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 H.’s Own Narrative; A Recital of Facts with Unpublished Letters from Charles Dickens Respecting It.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.

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