Earlier this year, I chatted one-on-one with author, art historian, and public speaker Lucinda Hawksley, who is a patron of the Charles Dickens Museum in London. Hawksley is the great-great-great granddaughter of Charles and Catherine Dickens and has written many books about 19th and 20th figures, including Dickens and Christmas, Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy Of A Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, and Katey: The Life and Loves of Dickens’s Artistic Daughter. In June 2022, she released her latest book, Dickens and Travel: The Start of Modern Travel Writing, detailing Charles’ interest in other countries and the trips he took.
When Hawksley was in grade school, she studied Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. She doesn’t recall negative experiences with teachers, but it wasn’t until university that she took a more scholarly look at Dickens’ writing. “I think children get put off a lot of writers that they might love if they didn’t get taught by teachers who go, ‘It’s on the curriculum and I hate this.’ I wish curriculums were able to reflect individual teacher’s loves because you get that love passed on to you.”
In addition to writing, Hawksley hosts online discussions through Goldster, interviewing other authors. “Some writers produce a new book every six months and it works for them. Others take seven years to produce one. I think learning that everybody’s writing style is different and picking up techniques from other writers is always helpful.”
On 19th Century Letters
Hawksley enjoys reading diaries and correspondence from the 19th century, including Dickens’ friends Wilkie Collins, John Forster, and William Charles Macready. “You can get really pulled down into it. It takes you down many rabbit holes,” she recalled with amusement.
Readers may be more familiar with the formal tone of letters and newspapers. Yet, the less formal letters are also illuminating for what they reveal as friends shared jokes and invited one another out for dinner.
“When you see these little notes that [Charles] sent to his friends and vice versa, you just see how they really chatted to each other. The notes then were like emails today. You had five posts in London a day at this point when Dickens was alive.”
On a Dickens and Poe Encounter
Dickens travelled to many countries including the United States, Canada, Ireland, France, Italy, and Switzerland. His observations appeared not only in his novels, but also in his travelogues. However, the travel writing genre was relatively new for 19th century audiences, who at large responded more favorably to his novels and short articles.
“I think when people saw a book by Dickens, they expected a plot. Pictures from Italy was definitely more popular than American Notes, perhaps because by that stage, he’d written A Christmas Carol,” Hawksley said.
You may not know that Dickens had a pet raven named Grip. He mentioned this pet to Edgar Allan Poe at a meeting during his first visit to America in 1842. After dying and taxidermy, Grip eventually found his way to the Free Library of Philadelphia, where Hawksley has visited him. “It’s such an amazing thing that he’s there. I love that these artifacts are in the public domain. I’m grateful to the admirer of Poe who bought Grip at the auction. I think it’s fantastic.”
On Catherine Dickens’ Travels
Hawksley’s other ancestor, Catherine, also had a lot to say about these trips. The boat trip to America was absolutely terrifying during a storm. On a visit to Italy, Catherine and sister Georgina climbed an active Vesuvius while wearing their petticoats and clothes, which were heavier—and more flammable—than the men’s outfits.
“It was unusual Catherine did as much traveling as she did. She’s often overlooked. People should realize how feisty and sparky she was, and all the adventures she was up for.”
While Catherine loved traveling initially, she was laid low by constant pregnancies and childrearing that eventually took their toll. “Within a 15-year period, Catherine had 10 live children and at least two miscarriages. We know about those miscarriages because they’re in letters. She may have suffered others we don’t know about.”
On the Charles Dickens Museum
Hawksley loves to visit the Dickens Museum on 48 Doughty Street, meeting and chatting with fascinating people from all over the world. “For some people, it’s their sixtieth time. They live nearby and they’re members. Others have never been or knew it existed. Once they come, they are very loyal and come back regularly.”
With the pandemic’s onset in 2020, the museum added more online events to their calendar. A half-hour talk focuses on a single artifact, or an actor gives a live reading. “It’s amazing to know how much history is encapsulated in this small museum, and how well the curators do the job to bring it to the public and make it more accessible through online events.”
The museum also expanded their schedule. A Christmas in July event was streamed during the morning in the U.K. so that viewers in Australia could join in comfortably. To the staff’s surprise, other time zones still tuned in. “We didn’t expect people in the U.S. to be up in the middle of the night. It’s something that speaks to people. The Dickens Museum is a name that people love and trust.