Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was Britain's first true literary superstar. In his time, he attracted international adulation on an unprecedented scale, and many of his books became instant classics. Today, his popularity continues unabated, and his work remains not only widely read but widely adapted to stage and screen.
The Morgan Library & Museum's Dickens collection is the largest in the United States and is one of the two greatest in the world, along with the holdings of Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum. Charles Dickens at 200 celebrates the bicentennial of the great writer's birth in 1812 with manuscripts of his novels and stories, letters, books, photographs, original illustrations, and caricatures. Sweeping in scope, the exhibition captures the art and life of a man whose literary and cultural legacy ranks among the giants of literature.
"It is difficult to imagine a novelist of greater importance in the English language than Charles Dickens," said William M. Griswold, director of The Morgan Library & Museum. "His books are touchstones of literary history and his characters—from Tiny Tim and Oliver Twist to Ebenezer Scrooge and Uriah Heep—are some of the most vividly drawn in all of fiction. The Morgan is delighted to mark this important Dickens anniversary year with an exhibition that celebrates his extraordinary creativity and fascinating life."
Charles Dickens at 200 will focus primarily on Dickens's novels and their relation to his various activities and collaborations—literary, artistic, theatrical, and philanthropic—from The Pickwick Papers (1836), his first book, to Our Mutual Friend (1865), the last he completed. (The Mystery of Edwin Drood remained incomplete at the time of Dickens's death in 1870).
The Morgan's collection of Dickens material notably includes the complete manuscript of Our Mutual Friend, the only manuscript of a Dickens novel in the United States, as well as the manuscripts of three of Dickens's Christmas stories, including the iconic A Christmas Carol (1843). The Morgan has the largest collection of the author's letters (over 1500) in the U.S. as well as more than fifty original illustrations of Dickens's work, complete runs of Dickens's novels published in monthly installments, first editions of his books, portrait photographs, caricatures, playbills, and ephemera.
One section of the exhibition explores the plot outlines and manuscript pages of Our Mutual Friend, a selection of which will be on view to allow visitors to follow Dickens's creative process. In 1865, Dickens dramatically crawled back into the wreckage of a train crash to retrieve the manuscript of an installment of this novel, which is preserved today in the Morgan's collection.
Also on view will be examples of the first appearance of Dickens's novels in monthly published parts, as well as original illustrations (by such artists as Hablot K. Browne, John Leech, George Cruikshank, and Samuel Palmer). These illustrations, alongside Dickens's letters, shed light on his working relationships with the illustrators of his novels and stories.
Another section of the show will feature letters and other documents that reveal the social context and the personal and economic circumstances in which Dickens wrote, including his family life; his travels (to the United States and Europe); and his activity as a social reformer. Dickens was particularly concerned about poverty and prostitution, and collaborated with the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts to address the plight of "fallen women."
Dickens's fascination with dramatic performance, which manifested itself in his participation in amateur theatricals and public readings, and the impact of this interest on his literary technique, will be examined in the exhibition. A selection of original playbills illustrate this aspect of Dickens's work, which encompasses his collaboration with fellow novelist Wilkie Collins.
The exhibition will also include Dickens's Christmas books. Visitors will be able to see the manuscripts of three of his five Christmas books, including A Christmas Carol (1843), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), and The Battle of Life (1846). The Morgan owns the manuscript of A Christmas Carol, and this installation will allow visitors to see it in the context of Dickens's other Christmas tales which have been credited by historians with significantly "redefining" the spirit and meaning of the holiday.
According to Professor John O. Jordan, the Director of the international Dickens Project marking the 200th birthday celebration, Dickens is "unusual if not unique among canonical English-language authors in remaining at once a vital focus of academic research and a major figure in popular culture. Only Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and perhaps Jane Austen can compare with him in terms of their ability to hold the attention of both a scholarly and a general audience.... He is widely recognized as the preeminent novelist of the Victorian age and a major figure in world literature."