Did Charles Dickens' 1867 trip to America inspire the first stirrings of modern celebrity culture?

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March 17 2009 9:55 AM

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Did Charles Dickens' 1867 trip to America inspire the first stirrings of modern celebrity culture?

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Three years ago, I began plotting a historical novel about Charles Dickens that would take place, in part, during the author's lucrative visit to America in 1867-68. Teamed with a series of theatrical managers, Dickens had developed performative readings from his popular novels, which he had taken to the stage throughout Great Britain. But it was the United States Dickens saw as the "golden campaigning ground," and soon after the dust settled from the Civil War, a tour was planned. Once a lowly factory boy, Dickens had by this point become an international superstar. In order to intensify my plot and prompt readers to reflect on the nature of fame at the dawn of celebrity culture, I decided to insert a stalker character into my novel. To my surprise, however, my research turned up something like the real thing.

Her name was Jane Bigelow. Born in 1829 in Baltimore, Bigelow was a descendant of the Poultneys of England, a family that boasted an Earl of Bath and a four-time mayor of London. At 21, Jane married 33-year-old New York-born lawyer John Bigelow, who was later appointed by Abraham Lincoln minister to Paris during the Civil War. During the Bigelows' diplomatic missions, Jane managed to offend politicos and royals, slapping the Prince of Wales on the back and shocking the emperor of Germany by sending her servants to sit in the imperial box at the opera. It was rumored that John Bigelow was denied the coveted post as American minister to London because of her outré behavior .

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In November 1867, Dickens arrived in America for his reading tour, which had been arranged and financed by top American publisher Fields, Osgood & Co. of Boston. The stately Parker House hotel in downtown Boston served as the visiting novelist's home base. Dickens, a workaholic, was restless waiting a week and a half for the first series of public engagements. The Bigelows lived in New York but happened to be visiting Boston—and also staying at the Parker House—during Dickens' time there. The New York couple dined with Dickens, his manager, and publisher and played parlor games like "history," a whispering game like the one today we call "telephone."

Dickens seems to have liked the company of John Bigelow—at least in part because he did not like the company of Bigelow's wife. Famed Boston socialite Annie Fields, wife of Dickens' publisher James T. Fields, recorded in her diary that Dickens sympathized with John Bigelow. Dickens was candid about his unhappiness "in having had so many children by a wife who was totally incompatible." This was Catherine Dickens, mother of Dickens's 10 children, whom Dickens had often characterized as weak-minded and embarrassing, and who had long before been banished from the family estate in Rochester, England. Mrs. Fields recorded in her diary that Dickens had "the deepest sympathy for men who are unfitly married and has really taken an especial fancy I think to John Bigelow, our late minister to Paris who is here, because his wife is such an incubus."

Mrs. Fields seems to have sensed a problem brewing from Jane Bigelow, and within a month from the "incubus" entry she writes that the eccentric "Mrs. Bigg" had "at last brought matters to a crisis." Dickens was in New York for a series of readings there, residing at the Westminster Hotel near Union Square. A "little widow" named Mrs. Hertz, who was a friend of the hotel manager, wanted to meet Dickens and sent him flowers. She was brought into his room for a private meeting at noon the next day. When the star-struck widow left the room, Jane Bigelow was waiting in the hall. She accosted the widow—assaulting her with her fists—while screaming about the woman's "daring" at having entered Dickens' room alone.

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