The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Charles Dickens Collection

Containing around 1500 letters, important presentation copies and first editions of his works, original illustrations, “relics,” and many other items, the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia is home to one of the finest Charles Dickens collections in the world. The bequest of William McIntire Elkins, who died in 1947, brought his entire library, containing major collections of Dickens, Oliver Goldsmith, and Americana, as well as miscellaneous literary treasures. With the Elkins bequest came the gift of the room itself with its furnishings, through the generosity of his heirs.


Following the Elkins bequest, the Dickens collection continued to grow through the generosity of D. Jacques Benoliel, his wife, and his son Peter. Peter Benoliel is today an integral part and generous friend of the Free Library of Philadelphia and its Rare Book Department, and is on the Library’s Board of Directors and Board of Trustees.


2012 has been designated as the Free Library’s “Year of Dickens,” as it marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth on February 7. The library has numerous planned events throughout the calendar year in celebration, from “book club”-like literary salons to special guests. Please consult the Free Library’s Web site for more information on this year, as well as the Year of Dickens brochure, available at the front desk.


The second of two exhibitions focusing on Dickens in 2012, “At Home on the Stage” investigates Dickens’s relationship with the theatre.





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At Home on the Stage: Charles Dickens and the Theatre



From his very early childhood, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was enraptured by the theatre. Public entertainment of Dickens’s day naturally consisted of live performances, and theatre and music halls dominated the London scene in the nineteenth century. From the time of the restoration of the monarchy to Charles II of England in 1660, the theatre remained the most popular entertainment for people in England, and Dickens’s time was no exception. Stars of the London stage were hugely acclaimed, and many of the most famous names that graced the stages of the nineteenth century are still commonly remembered today.


Dickens was a regular theatre-goer from his youth until the end of his life.  He wrote works for the stage, he performed in amateur theatricals, and he later performed dramatized readings of his novels. This exhibition highlights the major role of the theatre in Charles Dickens’s life.

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Dickens the Actor



Charles Dickens actively pursued a career as a performer on the stage in his youth, while he was working as a clerk in the Doctors’ Commons. In the period from roughly 1828 to 1832, he made a concerted effort to attend theatre performances nearly every night. He intensely studied the actors’ performances and the characters—in particular he examined the work of Charles Mathews (1776-1835), a prominent theatre manager and comic actor who wrote the work At Home and played every character himself. On his own, Dickens would practice the technique he observed for hours at a time.


Although Dickens did not ultimately make his career on the stage, as we all know too well, he did perform in amateur theatricals and he wrote several works specifically for the theatre.  It should also be noted that Dickens had a theatrical personality. He was inclined to wear bright colors and flashy items (like a gold pocket watch with a large fancy chain), and he tended to stand out in crowds of people wearing more muted colors. Dickens’s closest friends were predominantly actors, painters, and other writers.

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Charles Mathews as Monsieur Morbleu in Monsieur Tonson



One of the leading actors of his day in London, Charles Mathews (1776-1835) was a role model for the young Charles Dickens, who used to watch Mathews in performances and practice the roles at home. Monsieur Tonson was written by W. T. Moncrieff and originally produced in 1821.

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Toy Theatre

Dickens wrote plays from the time he was quite young.  Most notably, Dickens wrote a tragedy, Misnar, the Sultan of India, when he was only nine years old, which he produced and showed to his friends. The young Dickens also had a toy theatre, made for him by an older relative. One of Dickens’s classmates recalled how, as boys, they would mount productions such as the Miller and his Men and Cherry and Fair Star with miniature theatres like the one seen here.

During the heyday of the “Juvenile Drama,” between 1812 and about 1860, some 300 plays were published in adaptations for toy theatre performance, often in different versions. Each of these plays in full length had been performed in the London theatres. Used with the play sheets, the toy theatre could be the real drama in miniature. The scenery was taken from the original stage sets, with the costumes and histrionic attitudes of the performers copied during the actual performances.

Model stages had been played with in English homes in the 18th century, but the trade in plays for toy theatres began around 1812, when printers of theatrical portraits began to issue short versions of popular plays along with sheets of small engraved characters and scenery. The plays, mainly melodramas and pantomimes, cost about 2 pence each. The toy theatre play sheets were basically sold for “a penny plain and twopence coloured.” After coloring, the pieces were mounted on cardboard, cut out and placed within a homemade or purchased box stage. Each character could be fitted to one end of a stick and lid onstage from the open sides. The plays were put on at home, usually by children who were just beginning to be theatre-goers themselves.

theatre toy



Green’s Side Wings


Like blocks or Legos, toy theatres had parts published by different companies that could be used interchangeably. The side wings used in the toy theatre here are Green’s.




Pollock’s Juvenile Drama: Scenes to be Used in a Children’s Theatre Production. London: B. Pollock, n. d.







Webb’s Characters & Scenes in The Miller and His Men


A cheaper version than Pollock’s, Webb’s offered black-and-white scenes and characters.



“The Grand Explosion” designed by Leech, and engraved by Baker.


This illustration is from the book “Young Troublesome,” or Master Jacky’s Holidays, Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard 1851 (c. 1850). In the story, Master Jacky is rehearsing a production of The Miller and His Men with his toy theatre, to disastrous result.



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Autograph letter to Augusta De la Rue, dated September 27, 1845.

This missive describes a great deal of Dickens’s amateur theatricals.  Although his relationship with Mrs. De la Rue grew from his magnetizing treatments on her, it is clear that they enjoyed a friendship that was not solely based on mesmerism. The excerpt of the transcription involves Dickens relating to Mrs. De la Rue a costume he donned for a play, and his astonishment at the time it took to put on his beard.


…I have forgotten to say in its right place that I took the glass you gave me, to the Theatre, in my Portmanteau of Costumes; and drank a bottle of old Sherry from it, in my dressing-Room, at divers fatiguing periods of the Evening. And I drank to you, in a great black wig, and with a peaked beard and black moustache- all stuck on, singly, by the individual hair! I had a dresser from one of the large Theatres to do it; and I never was so much astonished in my life as at the time it took. 


After I was beaten, I had all this taken off (an idea of my own) and put on lank and straight – the moustache, which had curled up towards the eyes, turned drooping down – and every hair dishevelled. You never saw such a Devil. But I wore real armour on my throat and breast; and most enormous boots and spurs – and looked like an old Spanish Portrait, I assure you. Maclise is going to paint the figure, as an ideal one; and I have sat to him already, in the Dress. 


I am constantly reverting to this Play, I find; but only because I know you will like to hear whatever I happen to remember about it. It is not unlikely we may act again – some other play – at

Christmas. Mr. Lemon, the Editor of Punch, who played Brainworm in the Comedy, and acted with me in the Farce, is an excellent actor. But everybody’s understanding of what he was about, and what the author meant, was truly interesting in a very high degree.

Matlack Fund

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Three Character Portraits of Charles Dickens, Drawing by Daniel Maclise

This portrait shows Dickens performing—the three figures are each of Dickens in a different stance, lending the portrait a sense of movement and action. (The image can be seen by clicking on the URL and at the top of the blog page.)

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Playbill, Clari, The Married Bachelor, and Amateurs & Actors

Dated April 27, 1833, this playbill indicates Charles Dickens’s role as a stage manager, director, and actor for this private performance. Dickens’s sisters Fanny and Leticia took part, as well as his brothers Augustus and Frederick. The Dickenses cousin Edward Barrow was also in the cast.


In 1833, Dickens was still working as a clerk with Blackmore, of Ellis and Blackmore. These theatricals took place in Bentinck Street, Manchester Square, the residence at which Dickens’s father lived at the time, and it has been suggested that Dickens must have persuaded the owner of the building to give him a basement or suitable room for his production.


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Dickens’s Novels and the Theatre

Dickens’s works lent themselves particularly well to theatre. Oliver Twist’s Nancy has been described as behaving “like an actress in a bad play”; the long-lingering death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop had the entire country in its grip, when grown men broke into tears upon her death. Of course, the bathos was better appreciated long after Old Curiosity Shop had been published— as Oscar Wilde put it, “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” Aside from two of the most famous examples, however, Dickens’s characters and stories are infused with drama and theatricals. The managers of theatres were well-aware of the potential money to be earned in taking Dickens’s stories to the stage, even when they were still being written.


As is well-known, but deserves to be mentioned again here, most of Charles Dickens’s novels appeared in serial format. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, his first novel, was issued over 19 months in 20 parts. It was so wildly popular that theatre groups performed unauthorized dramatic versions of it before it was even completed. In 1838, the spate of Pickwick productions was swollen by the addition of versions of Oliver Twist, which had begun as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany in January 1837. (One version at the Surrey Theatre was so excruciatingly bad that in the middle of the first scene the agonized novelist lay down on the floor of his box and never rose until the curtain fell.)


The pirated versions of Dickens’s stories prompted Dickens from an early point in his career to become an advocate for copyright law in England as well as in the United States. Dickens devoted a significant amount of his time through his lifetime to this cause.

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Playbill, Guy Mannering and Scraps from Pickwick, Theatre Royal.

Dated December 4, 1837, this production would have followed the final installment of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by two months. Scraps from Pickwick would not have been authorized by Dickens—as explained earlier, pirated theatre productions of Pickwick were rampant. However, after Dickens had published several novels, it becomes apparent that many theatre managers wished for the author’s blessing and touted Dickens’s approval on their playbills.


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