While Charles Dickens never visited Australia, he was very interested in the land ‘down under’. As the Editor-in-Chief and the ‘Conductor’ he was instrumental in publishing numerous articles about Australia in his weekly periodical, Household Words, and these have been collected by WA researcher Margaret Mendelawitz in Charles Dickens’ Australia: selected essays from Household Words 1850-1859.
The publication of Household Words coincided with a decade of great changes in Australia: the discovery and mining of gold in NSW and Victoria. The gold rush of the 1850s drove a period of mass migration and expansion in the hinterlands, and caused radical economic and social changes in an emerging nation. It also changed how the colonies were perceived by Britain and the world at large. Away from its stark convict beginnings, Australia became the ultimate land of adventure and opportunity with an exciting future ahead. Many articles from Household Words were re-published in the Australian press of the time, providing Dickens, a keen advocate for social improvement, with a unique opportunity to shape public opinion in Australia.
Dickens published Household Words and his later magazine, All the Year Round, with the aim of reaching and entertaining the masses and, at the same time, shaping discussion and debate on important social questions of the time. Filled with serialised novels, poems, articles of investigative journalism, travel writing, popular science, history and political commentary, both journals became extremely popular at the time (Household Words eventually averaged sales of about 40,000 copies per week and at its peak 100,000 copies per week).
As Charles Dickens’ Australia makes the stories related to Australia of 19th-century convicts, migrants, miners, explorers, bushrangers and sailors accessible to contemporary readers, a project under way in the UK aims to create a complete online edition of Household Words and All the Year Round by the time of the Charles Dickens bicentenary in February 2012. Dickens Journals Online, a digital project combining the power of internet and computing technology with literary scholarship, led by John Drew, author of Dickens the journalist, was launched in 2006 at the University of Buckingham. When ready, DJO will provide free access to high-quality, fully indexed and searchable facsimile downloads of all the issues of both journals.
Apart from Household Words, references to Australia appear in many of Dickens’ most famous works, such as Great Expectations or David Copperfield, and you can read about the characters, and Dickens’ letters in the collection of the National Library of Australia, in the post by whisperinggums.
Dickens even planned to travel to Australia and write a book. Alas, it never happened despite the fact that two of his sons migrated here: Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens came in 1865 and his younger brother, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, in 1869. They both worked on stations before opening their own stock and station agency, EBL Dickens and Partners. Minor celebrities of their time, they were largely forgotten till Mary Lazarus published her book, A tale of two brothers: Charles Dickens's sons in Australia, in 1973.
And what about Dickensian connections in 21st-century Australia? There are no descendants of Dickens since Alfred’s two daughters migrated to Britain in the 1920s, but there are lots of devoted fans of his novels. Members of the Dickens Fellowship of Melbourne and Dickens Fellowship Society in Sydney are dedicated to enjoying and studying the works and life of Charles Dickens, and meet up on a regular basis at talks and events.
Interest in Dickens’ life and works will undoubtedly increase over the next few months in the lead-up to the bicentennial celebrations of his birth in February 2012. In fact, the whole 2012 will feature many exhibitions, festivals and other events in the UK, France, the US and elsewhere according to the Dickens 2012 website - fitting celebrations for a writer who remains a household name in a globalised world.