Was Charles Dickens a Plagiarist?

In 1861, Charles Dickens published a work entitled, “Four Ghost Stories” in his magazine All the Year Round. While not remembered well today, it caused somewhat of an uproar at the time when an author named Thomas Heaphy emerged to make a startling accusation. Was Charles Dickens a plagiarist?

Charles Dickens versus Thomas Heaphy?

Charles Dickens is one of the most famous authors in modern history. His astounding portfolio of works includes: A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations. But a new British Library exhibition entitled, “A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural,” has ginned up bad memories of one of his lesser works.

In 1861, Charles Dickens published a short story collection called “Four Ghost Stories.” The first story “featured a beautiful young woman asking a portrait painter if he could remember her face well enough to paint it from memory months later.” It turns out that (SPOILER ALERT) the woman is already dead and she wants to use the portrait to console her father.

Upon learning of the story, painter and artist Thomas Heaphy was furious. He wrote an angry letter to Charles Dickens, “claiming that not only had he written up an identical story, ready for publication in the Christmas issue of a rival magazine, but that it had really happened to him – and on 13 September too, the very date Dickens had added in pencil in the margin of his own version.”

Was Charles Dickens a Plagiarist?

So, was Dickens a plagiarist? Or was Heaphy trying to cash in on Dickens’ good name? Well, in 1882, Heaphy published his own version of the story, which he called A Wonderful Ghost Story; Being Mr. H.’s Own Narrative; A Recital of Facts with Unpublished Letters from Charles Dickens Respecting It. In that work, Heaphy included a letter from Dickens in which the esteemed author admitted the origin of his own story.

“I received the story published in that journal first among the “Four Ghost Stories,” from a gentleman of distinguished position, both literary and social, who, I do not doubt, is well known to you by reputation. He did not send it to me as his own, but as the work of a young writer in whom he feels an interest, and who previously contributed (all through him) another ghost story.” ~ Charles Dickens, September 15, 1861

Later letters would identify this “gentleman” as Sir Edward Lytton who claimed to have received the story from someone named Edward Ward. Indeed, Charles Dickens eventually admitted that the story belonged to Heaphy and offered to call it “the authentic story given at first hand.”

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, it would appear that Dickens was probably innocent of plagiarism. However, the same can’t be said for Sir Edward Lytton and Edward Ward. It seems unlikely that these two men passed on the story to Dickens in order to aid a struggling young writer, especially since Heaphy received no credit in the magazine. Instead, it seems far more possible that they conspired to steal the work and sell it to Dickens.

But there’s a bright side to the story. Until recently, Thomas Heaphy has been virtually forgotten by modern scholars. Now, his strange connection to Charles Dickens has led to a reexamination of his work. It doesn’t quite make up for the theft of his story, but it’s better than nothing.

The Lost Treasure of Charles Dickens’s Shipwreck

On October 25, 1859, the Royal Charter crashed into rocks off the coast of Wales during a horrendous hurricane. With over 450 lives lost, it remains one of the biggest maritime disasters in history. Charles Dickens himself visited the site and wrote about it in his short-story collection, The Uncommercial Traveller. The other day, divers shocked the world when they announced the discovery of treasure while searching the shipwreck.  How much did they find? And is there more?

The Royal Charter Disaster

In late 1859, a steam clipper by the name of Royal Charter set sail from Melbourne, Australia to Liverpool, England in what should’ve been a sixty day journey. Historians estimate that it carried 371 passengers, 112 crew members, and other employees. As the ship rounded Anglesey, a force 12 hurricane struck the area.

Powerful wind slammed into the ship. Massive waves crested against its side. The crew attempted to anchor but the chains snapped. As the gusts drove the Royal Charter towards shore, the crew cut the masts and revved the steam engines. But it was to no avail. After crashing into rocks, gigantic waves, driven by one hundred mile winds, battered the Royal Charter into pieces. Twenty-one passengers and eighteen crew members, all men, survived. The rest, an estimated 459 people, perished in the destruction.

Charles Dickens & The Royal Charter

At the height of his fame, the author Charles Dickens visited the site and reported on the tragedy. His words, initially published in his magazine All the Year Round, helped memorialize the horrible disaster.

So tremendous had the force of the sea been when it broke the ship, that it had beaten one great ingot of gold, deep into a strong and heavy piece of her solid iron-work: in which also several loose sovereigns that the ingot had swept in before it, had been found, as firmly embedded as though the iron had been liquid when they were forced there. – Charles Dickens

Lost Treasure on the Royal Charter?

Recently, a team of divers led by Vincent Thurkettle announced the discovery of over two hundred artifacts as well as substantial amounts of gold dust, nuggets, and coins. It turns out that some of the passengers who sailed on the Royal Charter‘s last voyage were gold miners. At the time of the storm, they carried over 79,000 ounces of gold. Today, this treasure is estimated to be worth about $125 million dollars.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The Royal Charter‘s story is a sad one. Ordinary people as well as miners who’d struck it rich were on the verge of returning home after a long, two-month voyage. But with just a few hours to go, a vicious, merciless storm ended most of their lives and forever changed those of the survivors. However, it wasn’t all for naught. The destruction of the clipper led to the first gail warning system, improved weather forecasting, and the development of other safety measures.

Today, the remains of the Royal Charter lay under ten to fifteen feet of water, a solemn reminder of nature’s fury. It is believed that about twenty percent of the ship’s gold remains with the wreck. If so, then close to twenty-five million dollars of treasure, buried under a thin layer of sand, still waits to be recovered.