Charles Dickens: Novelist, Social Reformer and…Flashy Dresser?

In 1842, Charles Dickens made his first of two visits to America.  He took a sweeping tour of the country, meeting with dignitaries such as Longfellow, Poe, and President John Tyler.  He visited Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri.  While in New York City, he was welcomed with a grand ball (from which AAS has a menu).  And during his glamorous whirlwind tour, Dickens managed to find time to visit our humble city of Worcester!

AAS has a collection of papers belonging to the Newton Family of Worcester.  The Newtons were a prominent family in the early 19th century.  The patriarch, Rejoice Newton, was a Justice of the Peace, the first President of the Worcester Mutual Fire Insurance Company, and served in the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representative.  He married Rebecca Lincoln, sister of Governor Levi Lincoln.  The couple had two children, Hester and Levi.  Levi, a Harvard graduate, class of 1830, was an excellent diarist, recording his daily activities during his college years, and later as he worked as a cashier for the Worcester Bank.  We have 11 of his diaries, spanning the years 1837 – 1843.  And in one of his diaries, he recounts Dickens’ visit to Worcester.

On February 5th, 1842, Levi finally catches an in person glimpse of the famed Dickens.  We can learn much about Dickens’ visit through his own reminiscences of the trip in his work American Notes.  Or perhaps read what literary scholars have to say about his trip’s impact on his writing and views of America.  But what I like about Levi’s diary entry is how in awe he is, much as anyone would be when meeting their favorite celebrity.  It’s also interesting that the majority of Levi’s entry for the day he meets Dickens is about what Dickens was wearing.

His external appearance did not answer to our puritanical notions of a literary man: his dress was that a of genteel rowdy in this country and no one, who did not know, could have supposed him to be “the immortal Boz.”  A stout Prince Albert frock coat, a flashy red vest with a dark figured scarf about his neck, fastened with a pin to which was attached any quantity of gold chain and his long flowing hair gave him the air of a fashionable young man…

Gold chains and long flowing hair?  Who would have imagined Dickens as such a fashionable, flashy dresser?  Diaries, when written in such detail as Levi’s, are great for providing the reader with amazing visuals.  A picture can say a thousand words, but in the 19th century, when photography was just beginning, images of celebrities were few and far between.  So thanks to sources such as diaries we are able to remember the little things, like Charles Dickens’ sense of style.

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