History | February 7, 2020 6:00 am

The Bizarre Scheme That Led to Charles Dickens’s Burial in Westminster Abbey

Dickens never got the quiet, unassuming burial he painstakingly pretended to want

Charles Dickens
Dickens got the fancy burial he deserved, whether he wanted it or not.
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Like many late literary greats, Charles Dickens is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. While the famed Victorian novelist rests in good company among the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer and Tennyson, Dickens never aspired to such an esteemed burial, which, new research has revealed, may actually have been the work of a self-serving plot devised by one of the author’s closest friends and first biographers.

The new research by literary scholar Leon Litvack, as recounted in a recent article for Smithsonian Magazine, has shed new light on the bizarre circumstances surrounding Dickens’s death and burial, and the whole thing sounds like it could’ve been a somewhat dry subplot lifted straight out of a lesser-known Dickens novel.

While Dickens specified that he wanted an “inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private” burial (also including instructions that no mourner should be caught wearing “scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity,” which is somehow much douchier than just being buried in Westminster with his fellow literary elite), the accepted Dickens narrative has always held that the humble author ended up in Poets’ Corner thanks to the will of the people, who decided their hero couldn’t suffer anything less than a burial befitting a literary great of his status.

According to Litvack, however, the move to bury Dickens in style against his will had less to do with his adoring public than the wishes of friend and biographer John Forster, whose biography would have “a more fitting ending” with its subject buried among the literary greats. Meanwhile, Litvack also credits the scheme in part to the dean of Westminster, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, who would have wanted to add Dickens to his list of illustrious burials. For both men, according to Litvack, Dickens’s burial at Westminster would represent a career highlight.

Whatever their motivations, Forster and Stanley ultimately got their way, and Dickens remains buried with all the trappings of a great literary icon, instead of getting to rest in his preferred display of faux-humility for all eternity.

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