- Dreams of Dying Girls:The Poetry of Thomas J. Ouseley and Charles Dickens
Dickens resigned from Bentley's Miscellany on 31 January 1839. However, his editorial obligations to the journal continued for a brief period. During that interval, Thomas J. Ouseley wrote to Dickens inquiring about "The Dream of the Dying Girl," a poem he submitted before Dickens relinquished the editorship. In March, Dickens wrote to assure Ouseley that he had "specially marked it," and sent it on "to Mr. Bentley's" with the annotation "'requiring attention.'" "I cannot think," he added, "that they will be so senseless to hesitate for an instant to avail themselves of it." Should the poem not appear in the next number, he continued, he counselled Ouseley "to address Mr. Bentley himself at No. 8 New Burlington Street" (Letters 1: 526). At the same time, he also promised to speak to William Harrison Ainsworth, the new editor as of 2 February,1 and "tell him what I really think of that beautiful little poem."
No record exists of Dickens taking such trouble with other submissions to Bentley's Miscellany, an absence which perhaps emphasizes the depth of his response on this occasion and interest in the poem's future publication.2 Furthermore, this was not the first poem of Ouseley's that Dickens had accepted for the Miscellany.3 Despite having resigned, Dickens evidently continued to have some influence over the contents of the journal, although, to judge by his correspondence, this pertained mostly to submissions he had accepted when he was still editor.4 His reaction to Ouseley's poem, a [End Page 256] poem of fourteen stanzas detailing the final moments of a young girl, twelve septets framed by two stanzas of blank verse, therefore stands out. What was it about "The Dream of the Dying Girl" that Dickens appears to have found so compelling?
In Dickens on Literature, Richard Lettis suggests that Dickens sometimes accepted work "not for its artistic merit nor for its general interest […] but because he found it personally appealing" (55). Lettis went on to argue that "Remembering Mary Hogarth and Little Nell and a number of other expiring maidens, we may suspect that Dickens thought T. J. Ouseley's poem […] to be a 'beautiful little poem' simply because its content appealed to him" (55). However, at the time Ouseley submitted his poem, Dickens had not written about Little Nell and her death in terms that contemporaries like Richard Hengist Horne, for example, found "profoundly beautiful" (46). In fact, there were not yet any Dickensian expiring maidens. Rose Maylie, for example, had survived her illness in Oliver Twist and Dickens's treatment of her brush with death lacks the brutal realism found in his earlier description of a dying girl in "The Hospital Patient" (Sketches by Boz 1836). Rather, the timing of Dickens's reply to Ouseley prompts consideration of the poem in a dual capacity, as a direct echo back to Mary Hogarth's actual death, and forwards to the idealization of Little Nell.5
At 3 o'clock in the afternoon on 7 May 1837, less than two years before Dickens read Ouseley's "Dream of the Dying Girl," his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth passed away unexpectedly after an evening at the theater with Dickens and his wife (Letters 1: 263–64).6 Her death has been described as "the most shocking and painful event of Dickens's mature life" (Marcus 132). It must, therefore, have been a jarring moment for Dickens to read Ouseley's description of the last hours of a fictional dying girl in language similar to that which he himself had used to describe both the actual death of Mary and the near death of her literary successor Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist (1837–39).7
As William J. Carlton observed, the tragic circumstances of Mary's death "inspired a number of tributes to her memory" and notably, "at least three of them in verse" (72). Ouseley's poem moreover was not the first of its kind to be accepted for publication in Bentley's Miscellany. In the 1837 July issue Mrs. Cornwell Baron Wilson's "Elegiac Stanzas...