Sunday, February 22, 2009


The Mendacity Society

A piece in TLS reviews Jenny Hartley's new study of a little-known casebook kept by Charles Dickens:

He catalogued the stories told him by the women – prostitutes, confidence tricksters, thieves and attempted suicides – whom he interviewed before they were admitted to Urania Cottage, the refuge for fallen women he established in Shepherd’s Bush in the 1840s and effectively directed for a decade or more.
What's remarkable to me is how ready Dickens was to help people that he hadn't even interviewed. Years ago -- as part of the old Collins Almanac site -- I jotted down this (truncated) transcription of an Illustrated London News article from May 25, 1844:

On Wednesday John Walker, a man of about forty-five years of age, was brought up in custody, and placed at the bar before Mr. Rawlinson, charged with having attempted to obtain from Mr. Charles Dickens (Boz), of No. 1, Devonshire-street, New-road, by means of false and fraudulent representations. The prisoners seemed in great distress of mind, and in the course of the inquiry frequently shed tears. It appeared Mr. Dickens had frequently relieved the prisoner in his distress, although he knew nothing of him whatever, until at last, after the most importunate solicitations, he instituted an inquiry, and found that, although the tale of distress was true enough, that many of his representations, such as the death of his wife etc., were fabricated for the purpose of stimulating the generosity of his benefactor. He considered he had no alternative.

Mr. Sturgen, the chief clerk of the Mendacity Society, proved that on the previous evening, between seven and eight o'clock, he went to 5 Mitre-Street, and the door was opened by a child. The prisoner, who came down, led him into a back kitchen, and, in answer to questions, he said he was in very great distress, so much so, as to be totally unable to procure even a very scanty meal. Witness told him that he thought it was great pity his wife didn't take in needle work to help support her family, when he said she had been ill, but was now much better, and that she would soon get into employ.

Upon prisoner's admission that his wife was living, he (prisoner) was given into custody, and after he was locked up, witness went back to the house, where he saw the wife and four children, who were evidently onto very great distress; he gave the poor woman a trifle, and afterwards sent to the station-house, and afforded relief to the prisoner; he had previously ascertained that the wife had recently been very ill.

[Judge] Mr. Rawlinson (to Mr. Knyvett): The prisoner, no doubt, has done wrong; but here is a case of great distress, and that distress is proved out of the mouth of the of your own officer; after that, do you really wish me to commit this man?

Mr. Knynett: No sir, I do not.

Mr. Rawlinson (to the prisoner): What have you to say?

Prisoner (after some hesitation, and in a faint tone of voice): I wrote that last letter at the eleventh hour, when we were so badly off, that we knew not what to do. I am sorry I overstepped the truth in saying that my wife was dead, but my motive was good, as we had not a bit of bread to eat. I have been a clerk and accountant, and from the period of losing my last situation, I have not been able to support myself or my family.

Mr. Rawlinson: You are evidently a man of good education, but it cannot be denied, and even you admit it yourself, that you put a falsehood in your last letter to Mr. Dickens. Under all the circumstances, you are discharged, and I am very sorry that you have all been brought here.

The man burst into tears, and before he quitted the court several persons relieved him.

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