On 30 January 1838 Charles Dickens and his illustrator Hablot Browne ('Phiz') set out on a two-day coach ride to Yorkshire to investigate the long-standing scandal of cheap boarding schools. As a child Dickens had heard about these places, which acted as little more than brutal detention centres for unwanted children, and he now wondered whether they might form the subject of his new novel. In this long letter to his wife Catherine, Dickens gives an entertaining account of the journey.
How did Dickens use this experience in Nicholas Nickleby?
Many of the details Dickens describes gave him ideas for scenes and even characters in Nicholas Nickleby. He and Browne, like the two outside passengers in the novel, spent the first night at the George at Grantham, ‘the very best Inn I have ever put up at’. The Yorkshire schoolmistress, who was carrying a letter to one of her pupils from his father lecturing him on his refusal to eat boiled meat, inspired the pathetic but very funny letter-reading scene in which we hear about Mobbs’s step-mother who ‘took to her bed on hearing that he wouldn’t eat fat’. The ‘most delicious’ lady’s maid became the ‘very fastidious lady’ passenger in Nicholas’s coach who complained loudly about the non-arrival of her carriage.
The heavy snow and intense cold, the increasingly wild, inhospitable landscape, and the apparently deserted inn at Greta Bridge all contributed to the grim atmosphere of the early chapters of the novel. The main difference for the reader is that Dickens was soon sitting down to ‘a blazing fire ... a smoking supper and a bottle of mulled port’, but Nicholas has to face the bleak desolation of Dotheboys Hall.
Thursday February 1st 1838.
My Dearest Kate,
I am afraid you will receive this later than I could wish, as the mail does not come through this place until 2 o'clock tomorrow morning. However, I have availed myself of the very first opportunity of writing, so the fault is that [illegible] mail's, and not this.
We reached Grantham between 9 and 10 on Tuesday night, and found everything prepared for our reception in the very best Inn I have ever put up at. It is odd enough that an old lady who had been outside all day and came in towards dinner time turned out to be the mistress of a Yorkshire School returning from the holiday - stay in London. She was a very queer old lady, and showed us a long letter she was carrying to one of the boys from his father, containing a severe lecture (enforced and aided by many texts from Scripture) on his refusing to eat boiled meat.
She was very communicative, drank a great deal of brandy and water, and towards evening became insensible, in which state we left her.
Yesterday we were up again shortly after 7 and came on upon our journey by the Glasgow Mail which charged us the remarkably low sum of six pounds , four for two places inside. We had a very droll male companion until seven oclock in the evening, and a most delicious lady's maid for twenty miles who implored us to keep a sharp look-out at the coach windows as she expected her carriage was coming to meet her and she was afraid of missing it. We had many delightful vauntings of the same kind ; and in the end it is scarcely necessary to say that the coach did not come, and a very dirty girl did.
As we came further north, the snow grew deeper. about eight o'clock it began to fall heavily, and as we crossed the wild heaths here-about, there was no vestige of a track. The Mail kept on well, however, and at eleven we reached a bare place with a house standing alone in the midst of a dreary moor, which
the Guard informed us was Greta Bridge. I was in a perfect agony of apprehension, for it was fearfully cold and there were no outward signs of anybody being up in the house. But to our great joy we discovered a comfortable room with drawn curtains and a most blazing fire. In half an hour they gave us a smoking supper and a bottle of mulled port (in which we drank your health) and then we retired to a couple of capital bedrooms in each of which was a rousing fire half way up the chimney.
We have had for breakfast, toast, cakes, a Yorkshire pie, piece of beef about the size and much the shape of my portmanteau, tea, coffee, ham and eggs - and are now going to look about us. Having finished our discoveries, we start in a postchaise for Barnard Castle which is only four miles off, and there I deliver the letter given me by Mitton's friend. All the schools are round about that place, and a dozen old abbies besides, which we shall visit by some means or other tomorrow. We shall reach York on Saturday I hope, and (God willing) I trust I shall be at home on Wednesday morning. If anything should occur to prevent me, I will write to you from York, but I think that is not likely.
I wish you would call on Mrs. Bentley and
thank her for her letter; you can tell her when I expected to be in York.
A thousand loves and kisses to the darling boy whom I see in my mind's eye crawling about the floor of this Yorkshire Inn. Don't leave him alone too much. Bless his heart I would give two sovereigns for a kiss. Remember me too, to
Mrs. Charles Dickens. 1838
48 Doughty Street
Frederick who I hope is attentive to you. Take care of yourself my dearest, and let me find by your letter at the York Post Office that you are in both good health and good spirits.
Is it not extraordinary that the same dreams which have constantly visited me since poor Mary died, follow me everywhere? After all the change of scene and fatigue, I have dreamt of her ever since I left home, and no doubt shall 'till I return. I should be sorry to lose such visions for they are very happy ones - if it be the only the seeing her in one's sleep - I would fain believe too, sometimes, that her spirit may have some influence over them, but their perpetual repetition is extra=ordinary.
Love to all friends. Ever my dear Kate your affectionated husband
- Full title:
- Letter about Yorkshire schools from Charles Dickens to his wife Catherine
- 1 February 1838, Greta Bridge, County Durham
- Manuscript / Letter / Ephemera
- Charles Dickens
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Add MS 43689
- Article by:
- Sophie Ratcliffe
- Poverty and the working classes, Technology and science
Writers such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë illuminated contemporary social problems through detailed descriptions of poverty and inequality. Dr Sophie Ratcliffe considers how the Condition of England novel portrayed 19th-century society, and the extent of its calls for reform.
- Article by:
- John Sutherland
- The novel 1832–1880
Since the 18th century, parents had been sending their children to notoriously brutal Yorkshire boarding schools. Here Professor John Sutherland examines the depiction of these schools in Dickens’s ‘social problem novel’, Nicholas Nickleby.