Charles Dickens fell madly in love with Queen Victoria. And on her honeymoon night with Prince Albert he went to Windsor Castle and rolled in the mud in dire protest of what was happening in her bedroom above.
It’s a true story of Dickens, the rebellious republican writer, protector of the poor and his passion for his adored young Queen who ruled Britain at its most powerful period that was revealed at the Marlborough Lit Fest on Saturday.
And unveiling the saga, Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ award-winning biographer, provided a poignant echo of the Victorian political clash of the classes still remaining in austerity-hit Britain today.
She quoted Queen’s Victoria’s personal farewell to Dickens written after his remarkable and relentless refusal to present himself to his sovereign over a period of 30 years in what was an unprecedented rejection of royal commands.
But the two most famous people of the age finally met at Windsor Castle — when Victoria was 51 and Dickens 58. It was March, 1870, and within weeks the creator of of Oliver Twist, Mr Pickwick, David Copperfield, Scrooge and Little Dorrit was dead.
But undoubtedly not forgotten.
In her journal Queen Victoria wrote: “He had a large loving mind and the strongest sympathy for the poorest classes. He felt sure that a better feeling and greater union of the classes would take place in time.
“And I pray earnestly that it may…”
As Claire, 80-year-old biographer of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hardy told the packed Town Hall audience at the start: “The story I have to tell is quite special about Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria – writers and royals”.
She explained how Sir Arthur Helps, clerk to the Privy Council and adviser to the Queen, repeatedly tried to bring the pair together. He saw that the names of Dickens and Queen Victoria were going to become iconic – “And he was right,” she declared.
Dickens was a man of super-human energy and productivity who had raised himself from obscurity to world fame in an era of poverty and hypocrisy while the Queen won the love of her subjects by her longevity, representing stability as the nation’s economy and political power triumphed.
But what Helps didn’t know was what Dickens was up to when Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 and how he went to Windsor Castle for their honeymoon night.
“Dickens, who was married with young children, suddenly realised he was passionately in love with the young Queen,” she revealed. “He had one of those extraordinary fits of hysterical passionate feeling that overcame him at various times in his life.
“He and an artist friend, Daniel Maclise, on the evening of the wedding went up to Windsor together. They went into the park and walked beneath the lighted windows where they assumed the young Queen and her husband were.
“And Dickens laid down in the mud and rolled in agony at the thought of this and how it couldn’t be reversed. Passing people were quite surprised to see this happening.”
Dickens went to write letters to friends exposing the torture he was undergoing, in one to his best friend John Forster he announced: “I am utterly lost in misery and can do nothing. My heart is in Windsor, my heart isn’t here.
“The presence of my wife aggravates me. I detest this house. I begin to have thoughts of the Serpentine or the Regent’s Canal or the razors upstairs, of poisoning myself, of hanging myself, of abstaining from food to starve myself to death.”
Yet Dickens spurned all the royal invitations to Buckingham Palace in the following years, refused to perform one or more of his public readings for her or present one of his celebrated charity stage plays for the Queen, giving a variety of regretful reasons and excuses.
Her Majesty, who is known to have read Oliver Twist and dipped into the Pickwick Papers, countered in 1857 by taking a royal party to the Gallery in Regent’s Street, where Dickens was performing his latest play.
She wrote in her diary that it was “most touching, admirably acted by Charles Dickens,” the production being full of “reckless suspense” aided by charming scenery with additional music.
She returned home at half past midnight, and an equerry subsequently told Dickens: “The Queen and the Prince were delighted with the dramatic treat last night. I’ve hardly ever seen Her Majesty and HRH so much pleased.”
Claire Tomalin pointed out: “When the Queen sends for you, you don’t say No. It is absolutely extraordinary that a writer should refuse invitations to go and see her.”
But Dickens went further, rejecting too an offer from the Queen of an honour and even refusing to help raise funds for the Albert Memorial after the Consort died in 1861.
When they eventually met he was white-haired and stooping, deaf and, though etiquette required him to stand, the Queen relented and they sat on a sofa together for half an hour discussing a variety of subjects.
The Queen especially want to know “why it is no longer possible to find good servants” and Dickens suggesting “the education system might be unhelpful”.
Claire added: “I can’t help wondering whether he recalled rolling in the mud outside her bedroom 30 years before. Perhaps not.
“He knew what made him great was his writing and that was what he wanted to be remembered for. Yet he was puzzled by the Queen’s evident wish to show her respect for him.
“And he would have been pleased if he could have known what Queen Victoria wrote in her journal when she heard of his death very shortly after.”