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Charles Dickens and Australia

Engraving of Charles Dickens head and shoulders

While Charles Dickens never visited Australia, he was very interested in the land ‘down under’. As the Editor-in-Chief and the ‘Conductor’ he was instrumental in publishing numerous articles about Australia in his weekly periodical, Household Words. These letters are collected in the five volumes of Charles Dickens’ Australia: selected essays from Household Words 1850–1859, compiled and edited by Margaret Mendelawitz.

The publication of Household Words coincided with a decade of great changes in Australia. The gold rushes of the 1850s drove a period of mass migration and expansion in the hinterlands, and caused radical economic and social changes. It also changed how the colonies were perceived by Britain and the world at large. Away from its stark convict beginnings, Australia became the ultimate land of adventure and opportunity with an exciting future ahead. Many articles from Household Words were re-published in the Australian press of the time, providing Dickens, a keen advocate for social improvement, with a unique opportunity to shape public opinion in Australia.

Dickens published Household Words and his later magazine, All the Year Round, with the aim of reaching and entertaining the masses and, at the same time, shaping discussion and debate on important social questions of the time. Filled with serialised novels, poems, articles of investigative journalism, travel writing, popular science, history and political commentary, both journals became extremely popular at the time (Household Words eventually averaged sales of about 40,000 copies per week and at its peak 100,000 copies per week).

Charles Dickens’ Australia makes the stories related to Australia, describing  convicts, migrants, miners, explorers, bushrangers and sailors, accessible to contemporary readers. Readers interested in delving further into Household Words can explore a digitised collection of the complete journal at Dickens Journals Online.

Book cover of Charles Dickens' Australia, volume 2, featuring a Victorian-era painting depicting a family gathered around a newspaper.

Dickens even planned to travel to Australia and write a book. Alas, it never happened, despite the fact that two of his sons migrated here: Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens came in 1865 and his younger brother, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, in 1869. They both worked on stations before opening their own stock and station agency, EBL Dickens and Partners. Minor celebrities of their time, they were largely forgotten until Mary Lazarus published her book A tale of two brothers: Charles Dickens's sons in Australia, in 1973.

References to Australia appear in many of Dickens’ most famous works, such as Great Expectations and David Copperfield. You can read more about these connections in this fascinating blog post by whisperinggums.

This is an edited version of a post that appeared on the previous SUP blog in 2011.