A chance encounter with Charles Dickens

The American educator and author of children’s stories, Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923) started the first free kindergarten in San Francisco in 1878 and devoted her adult life to improving the welfare of children. She treasured a very special childhood memory.

In 1881, Kate married Samuel Bradley Wiggin, a San Francisco lawyer. According to the custom of the time, she was required to resign her teaching job, but devoted to her school, she began to raise money for it through writing: first The Story of Patsy (1883), then The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1887). With her sister she went on to publish scholarly works on the educational principles of Friedrich Froebel: Froebel’s Gifts (1895), Froebel’s Occupations (1896), and Kindergarten Principles and Practice (1896). She then wrote the classic children’s novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), the best-selling Rose o’ the River (1905) and Mother Carey’s Chickens (1911).

During her childhood Kate, her sister and parents read many of the novels of Charles Dickens. Such was the writer’s impact that the family cried together over tragic passages and named the family pets after Dickens’s characters. Kate even called her favourite sled “The Artful Dodger” – the name painted on it in brilliant red letters. In 1868, when she was just 12 years old, her mother saw in the newspaper that Dickens was visiting the east coast of America and giving a reading in Portland, the nearest town. Tickets were priced exorbitantly, so Kate’s mother went with a cousin, leaving her at home. The determined and intrepid Kate followed them to City Hall, but “without beholding any trace of my hero.”

Little did she imagine that next day her dream of meeting the author would be fulfilled. Leaving by train, by chance Dickens was travelling in the railroad car next to hers, which Kate only discovered when the train halted at a station and Dickens alighted for a few minutes. When travel resumed, Kate slipped unnoticed into the same carriage merely to observe her hero from a distance. But without quite knowing how it happened, she ran to him and sat down.

Dickens was looking out of the window, but he turned in a moment and said with surprise: “God bless my soul, where did you come from?” Kate recounted the circumstances of her journey, told him she had read many of his books and added that she skipped “some of the very dull parts once in a while; not the short dull parts, but the long ones.”

Dickens was intrigued and a long conversation ensued, uninterrupted by his travelling companion, Mr. Osgood of Boston, or anyone else. “It was not long before one of my hands was in his, and his arm around my waist, while we talked of many things.” The incident took place long after American Notes (1842) and Dickens never wrote about it, although he may have told the story to a Boston newspaper the following day. Ignored by Peter Ackroyd in Dickens (1990), who otherwise offers a considerable amount of detail about this American tour, the story is recounted by Claire Tomalin in her new biography Charles Dickens (2011).

Wiggin gives us a glimpse into the heart of the great author, the bicentenary of whose birth is being celebrated 100 years after she published her own account of what took place in a slender book called A Child’s Journey with Dickens (1912). There she concludes:

“I remember feeling that I had never known anybody so well and so intimately, and that I talked with him as one talks under cover of darkness or before the flickering light of a fire. It seems to me, as I look back now, and remember how the little soul of me came out and sat in the sunshine of his presence, that I must have had some premonition that the child, who would come to be one of the least writers, was then talking with one of the greatest.”


One comment on “A chance encounter with Charles Dickens

  1. Kristine says:

    Hi Philip, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was one of my favourite childhood books. I had no idea its author had a connection to Dickens.


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