‘The dullest and most stupid place on earth . . .’ Charles Dickens in Suffolk and Essex

Charles Dickens was no stranger to East Anglia – and he wasn’t always complimentary about it. As the bicentenary of the writer’s birth approaches, STEVEN RUSSELL enjoys some of the local flavour in his stories

AT about this time in 1835, Charles Dickens was covering election meetings in East Anglia for the Morning Chronicle. In a letter to fellow journalist and friend Thomas Beard – who had several times bailed out the hard-up reporter – Dickens condemned Chelmsford as “the dullest and most stupid place on earth” – a town where, apparently, he could not even find a newspaper on a Sunday.

The man who would become one of England’s best-loved novelists also went to Braintree, Sudbury, Colchester and Bury St Edmunds “and came away with no better opinion of any of them, or of the part played by electioneering in the political process”, writes Claire Tomalin in her recent biography Charles Dickens: A Life.

Oh well. We can take it.

Actually, he did like some things – such as the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds – but it is his experience of that election period that gives our region its greatest exposure. Debut novel The Pickwick Papers, released in 20 monthly instalments in 1836 and 1837, has several episodes here.

Suffolk historian and lecturer Clive Paine, a Dickens enthusiast, says it appears the author used his observations to help describe the corrupt Eatanswill election. It’s a fictional place “which, in the 20th Century, was discovered to be based mainly on the election in Sudbury”.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 had taken steps to combat some of the abuses of the electoral system, explains Clive. It tackled “rotten boroughs” for instance, which sent MPs to Parliament despite having very small populations. However, there was little to curb bribery, corruption and voter intimidation, and no secret ballot until the 1870s.

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“Sudbury got the reputation as one of the most corrupt electoral places in the country. Dickens’ description of the election is vindicated in the 1840s when Sudbury is disenfranchised as a named seat, because of its bribery and corruption. It’s not anything to do with what Dickens reveals – no-one actually knew he was talking about Sudbury – but what he describes at Eatanswill is what was actually happening. In fact, what was happening was probably a great deal worse than he was describing, with people being given lots of alcohol and then being taken to vote, and told to point where they wanted their mark to go; and people being paid to vote for a certain candidate.”

There’s a lovely description of election day, says Clive, where gloriously-named candidate The Honourable Samuel Slumkey pats the heads of a whole row of infants “in the way politicians still cuddle and kiss babies”.

Slumkey’s election agent, Mr Perker, is apparently based on a real-life Sudbury figure called George William Andrews – a solicitor, Clive believes. “So there is a weaving-in of real people.”

Later, events take gentleman Samuel Pickwick – enjoying his tour of the English countryside – to a post-election breakfast on the outskirts of Sudbury. The setting, Clive says, is robably a real building called Belle Vue House.

There, Pickwick meets a woman called Mrs Leo Hunter, who has pretensions to be a poet and enjoys warming herself in the glow of high-achieving creative types.

It seems she was modelled on Ipswich lady Elizabeth Cobbold, who had married into the brewing dynasty. Elizabeth was the wife of John Cobbold, third-generation brewer, banker and merchant, and vigorously pursued her interest in arts and charity. Holywells, the family home in Ipswich that was set in parkland, became a centre for literature, theatre, music and painting. Her students were tutored by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Constable. Mrs Cobbold published poems and gave encouragement to artists for 20 years. Her Ode to the Victory of Waterloo was dedicated to the Prince Regent and the proceeds went to charity. She founded a number of Ipswich charities, including one providing clothing to poor children, but she also enjoyed herself socially, too. Each year she hosted a sparkling Valentine party at which 80 delicate and elaborately-cut Valentines were given to unmarried ladies and gentlemen.

There’s a lovely scene in which Mr Hunter tells Pickwick about his wife’s poetic ambitions:

“She has produced some delightful pieces, herself, sir. You may have met with her ‘Ode to an Expiring Frog,’ sir.”

“I don’t think I have,” said Mr. Pickwick.

“Can I view thee panting, lying

On thy stomach, without sighing;

Can I unmoved see thee dying

On a log

Expiring frog!”

“Beautiful!” said Mr. Pickwick.

“Fine,” said Mr. Leo Hunter; “so simple.”

“Very,” said Mr. Pickwick.

It seems Dickens is poking fun, but Anthony Cobbold – keeper of the Cobbold Family History Trust – sees it as more tongue in cheek.

He tells the EADT: “Pickwick Papers was published 12 years after Elizabeth Cobbold died and Dickens was only 24 at the time, so for a young man the idea of doing a satirical piece on this much-admired and respected local character would have been slightly provocative and therefore rather attractive.

“He would have thought her ‘good for a laugh’ and I don’t think she would have minded. Indeed, there is the thought that Dickens was laughing with her rather than at her. The fact is that she was a highly intelligent woman; an early female polymath even, who (fortunately devoid of financial constraint) just loved to pursue all her interests and was quite successful in doing so – her success being measured not in earnings (because that wasn’t why she did it) but in the pleasure and fulfilment she gave to others. Much of what she did she did for fun.

“Was she a good poet? No, probably not. Did she think she was good? No, certainly not. Indeed, much of what she published appeared at her friends’ requests. It was very unusual for a woman at that time to have the breadth of interests she followed and even more unusual for her to speak competently on her subjects in public. It will be remembered that her paper to The Linnean Society had to be read for her as women were not even admitted. Later evaluation showed that although treated sceptically at the time, it was correct in every detail.”

The society was a biology/natural history body, and Elizabeth even had a fossil shell from the Suffolk coast, Nucula Cobboldiae, named after her.

Back to The Pickwick Papers. Our main character, and his manservant, Sam Weller, follow the charlatan Alfred Jingle towards Bury St Edmunds (which, it seems, Dickens quite liked):

The coach rattled through the well-paved streets of a handsome little town, of thriving and cleanly appearance, and stopped before a large inn situated in a wide open street, nearly facing the old abbey.

“And this,” said Mr. Pickwick, looking up, “is the Angel! We alight here, Sam.”

“The Bury Society have arranged to put up some commemorative plaques on two or three buildings. On the seventh of February [the anniversary of the author’s birth] myself and my wife are going in Victorian costume to the steps of The Angel Hotel at one o’clock, where a plaque will be unveiled and I will speak a little bit about Charles Dickens and his link with Bury,” says Clive Paine.

Jingle’s shenanigans lead to Pickwick climbing over a wall and into the grounds of a boarding school for young ladies, where he causes consternation:

“Who’s there?” screamed a numerous chorus of treble voices from the staircase inside, consisting of the spinster lady of the establishment, three teachers, five female servants, and thirty boarders, all half-dressed and in a forest of curl-papers.

Clive says: “The site of the school may not be in Bury St Edmunds at all; but, if it is, it will be number 42 and 43 Southgate Street, where there had been a school in the 1850s and ’60s and may well have been earlier. But some Dickens experts think he may have been describing a school in Rochester.”

Later, Pickwick and Sam head for Ipswich – to the “overgrown tavern” of the Great White Horse:

. . . rendered the more conspicuous by a stone statue of some rampacious animal with flowing mane and tail, distantly resembling an insane cart-horse, which is elevated above the principal door.

The Great White Horse is famous in the neighbourhood, in the same degree as a prize ox, or a county-paper-chronicled turnip, or unwieldy pig, for its enormous size. Never was such labyrinths of uncarpeted passages, such clusters of mouldy, ill-lighted rooms, such huge numbers of small dens for eating or sleeping in, beneath any one roof, as are collected together between the four walls of the Great White Horse at Ipswich.

On the coach, Pickwick has met a Peter Magnus, due to meet his fianc�e. At night, Pickwick leaves his watch downstairs and comes down to find it. Mission accomplished, he is then confused by myriad doors and ends up undressing in the wrong room – not that he realises it for a while.

Then someone comes in. A robber, perhaps? He creeps onto the bed and peeps out from behind its curtains:

Mr. Pickwick almost fainted with horror and dismay. Standing before the dressing-glass was a middle-aged lady, in yellow curl-papers, busily engaged in brushing what ladies call their “back-hair.”

Before long, he has no alternative but to announce his presence:

“Gracious Heaven!” said the middle-aged lady, “what’s that?”

“It’s. . . it’s . . . only a gentleman, ma’am,” said Mr. Pickwick, from behind the curtains.

“A gentleman!” said the lady, with a terrific scream.

Eventually, Pickwick manages to convince (just about) the lady of his mistake, and leaves.

In the 1830s, the notion of a man in a lady’s bedchamber would have been scandalous, says Clive – potentially injurious to the reputation of one or both.

The next day the lady turns out to be the fianc�e of Magnus “and there’s the embarrassing bit when they all meet at breakfast and the lady denounces him as the wretch and scoundrel who had been in her bedroom the night before”.

Charles Dickens did make return visits to East Anglia, to read from his works. He was at The Athenaeum in Bury St Edmunds (a short stroll from The Angel Hotel) on October 13, 1859, where he read from A Christmas Carol and the trial from Pickwick. He was back in town again in October, 1861, says Clive. Ipswich welcomed him in October, 1859; November, 1861, and March, 1869.

Clive Paine praises Dickens’s story-telling as a powerful catalyst for social reform, while recognising that things weren’t always as presented.

“His descriptions of working-class life – workhouses, institutions and so on – had a profound effect on changing public attitudes. In fact, he was almost taken as being gospel.

“With Oliver Twist, when people think about workhouses they tend to think of the diet just being gruel, not realising that while it might not be the diet we’d like today, it was regarded as a balanced one, with bread, cheese, meat – not huge amounts and not every day – but not just gruel. It wasn’t wonderful, but not as bad as he lets us think.

“He almost invented our ideal Victorian Christmas, with his descriptions of the German Christmas tree and the fireside – but always as a novelist and always with a journalist’s view as well: trying to use the model not just to entertain but also to make social points.”

Fishing in the Gipping

CHARLES Dickens had a bit of a holiday in Ipswich in 1859, points out the River Gipping Trust – and went fishing. He took a boat from London to Harwich and then travelled by steamer up the Orwell to Ipswich, where he spent a week (and gave his readings at the Old Corn Exchange, on the site now occupied by the Lloyds TSB bank on the Cornhill).

He wrote about the town in the journal All The Year Round on Saturday, October 1:

Perceiving that the streets were very intricate . . . I lost no time in inquiring for a map of Ipswich and its environs, and for an Ipswich Guide. A map was not to be obtained. One had, indeed, been published in 1840, but it was out of print, and you could not get a copy for love or money. The bookseller himself, who communicated this fact, marvelled at the deficiency of his stock. A map of Ipswich would be a very desirable thing, nay, visitors had often asked for one; still—but—however —no supply had arisen to meet the demand.

With the Guide I was more fortunate, the outlay of an humble shilling putting me into possession of an invaluable work by J. WODDERSPOON, which not only told me much that I wanted to learn, but also overwhelmed me with a knowledge of things about which I felt no interest whatever.

To J. Wodderspoon I profess my gratitude for all that he tells me about Wolsey’s College, and his directions as to where I am to find the carved posts, &c., which are the delights of the archaeologist, but I feel less beholden to him for the arithmetical information he gives about the dock, the foundation of which was laid in 1839, and which was opened in 1842. This dock, necessitated by the shallowness of the Orwell at low water, is of the highest importance to the place, and it is doubtless vastly ridiculous to care more about a number of antiquated carvings, that are neither useful nor beautiful, than about a work of such obvious utility.

Nevertheless, I do care about the old house in the Butter-market, down to the smallest leaf on its garlands, and I don’t care about the area of the dock, nor can I enter with the slightest enthusiasm into the controversy whether fifteen thousand or twenty thousand persons witnessed the ceremony of laying the foundation.

Dickens also wrote about the River Gipping, which:

bounds with fish of the kind which Cockney disciples of Izaak Walton (whereof I am one) associate with pleasant Hertfordshire and its river Lea. Thither, therefore, did I take my rod and lines, but I had not watched my float for many minutes, before three persons of gloomy appearance passed by me on the pathway where I stood, and with the assistance of two others on the opposite side began the disgusting process of dragging the river with a huge net.

Of course my rod was at once shut up like an opera-glass at one o’clock in the morning, and I found a melancholy amusement in watching the proceedings of the legalised marauders, who cursed the weeds for not allowing them free scope.

“It is the privilege of all the freemen of Ipswich to drag the river Gipping,” said the chieftain of the band; “they have few privileges enough, but they have that. The weeds will be gone in October, and then we shall have something like sport.”

“What a pity it is,” said an honest tradesman, with a sigh, “that the freemen of Ipswich have a right to drag the river; this unhappy privilege does great injury to the town, which otherwise would offer the finest fishing in England.” I should perhaps observe that the lamenting tradesman was a dealer in fishing-tackle.

David Copperfield: a Suffolk lad

NORTH Suffolk is the land of David Copperfield, a fictional boy born at Blundeston.

A walking holiday from Lowestoft to Great Yarmouth and back in 1848, past a signpost for the village, probably gave the author the idea, which he morphed into Blunderstone, wrote Eleanor Smith in her out-of-print book Writers and Places in Suffolk.

The village website says: “Dickens wrote the novel in 1849-50. Whilst places mentioned in the book exist in real life, it is unsure whether Dickens ever actually came to the village . . .

“Today in Blundeston, it is possible to see places mentioned in the novel, including the Rookery [where Copperfield spends his early childhood], St. Mary’s Church, and the Plough Inn, as well as numerous references to the book and to Dickens in house and road names.”

In the opening chapter, the author writes:

I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, or ‘there by’, as they say in Scotland. I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard . . .

Miss Haversham’s house?

A HOTEL, restaurant and bar claims links with Dickens and his memorable novel Great Expectations, and is potentially the inspiration for Miss Haversham’s home.

One never knows . . .

Satis House is an 18th Century country house off the A12 at Yoxford, near Saxmundham.

Its brochure says: “Charles Dickens was undoubtedly familiar with Satis House as a visitor and family friend of its then owners. He is said to have written Great Expectations in weekly instalments at Satis House between 1860 and 1861.”

“Is that the name of this house, miss?”

“One of its names, boy.”

“It has more than one, then, miss?”

“One more. Its other name was Satis; which is Greek, or Latin, or Hebrew, or all three – or all one to me – for enough.”

“Enough House,” said I; “that’s a curious name, miss.”

“Yes,” she replied; “but it meant more than it said. It meant, when it was given, that whoever had this house could want nothing else.”

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