), and the Oxford series of Dickens’s novels as exemplified by Alan Horsman’s edited edition of Dombey and Son (case 8); but we also have travel books, quotation books, trivia books, and recorded readings (case 14). A selection of each is exhibited, demonstrating the longevity and sustained influence of one of Victorian England’s foremost individuals.

Dickens and New Zealand?

Among the popular culture titles is J. S. Ryan’s Charles Dickens in New Zealand: A Colonial Image with notes by A. H. Reed. Published in 1965, Ryan gathered together every mention of New Zealand in Dickens’s periodicals that he could find. When a colleague of mine noticed the book, she asked if Dickens had ever visited New Zealand. The short answer is, no.

Dickens, however, was certainly aware of Britain’s remotest bastion of its far-reaching colonies. Among Ryan’s findings, for example, are first-hand accounts of Auckland during the 1850s, and of the First Taranaki War and discovery of gold in Otago during the early 1860s. Dickens even mentioned New Zealand in a letter to John Forster. In January 1847, Dickens wrote that he was: ‘Inimitable very mouldy and dull. Hardly able to work. Disposed to go to New Zealand and start a magazine’. Dickens was hard at work at Dombey and Son at the time; a book, interestingly enough, dedicated to the mother of the future ninth Governor of New Zealand, George Augustus Phipps, 2nd Marquis of Normanby (1819–90).

Dickens’s works were also as much loved in nineteenth-century New Zealand as they were in Britain. Another Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, writing in his travel narrative Australia and New Zealand (London, 1873), thought the New Zealand appreciation of Dickens to be greater than in his home country. During his trip to Otago, Trollope remarked: ‘In all these towns there are libraries, and the books are strongly bound and well thumbed. Carlyle, Macaulay, and Dickens are certainly better known to small communities in New Zealand than they are to similar congregations of men and women at home’.

Whether Dickens desired to visit New Zealand is a matter for speculation. He had planned a travel book and lecture tour of Australia, and two of Dickens’s sons immigrated there in 1865 and 1869 respectively. Had Dickens not died so young (he was fifty-eight), it is probable that he would have made a trip to Australia, and having travelled so far it is not far fetched to think that Dickens would have included New Zealand as part of his tour (Reed dreamt of a Notes on New Zealand or a Kiwi Martin Chuzzlewit).

In the end, however, it does not really matter that Dickens never set foot in New Zealand or even in Australia. His life and literary genius reached into and permeated both countries regardless of the fact. That Dickens is being honoured through this and other exhibitions in New Zealand and Australia, and that his memory is kept alive by fellowships in Christchurch, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, by collectors and avid readers, and by all those who come together to celebrate his 200th birthday, stands as a testament to the enduring legacy in Australasia of Victorian England’s greatest novelist.