Charles Dickens would stretch his legs in a daily walk across Arthur’s Seat every time he stayed in Edinburgh – a city to which the author said was always “like coming home”.
Whether he found what he was looking for as he stared at the water is anyone’s guess. After all, Edinburgh never appeared in any of his great literary works – even if it did play a huge part in his life.
Long before he was acclaimed around the world, Edinburgh had given him the freedom of the city. It also gave him his wife Catherine and some of his closest friends – Thomas Carlyle, Lord Henry Cockburn and Lord Francis Jeffrey – and it seems he drew on his experiences wandering the slums of the Old Town, to further galvanise his social reform campaigns.
However, as television programme planners schedule Dickens documentaries and dramas in the run-up to the 200th anniversary of his birth next February – including Great Expectations, which began last night – his links with Edinburgh seem to have been as easily forgotten as the parentage of his many fictional orphans.
According to Elizabeth Velluet of The Dickens Fellowship in London, the author’s links with the capital of Scotland, rather than just London, go back to 1834 when as a young journalist he was part of a two-man team from the Morning Chronicle sent to cover a festival held in honour of the just-retired Prime Minister, Earl Grey – who was granted the freedom of the city.
Seven years later – and in the light of the success of the Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby and The Old Curiosity Shop – it was a 29-year-old Dickens to whom homage was being paid.
Elizabeth adds: “He didn’t return to Edinburgh until 1841 when he travelled with his wife Catherine to attend a public banquet, but this time it was in his honour. They stayed at the Royal Hotel and the banquet was held at the Waterloo Hotel with over 250 people paying a guinea a ticket.”
Organised by his friends and supporters, the event was described as the first “great public recognition of his genius.”
Elizabeth adds: “After the banquet the ladies came in with Catherine to listen to the speeches – also about 250 of them. Dickens himself made several speeches and was given a rapturous reception. Four days later, in his week of lionisation in Edinburgh, the Lord Provost, council and magistrates voted him by acclamation the freedom of the city on the grounds of his ‘distinguished abilities as an author’.
“According to John Foster, his friend and first biographer, Dickens hung the framed parchment scroll of the city freedom in his study and it was one of his most valued possessions.”
It was also during this particular visit to Edinburgh that Dickens became acquainted with the city’s slums. And when in 1858 he gave a speech in support of the enterprise to establish the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, he recalled what he had witnessed in the city.
He describes visiting the Old Town where “we saw more poverty and sickness in an hour than people would believe in, in a life” and goes on to talk of the wretched dwellings, reeking with horrible odours and in one “lay in an old egg box which the mother had begged from a shop, a little, feeble, wan sick child. With his little wasted face, and his bright attentive eyes, I can see him now, as I have seen him for several years, looking steadily at us.”
However it was through marriage that Dickens was most closely associated with Edinburgh. His wife Catherine was born on May 19, 1815 at 8 Hart Street in the New Town. Her parents, George and Georgina Hogarth were part of the intellectual and cultural life of the city – he was a Writer to the Signet – and even when they moved to London where Hogarth became editor of the Evening Chronicle – printing some of Dickens’ first efforts – they remained hugely influential in their home town.
Edinburgh was also a great audience when it came to Dickens’ performances of his own work. He would tour the country reading from his latest novel, and the Capital always supplied a rapturous welcome. In 1858 he visited twice – the first time being presented with a massive silver wassail cup. Writing to his former journalist colleague Thomas Beard he said: “Certainly the most intelligent audience (2000 strong) I have ever had to do with: and showing a capacity of being affected by the pathetic parts, such as I never saw before”.
Dr Jonathan Wild, of Edinburgh University’s English Literature department who lectures on some of Dickens’ greatest works, says that even he was unaware that the Victorian author was so closely linked to the Capital.
“I knew he came to Edinburgh to do a lot of readings and in the 1850s there was a great reading of A Christmas Carol, which went down a storm. But as to him being awarded the freedom of Edinburgh, and at such a young age, that’s new to me. In fact I would say it was a canny bit of publicity by the city elders. His star was on the rise, but 1841 was still early in his career.”
The council is playing canny again. Dickens’ burgess scroll now resides in the Museum of Edinburgh – returned to the city by Dickens’ grandson in the 1940s – and will go on display next year. “Charles Dickens’ Edinburgh connections are certainly worthy of celebration,” says the city’s culture and leisure convener, Councillor Deidre Brock. “So to mark next year’s bicentenary, we’ll be putting Dickens’ Freedom of the City ‘burgess ticket’ on proud display. I’m delighted that this anniversary is putting Dickens’ links to Scotland’s capital under the spotlight.”
Dickens too would be thrilled. After all, on that night in 1841 he told his Edinburgh audience: “I believe I shall never hear the name of the capital of Scotland without a thrill of gratitude and pleasure. I shall love while I have life her people, her hills, and her houses, even the very stones of her streets.”