Wight Life

Victorian Giant In The Undercliff

Charles Dickens

By Richard J Hutchings

Drawing of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

WHEN CHARLES DICKENS visited Winterbourne House, Bonchurch in July of 1849, he had already begun his great autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, which first appeared in serialised form. He was in need of a long summer holiday, and was attracted to Bonchurch by the climate and the pleasure of renewing his friendship with the Rev James White, whose 'quaint sly humour, love of jest and merriment, capital knowledge of books, and sagacious quips at men,' greatly attracted him. White, a notable contributor to the national newspapers of the day, was the first tenant of Winterbourne, which he leased on 25th March, 1839.

At that time the estate was very much larger, extending as far as the seashore and bordering the Old Church on three sides. Included also in the grounds were a stream and a waterfall, between the house and St Boniface Church, which Dickens mentions in a letter to John Forster, his biographer and friend. The tenant had the right to quarry stones within the estate, and it may be supposed that later extensions to the house were composed of this material. The top floor and east wing were not added until the turn of the century.

Dickens was highly delighted with the Undercliff and with the magnificent views from the top of the downs, which he thought were only equalled on the Genoese shore of the Mediterranean. The variety of walks was extraordinary, and living was cheap. `The waterfall,' he remarked to Forster, 'acts wonderfully, and the sea bathing is delicious. Best of all the place is certainly cold rather than hot, in the summer time. The evenings have been even chilly. White very jovial, and emulous of the inimitable in respect of gin-punch. He had made some for our arrival. Ha! Ha! not bad for a beginner . . . I have been, and am, trying to work this morning; but I can't make anything of it, and am going out to think. I am invited to a distinguished friend to dine with you on the first of August, but I have pleaded distance and the being resident in a cave on the seashore; my food, beans; my drink, the water from the rock. . .'

It is believed that Dickens did most of his work at Winter-bourne in the first-floor room facing south over the Channel. Although he found some difficulty in applying himself to David Copperfield at the outset, in his letter of 1st August, he reported making little headway, mentioning also the intended visit to Bonchurch of Queen Victoria who had earlier taken up residence at Osborne House, Cowes.

Four days later he went over to Blackgang to dine, and later picnicked on Shanklin Down 'with tremendous success.' Among other activities he attended a charity sermon at the local school (built in 1848 near the new church). 'The examination of said school t'other day was very funny. All the boys made Buck-stone's bow in the Rough Diamond, and some in a very wonderful manner recited pieces of poetry, about a clock, which is always a going and a doing of its duty, and always tells thetruth (supposing it to be a slap-up chronometer, I presume, for the American clock in the school was lying frightfully); and after being bothered to death by the multiplication table, they were refreshed with a public tea in Lady Swinbume's garden (East Dene)!' This American clock had been presented to the new school by Robert Howe-Gould, a local resident, who, with the Swinbumes, Sergeant Adams, the Rev William Adams, Miss Elizabeth Sewell and her brother, the Rev William Sewell, had contributed most towards the cost of the school building. It may be interesting to note that the church cost £2,850 to construct, and the school a little over £830.

During the tea-party.at East Dene, 'The rain came in with the first tea-pot, and has been active ever since.' 'On Friday', continued Dickens, 'we had a grand, and, what is better, a very good dinner at 'parson' Fielden's (the new curate), with some choice port. On Tuesday we are going on another picnic; with the materials for a fire, at my express stipulation; and a great iron pot to boil potatoes in. These things, and the eatables, go to the ground in a cart. Last night we had some very good merriment at White's; where Julian Young and droll his wife (who are staying about five miles off) showed some new games. . .' These games included a 'mighty conjuring performance for all the children of Bonchurch.'

When Dickens was enjoying (?) Lady Swinburne's cups of tea at East Dene, which lies across the lane from Winterbourne, he noticed a 'golden-haired lad . . . whom his boys used to play with, since become more widely known.' This remarkable lad was, of course, none other than Algernon Swinburne, the poet, whose genius was soon to conquer England. The poet,then twelve years of age, entered Eton at the start of the summer half of 1849.

Dickens, despite numerous diversions, was progressing well with his writings, and four days later could report to Forster; 'I have made it a rule that the inimitable (himself) is invisible, until two every day. I' shall have the number done, please God, tomorrow. I have not worked quickly here yet, but I don't know what I may do. Divers cogitations have occupied my mind at intervals, respecting the dim design' (of the periodical which preoccupied him). At this point he developed a cough which he could not shake off. Every day he climbed to the top of the down — 'It makes a great difference in the climate to get a blow there and come down again.' He called in Dr Lankester of Sandown, a very merry fellow, who later joined him for dinner with Danby, Leech and White.

In August, he wrote: `We had games and forfeits last night at White's. Davy Roberts' pretty little daughter is there for a week, with her husband, Bicknell's son. There was a dinner first to say goodbye to Danby, who goes to other clergyman's duty, and we were very merry. Mrs White unchanging; White comically various in his moods. Talfourd (the judge) comes down next Tuesday, and we think of going over to Ryde on Monday, visiting the play, sleeping there (I don't mean at, the play) and bringing the judge back. Browne is coming down' when he has done his month's work. Should you like to go to Alum Bay, while you (Forster) are here? It would involve a night out, but I think would be very pleasant; if you think so too, I will arrange it sub rosa, so that we may not be, like Bobadil, 'oppressed by numbers.'

Despite a temporary indisposition and lassitude, the novelist struggled on with his fifth number of David Copperfieldand wrote to Forster on 22nd August: . bull . Instead of the buand china-shop delusion (here referring to David Copperfield) given Dick the idea that, when the head of King Charles the First was cut off, some of the trouble was taken out of it, and put into his (Dick's).' The name Mr Dick was borrowed, it is said, from that of a friend and neighbour living at Upper Mount and Madeira Hall, Bonchurch. Dickens, according to legend, used some part of the character of the daughter, Miss Dick, in his portrayal of Miss Havisham, in Great Expectations.

`Browne,' continued Dickens, 'has sketched an uncommonly characteristic Mr Micawber for the next number. I hope the present number is a good one. I hear nothing but pleasant accounts of the general satisfaction.'

When the number was off his hands, things improved at Bonchurch. 'Yes,' he wrote on 23rd September, 'we have been sufficiently rollicking since I finished the number; and have had great games at rounders every afternoon, with all Bonchurch looking on; but I begin to long for a little peace and solitude. And now for my less pleasing news. The sea has been running very high, and Leech, while bathing, was knocked over by a bad blow from a great wave on the forehead. He is in bed, and had twenty of his namesakes on his temples this morning. When I heard of him just now, he was asleep — which he had not been all night.'

Come 24th September, Leech was worse: 'Leech has been very ill with congestion of the brain ever since I wrote, and being still in excessive pain has had ice to his head continuously, and been bled in the arm besides. Beard and I sat up there, all night.' And the next day: 'My plans are all unsettled by Leech's illness; as of course I do not like to leave this place while I can be of any service to him and his good wife. But all visitors are gone today, and Winterbourne once more left to the engaging family of the inimitable B (Boz -- himself). Ever since I wrote to you Leech has been seriously worse, and again very heavily bled. The night before last he was in such an alarming state of restlessness, which nothing could relieve, that I proposed to Mrs Leech to try magnetism (hypnotism). Accordingly in the middle of the night I fell to; and, after a very fatiguing bout of it, put him to sleep, and he is decidedly better. I talked to the astounding little Mrs Leech across him, when he was asleep, as if he had been a truss of hay.

What do you think of my setting up in the magnetic line with a large brass plate? 'Terms, twenty-five guineas per nap.'

On 30th September, Dickens completed his sixth number, and what is more, Leech's health had improved rapidly. He planned to leave for Broadstairs the next day, taking with him his wife, her sister, and the two little girls. 'I will merely add that I entreat to be kindly remembered to Thackeray (who had a dangerous illness at the time); that I think I have, without a doubt, got the periodical notion; and that I am writing under the depressing and discomforting influence of paying off the tribe of bills that pour in upon an unfortunate family-man on the eve of a residence like this. So no more at present from the disgusted, though still inimitable, and always affectionate B.'

Dickens finally left Winterbourne House and the Island early in October. David Copperfield appeared in monthly numbers in the years 1849-50, and was an instant success. No other novel, except Pickwick Papers, secured him such popularity and acclaim, and none was so dear to his heart. 'Of all my books', he wrote in the Preface, 'I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.'

(Based on a privately published booklet — Shanklin, 1964)