Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Picture of Fanny Dickens - Charles Dickens' wondrous sister

Today, I finally found a drawing of Charles Dickens gifted elder sister, Fanny Dickens (1810-1848). (See direct link at bottom of this article).

She was two years his elder, a child prodigy, who was trained at the Royal Academy of Music and studied under Beethoven's pupil. As an adult, long before feminism, she taught music at the Royal Academy.

Charles Dickens was not the only gifted person in his family. In fact, Charles grew up in Fanny's shadow, in terms of talent. He was rather jealous of his parents' focus on her gifts and future - but still loved her dearly. She became a converted believer, a non-conformist. She tragically died - an exemplary death - aged only 38, leaving young children.

Charles Dickens wrote about her, in great distress, after his last visit to her on her death bed:


The close siblings, genius brother and highly gifted sister, clearly talked to one another in 1848, as Christians. I believe that after a trip to USA in 1842 he became interested in a sort of Unitarianism .This is rather like liberalism - but does not accept the divinity of Christ (like Judaism). It does accept Christ as the supreme moral teacher but not sin or the Resurrection.

However, Dickens appears to have been in two theological minds since he attended his parish Church in Kent.  He firmly believed in the immortality of the soul and in his view of "Heaven", which as someone said was probably a bit like a scene from "The Pickwick Papers". He disliked the Old Testament and in his opinionated style, rejected parts of the Bible without Christ. Like other great writers, e.g. Tolstoy, he made-up his personal version of Christianity.

While I was living in London, I was interested to read that Charles Dickens visited a different London church every Sunday in an energetic quest for "true Christianity" - but he ended up utterly disappointed. After he moved to Kent, he came to the conclusion that real true Christianity survives in small parish churches, in the countryside.

Nevertheless, Dicken's heart was, usually, in the right place and he immortalised his Christian sister, Fanny in "Florence Dombey" and her crippled son Henry Burnett, Jnr as "Tiny Tim".

This drawing of Fanny is in the most charming place possible. It is a tiny but delightful sketch - in the bottom left-hand corner of a drawing of her famous  brother, who was, in his youth, a rather pleasant-looking man.  She was rather delightful too.

So see Fanny (Frances) Dickens - probable fellow of the Royal Academy of Music  - in bottom left hand corner - here:


I've wanted to find out more about Fanny since reading Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens. This is because my grandmother had a very similar story. Coming from a poor background, she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy and its gold medal for composition, and taught there all her life, ending in the 1950s. She lived to 89.   She also was a believer.

What a difference to human longevity and personal outcomes a single century had made.

Further Reading
  • Dennis Walder, Dickens and Religion (1981)

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