There’s a grand literary tradition of famous writers who request that their correspondence, personal papers, and unfinished works be destroyed upon their deaths.
Franz Kafka, Virgil, Thomas Hardy, Vladimir Nabokov, and even more recently Philip Roth have all left explicit instructions that the papers that survive them should be consigned to the fiery inferno of extinction.
But Charles Dickens realized something that his fellow masters failed to see—if you want to deny the world your private thoughts, the only way to ensure the job is done right, as the saying goes, is to do the dirty deed yourself. So in 1860, he lit a bonfire in his backyard and burned 20 years worth of his letters and papers. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Our current concerns about personal privacy may seem like a modern phenomenon. After all, a culture conditioned to overshare on social media and consume reality TV at shocking rates combined with the new tools of interpersonal and geopolitical warfare—email hacking and revenge porn—have created a spectacular erosion of our private lives.
But we aren’t the first era to be troubled by the personal becoming all too public. In Victorian England, Dickens observed the headlines and the gossip that embroiled other famous figures, and he began to fear that the private correspondence of public individuals was being misused. He didn’t want the same thing to happen to him.
Dickens was a prolific and verbose letter writer, so much so that in 1859, he lobbied for the Royal Mail to install a postbox not only in his town—the closest at the time was over a mile walk away—but at his very house. (He succeeded.)
Over the course of his life, he would trade letters with his closest companions about everything from his day-to-day life, his emotional and romantic ups and downs, and the progress of his work.
“Dickens was a brilliant letter writer,” Claire Tomalin, author of two Dickens biographies, told the BBC. “His letters were almost like a performance. They gave a vivid sense of what he was like and what he had been up to.”
But he started to become paranoid that his correspondence would be a little too revealing if it ever found its way into the wrong hands, and he worried that anything left behind “might be used to create some kind of biography,” as Tomalin said.
In addition to a general desire to keep his internal thoughts and experiences to himself and his intended recipient, Dickens also had some cause to fear publicity.
In 1858, the 46-year-old writer was going through a nasty separation from his wife of 22 years and the mother of his 10 children. His attitude towards the situation was particularly ugly—he had fallen out of love with Catherine, abruptly separated from her, and, by some accounts, discouraged their younger children from seeing her.
While the minute details of the end of his marriage weren’t known, Dickens was a famous figure and the broad facts of the situation were public.
The rumors swirled—was he in love with his wife’s sister or maybe a younger woman? They were so ferocious that Dickens took it upon himself to issue a personal statement on the front page of Household Words, a magazine that he edited, in June 1858. (It was later reprinted in The Times).
“Some domestic trouble of mine, of long-standing, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected, as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement,” Dickens wrote. “By some means, arising out of wickedness, or out of folly, or out of inconceivable wild chance, or out of all three, this trouble has been made the occasion of misrepresentations, most grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel.”
But while he may have issued a statement condemning the tabloid gossip, there was something he was hiding. Before the break-up of his marriage, Dickens had fallen in love with an 18-year-old actress, Ellen Ternan.
After Catherine had been disposed of—he provided well for her in their separation agreement but most scholars agree that his feelings towards her were less than charitable at the time—he was ready to move on with the illicit affair that he expended much energy keeping secret, even long-past the settlement of his marriage.
It was against this backdrop on September 3, 1860, that Dickens decided all of his personal correspondence and papers had to go.
He had just finished moving into his new home, Gad’s Hill, where he would spend the rest of his life. He went out into the yard of his new home, built a bonfire, and incinerated basket after basket containing over 20 years worth of paper mementos. One of Dickens’ sons, Henry, allegedly remembered roasting onions in the hot ashes of the destroyed literary treasure.
The next day, Dickens described the event in a letter: “Yesterday I burnt, in the field at Gad’s Hill, the accumulated letters and papers of twenty years. They sent up a smoke like the genie when he got out of the casket on the seashore; and as it was an exquisite day when I began, and rained very heavily when I finished, I suspect my correspondence of having overcast the face of the Heavens.”
The loss to historians is grave. It’s impossible to know what papers, notes, and correspondence fed the inferno, but their importance to Dickens scholarship is without question. As Declan Kiely, then a curator at the Morgan Library & Museum, wrote in 2011, “His letters have been absolutely indispensable as source material for Dickens’ numerous biographers, and are widely recognized as a significant body of work in themselves, part of the Dickens canon.”
This act may make scholars today cringe, but Dickens wasn’t the only Victorian who turned to the flames (a particularly apt choice as he also believed fervently in spontaneous human combustion).
“[The Victorians] valued the frequent, rapid, and reliable postal service which had followed the introduction of the penny post—paid by the sender not the recipient—in 1840,” Paul Collins wrote. “But they feared the permanent testament which letters made of their intentions, views and wishes. Burning letters was almost a national pastime and when Dickens joined in he did it with his typical verve.”
And Dickens particular “verve” meant that, once that first bonfire was lit in 1860, he continued the practice as something of a religion for the rest of his life. In 1861, he wrote to a friend that “now I always destroy every letter I receive—not on absolute business—and my mind is, so far, at ease.”
But despite his fiery success, Dickens was not able to realize his deepest desire. While he could control the fate of the letters that he received and his own papers, the thousands of letters that he penned over the course of his life were out of his hands. Nearly 150 years after his death, scholars continue to eagerly pore over the nearly 15,000 letters that his friends and family, the letters’ recipients, eventually turned over.
Dickens would not be pleased. As the last basket of correspondence was dumped on the flames in 1860, one of his children claims he declared, “Would to God every letter I had ever written was on that pile.”