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Charles Dickens’ Australia

by: Margaret Mendelawitz
published by: Sydney University Press

In 1850, Charles Dickens, aged 38, established a new weekly publication named Household Words. While its name might have been unpretentious, Dickens declared the purpose of the journal to be no less than “the raising up of those that are down, and the general improvement of our social conditions”.

The articles in Household Words were to be informative and entertaining, a range of stories, narratives, poetry and essays on social issues of the day, some of which Dickens wrote himself. The publication was extremely successful, achieving sales of up to 100,000 copies per week.

At that time, one of the topics of greatest interest amongst the journal’s middle class readership was the Australian colonies, particularly following the outbreak of the gold rush in 1851. As ships departed to convey mostly young men to the goldfields, to return months later laden with gold to pay for Britain’s finest exports, Household Words’ readers were hungry to hear of the voyages and adventures, of conditions in this far-flung outpost of the British Empire, of the lives of those who had gone there as convicts, emigrants or fortune hunters.

Of the nearly 3000 articles published in Household Words over the decade of its publication, around 100 related to Australia. Dickens himself had a particular fascination with Australia, partly because he saw it as an opportunity for the poor and oppressed of Britain to start a new life, and partly because he had a devoted readership there. In 1850 he met Caroline Chisholm and was impressed by her work assisting and protecting immigrant girls in New South Wales. Her ‘emigrants’ letters’ appeared in the first edition of Household Words. Years later, two of Dickens’ sons would emigrate to seek their fortunes in the young colony. Dickens himself never made the voyage, though he expressed a desire to numerous times.

In a set of five volumes researched and presented by Margaret Mendelawitz, all of the stories about Australia published in Dickens’ journal have been brought together, grouped according to theme: Convict Stories, Immigration, Frontier Stories, Mining and Gold and Maritime Conditions.

Each volume contains a wealth of perceptions, often at first hand, of ‘the Australian experience’ between 1850 and 1859. The stories are written by men and women of all social ranks and diverse origin and experience. They provide a freshness and detail that can only be achieved through first hand observation. Editor Margaret Mendelawitz sets the scene with an introduction to each issue and biographical material on the writers.

Together, the five volumes bring together a body of literature which, though it has had little exposure since it was first published, is a valuable contribution to Australia's historical resources.

Charles Dickens’ Australia: Selected Essays from Household Words 1850 – 1859, Five volumes, Researched and presented by Margaret Mendelawitz, published by Sydney University Press.

RRP: $100.

Email: info@sup.usyd.edu.au
Web: http://sydney.edu.au/sup/


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