The American Women Who Championed Charles Dickens

On 8 June 1870, Charles Dickens suffered the last in a series of strokes. He never regained consciousness, and died the following day at his home, Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. He was just fifty-eight years old.

During a hugely successful career Dickens had toured America several times, although his first tour, in 1842, ended badly when he insisted on the need for copyright legislation to protect his rights to his work. That his return tours of 1867 and 1868 were far more successful was due in no small part to the efforts of a number of influential literary women who championed him and later championed Oscar Wilde. Yet their efforts were not always rewarded.

Jane Tunis Poultney Bigelow

The first of these was the exuberant Jane Tunis Poultney Bigelow, an important figure in the New York literary scene and a woman who made it her business to cultivate the leading writers of the day. Bigelow’s correspondence with Wilkie Collins spanned two decades, and she had developed an interest in Dickens that bordered on an obsession. It was reported that when Dickens was staying at the Westminster Hotel near Union Square in New York, an elderly widow called Mrs. Hertz prevailed upon the hotel manager, a friend of hers, to introduce her to him. As Mrs. Hertz was leaving the great writer’s room, Jane Bigelow allegedly accosted her and knocked her out.

When Jane’s diplomat husband, John Bigelow, co-editor and co-owner of the New York Evening Post served as Ambassador to Paris, newspapers described him as ‘a power in Parisian life … [who] enjoyed the attention and esteem of a woman, vivacious, witty, and intellectually vigorous’. When Bigelow was posted to Berlin, it was reported that Jane’s staunch insistence on the superior quality of American pork, led Bismarck to describe her as one of the brightest women he had ever met, and ‘eight Royal auditors’ to admit that American pork was ‘good enough for anybody’.* However, she was sometimes considered a liability, particularly when she allowed her servants to sit in the German imperial box at the opera.

In Florence, Bigelow called to pay her respects to novelist Ouida, only to hear her shout: ‘Tell Mrs. John Bigelow, of New York, that I don’t want to see her or any other American; I don’t like them’. Undaunted, as ever, Jane replied: ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself. We’re the only fools that read your nasty books anyway’. So thoroughly charmed was Ouida by her audacity that she invited Bigelow to stay for a month.

Back in New York in 1882, Jane Bigelow proved to be a loyal and useful ally to Oscar Wilde during his lecture tour of North America.

Two other women who feature in Wilde’s Women and had connections to both Dickens and Wilde are English-born Jane Cunningham Croly, better known by her pen-name ‘Jennie June’, and Kate Field, journalist, actress and campaigner for women’s rights.

Croly was an exceptionally useful supporter to cultivate. Credited with pioneering and syndicating the ‘woman’s column’, she ran the women’s department at the New York World for ten years and was chief staff writer at Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, later renamed Demorest’s Monthly Magazine. As ‘Jennie June’, she wrote ‘Gossip with and for Women’ for the New York Dispatch and ‘Parlour and Sidewalk Gossip’ for Noah’s Sunday Times. The sole breadwinner in her family, she juggled the responsibilities of motherhood and journalism by spending mornings at home before heading into the office at noon and working steadily until after midnight. Sunday nights were reserved for entertaining New York’s intellectual and artistic elite.

A passionate believer in networking for women, Croly founded the Women’s Parliament in 1856. She also established the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the New York Women’s Press Club. The elite members of her own New York Women’s Club campaigned for education, improved working conditions and better healthcare for women. She responded to the exclusion of women journalists, herself included, from an honorary dinner organised for Charles Dickens by the New York Press Club by founding Sorosis, America’s first professional woman’s club.

Kate Field

Kate Field was nothing short of legendary; the New York Tribune described her as ‘one of the best known women in America’, while the Chicago Tribune called her ‘the most unique woman the present century has produced’. A popular lecturer and prolific travel writer, she wrote for several prestigious newspapers including the Chicago Times-Herald, the New York Tribune and the Boston Post. She was the inspiration for Henrietta Stackpole, Henry James’s crusading feminist journalist in The Portrait of a Lady. Extraordinarily well connected, she had hosted such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Mark Twain. Although she knew Dickens well and had covered his final American tour for the New York Tribune, Field too was barred from the Press Club dinner that honoured him, a snub that prompted her to assist Jane Croly in founding Sorosis.

* Reported in the Daily Inter Ocean, Illinois, 11 Feb 1889, page 5

Read More in Wilde’s Women:




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3 responses to “The American Women Who Championed Charles Dickens

  1. Matt

    Thanks for an informative post! I’ve been casually researching Mr. & Mrs. Bigelow for years, and I remember seeing Kate Field’s named among the guests at Mrs.Bigelow’s dinner for Oscar Wilde, but I had no idea she was so accomplished and interesting. For some reason I was under the impression she was just an actress. Her face sort of reminds me of Emma Thompson.

    Thanks also for using the word “allegedly” in reference to the story about Mrs. Bigelow assaulting an innocent, little old lady. I believe the business about her being a stalker is largely fabricated. The author of that kooky story (which is now repeated on all corners of the interwebs as if it were verified as absolutely factual) provides no real evidence or even gives us any real examples of her specific behavior to back his outrageous accusations. And I do not believe for a moment that Mrs. Bigelow violently attacked anyone. That’s a pretty serious accusation. Imagine seeing an old lady who was your guest suddenly being violently beaten until she was unconscious? And not calling the police? And then making light of the whole thing later? Until I see some real evidence, I’m assuming the story is false and was only put out there by the author in order to drum up some free publicity for his latest novel. It would be interesting to know what Mrs. Bigelow did or said to make Annie Fields call her an incubus and imply that her husband was “unfitly married,” but I guess I’ll never know. Judging by what Mr. Bigelow has written, however, I’m quite certain that he was happy with the spouse he chose.

  2. Eleanor Fitzsimons

    Thanks so much for your comment Matt. I’m very interested to learn that you’ve been researching the Bigelows. I agree that there is no concrete evidence to suggest Mrs. Bigelow hit anyone. If you’d like to read more about Kate Field, I suggest Gary Scharnhorst’s book ‘Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-century American Journalist‬’, New York: Syracuse University Press‬, 2008.

  3. Pingback: Sorosis: The First Women's Club in America | OddFeed

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