With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Stalker who loved Dickens

CHARLES DICKENS was greeted like a modern-day rock star when he toured the United States in 1867-8: not only did he perform his work to excitable crowds and earn a fortune in the process, but according to a contemporary diarist he was also stalked by an obsessive fan.

For a brief period Jane Bigelow, a 39-year-old socialite from Baltimore, regarded the novelist as her personal property, threatening other women who expressed interest in him. She even knocked out an elderly widow who dared to call on Dickens at his hotel and harassed others who used their connections to meet him.

The stalker’s identity is revealed in the diary of Annie Fields, a Boston society hostess and the wife of Dickens’s publisher, who attended some of the novelist’s shows.

Her account of the “Bigelow terror” forms the basis for several scenes in The Last Dickens, a bestselling novel by Matthew Pearl, a New York historian who found it in archives.

“Charles Dickens’s 76-date tour was a British invasion, like the Beatles in the 1960s,” said Pearl. “He was the first modern mass media celebrity.”

Dickens acted out parts of works such as The Pickwick Papers in America, where his novels were routinely pirated because copyright laws did not apply to foreign authors. He attracted 114,000 people to his readings and earned about $150,000, equivalent to $26m (£18m) today.

“He employed a lighting man to make sure he looked like his famous photograph on stage and left petals from his buttonhole on stage so young women could scramble to pick them up,” said Pearl.

His stalker, the wife of John Bigelow, a former American ambassador to Paris, was known for her erratic behav-iour which had held back her husband’s diplomatic career, Pearl said. Jane Bigelow once shocked courtiers when she met the Prince of Wales - later Edward VII - and breached protocol by jovially slapping him on the back...

Read entire article at Times (UK)