When Charles Dickens visited Richmond in March 1842, he was treated to a reception he didn't want given by men who'd probably not read much of his work and held little respect for fiction.
While here, the British novelist also wrote an epitaph for a dead child whose parents he'd never met, and everywhere he went, the presence of slavery sickened him. Biographer Edward Johnson writes that Dickens, a "resolute abolitionist," knew slavery existed here but wasn't prepared for the reality: "His flesh crawled with moral revulsion during the entire three days he spent in Virginia." At 30, Dickens — nicknamed "Boz" — was already an international celebrity. He'd authored serialized novels The Pickwick Papers, Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop.
Elsewhere during his five-month, dozen-city North American tour, he received massive adulation. There was a gala, known as the "Boz Ball," thrown in his honor in New York City, which drew 2,000. In Philadelphia, he shook the hands of hundreds of people gathered in his hotel lobby, an experience that exhausted the author. He preferred quieter meetings, including two with Edgar Allan Poe, then the editor of Graham's Magazine.
Dickens, accompanied by his wife, Catherine; her maid; and secretary George W. Putnam, arrived in Richmond around 7 p.m. on March 17, 1842, at Richmond's new Exchange Hotel, on the southeast corner of 14th and Franklin streets. The Exchange was a luxurious Greek Revival fantasia, with an imposing columned portico, dining and reading salons, shops, and spa baths. Dickens recalled, "We found it a very large and elegant establishment, and were as well entertained as travellers need desire to be."
He went to the Capitol, where the drowsy oratory of the legislature appeared to leave little impression. Far more interesting to the author was the Virginia State Library and its 10,000 volumes. Dickens also witnessed the painful contradiction between the Jeffersonian ideals of democracy and a chewing-tobacco factory manned by slaves. At 2 p.m., the workers were allowed to sing, and Dickens heard a hymn sung quite well in parts. He wanted to follow them to dinner, but the foreman wouldn't respond to Dickens' requests.
"There are pretty villas and cheerful houses in its streets, and Nature smiles upon the country round," Dickens later wrote of Richmond, "but jostling its handsome residences, like slavery itself going hand in hand with many lofty virtues, are deplorable tenements, fences unrepaired, walls crumbling into ruinous heaps."
On the evening of March 18, a "petite souper" was held for Dickens with about 100 of Richmond's commercial and political leaders, though apparently not one representative of the arts. The host was Thomas Ritchie, the semi-retired Richmond Enquirer newspaper editor, who allowed that while Virginia could not offer a Washington Irving or a William Cullen Bryant, its sons, Jefferson, Washington and Madison, had forged a nation and "never indulged in works of imagination, in the charms of romance or the mere beauties of belles letteres ."
For the businessmen gathered, this must have made sense, but it was a bit disrespectful to Dickens.
At some point, Dickens was approached by physician Francis Henry Deane, who asked Dickens to compose an epitaph for the gravestone of 13-month-old Charles Irving Thornton, who'd died while in Deane's care. Dickens sent his words by post from Cincinnati on April 4. He wrote that he hoped the Thorntons would find comfort in his words, "and be happy again."
The inscription reads in part, "Hard as it is for Human affection to reconcile itself to Death, in any shape; his parents can even now believe that it will be a consolation to them, throughout their lives and when they shall have grown old and grey, always to think of him as a child in Heaven."
The gravesite may still be visited today near Cumberland State Forest, off Oak Hill Road that splits off from Route 629. It is one of two known gravestones in the U.S. with an inscription by Dickens.
At the end of his tour, Dickens returned to London, where he wrote American Notes . The Richmond section didn't please many here. He excoriated the South for arrogant intransigence on the slavery question. His work after the journey became darker and more satirical. He returned to the U.S. in 1867 but didn't travel below Washington.