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The Begging-Letter Writer

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Cross-genre i
Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Sketch i
Subjects Charity; Philanthropists; Philanthropists—Fiction; Benevolence
Ethics; Morals; Moral Development; Moral Education; Philosophy; Values
Money; Finance; Banking; Investments; Taxation; Insurance; Debt; Inheritance and Succession
Other Details
Printed : 18/5/1850
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume I
Magazine : No. 8
Office Book Notes
Views : 5272

From his rise to fame with The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was plagued by begging-letter writers. Forster comments (Book 2, Ch. 8) that there is not 'a particle of exaggeration' in Dickens's description of his victimisation here, but adds, 'for much of what he suffered he was himself responsible, by giving so largely, as at first he did, to almost everyone who applied to him'. Among the most persistent of these corresponding beggars was an old school-friend Daniel Tobin, who became 'an intolerable nuisance' (Forster, Book 1, Ch. 3), and he it was who finally made the bizarre request for a donkey, described here by Dickens. In the paragraph immediately following this Dickens describes another case, that of John Walker, whom Dickens had given money to several times in 1844, sending his brother Fred to check that he really was in distress.

Walker continued to write begging letters, which Dickens ceased to answer until he got one telling him that Walker's wife had died and begging 'a few crumbs from your table' to feed the children. When Dickens found that Mrs Walker was not dead, he referred the case to the Mendacity Society, which brought a prosecution against Walker at Marylebone Police court, charging him with attempting to get money from Dickens 'by means of false and fraudulent representation'. He had been arrested without a warrant, however, and was shown to be really in a state of dire poverty, so he was discharged, much sympathy having been aroused by his very distressed behaviour in the dock and his wife's appeal to the court. Dickens, Forster tells us (Book 2, Ch. 8), 'broke down in his character of prosecutor' and got the Mendacity officers to suppress some of the evidence against the man. Although it was 'an exceedingly bad case', Dickens wrote to Forster, 'I was not sorry that the creature found the loophole for escape' (see Pilgrim, Vol. IV, pp. 129–30, for a fuller account of the affair). 
      Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) is (somewhat improbably) degraded at the end of the novel to become 'a drunken, squalid, begging-letter-writing man', and the endless ingenuity of begging-letter writers forms the subject of a bravura passage at the end of Ch. 17 of Book 1 of Our Mutual Friend (1865). 

Literary allusions

  • 'Sydney Smith..."the dangerous luxury of dishonesty"': untraced; 
  • 'Angels' visits' refers to Robert Blair's poem The Grave (1743): '...visits / Like those of angels, short, and far between'. 
MS. and (meticulously) corrected proofs in the Forster Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum. 

Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material. 

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