Dostoevsky interviews Dickens

This from Dale Nelson, of Mayville State University:

According to Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing (2009, p. 502), Dostoevsky talked with Dickens in London at the office of All the Year Round in summer 1862. Dostoevsky wrote about the meeting to Stepan Dimitriyevich Yanovsky in a letter dated 18 July 1878, so 16 years after the event. The letter was translated by Stephanie Harvey in Dickens’s Villains: A Confession and a Suggestion, published in The Dickensian vol. 98 (2002): 233-5.

The Dostoevsky passage, as quoted by Slater:

—He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge [!?], are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.—

I would be happier if Dostoevsky had written the letter right after the interview. I figure, though, that, at the least, these two did actually meet. That seems wonderful.

Update: The story of the Dostoevsky-Dickens meeting is a hoax. See the Comments for more details.

20 thoughts on “Dostoevsky interviews Dickens”

  1. Incidentally, I happened to read, last night, that Tolstoy “visited London in 1861.” He “later told his English disciple [and translator], Aylmer Maude, that he had heard Lord Palmerston speak for three hours in the House of Commons and had attended a lecture on education given by Charles Dickens.” However, Dickens “never lectured on education,” so “it is likely that Tolstoy was present at the public reading of ‘The Story of Little Dombey’, which Dickens gave at the St. James’s Hall on 22 March 1861.” (Source: Great Victorian Lives: An Era in Obituaries, a Times book ed. by A. Sanders. Times Books 2007, page 593)

    This isn’t as thrilling as the fact of a Dickens-Dostoevsky face-to-face meeting, but it’s still a pleasing thought, these two greats in the same place.

    My understanding is that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky never met personally, but both were present in the same hall on some public occasion.

  2. Russian is my native language. The letter to S.D. Yanovsky of 1878 cited above where Dostoevsky writes about his visit to Dickens is nowhere to be found in a Complete Collection of Dostoevsky’s letters. And isn’t strange that Dickens would’ve told such intimate details about himself to a stranger?

  3. I would love to get more substantiation for this meeting, if that is possible. I’m also wondering if there is any other documentation that Dostoevsky ever visited England. I would also like to know if Dostoevsky could speak any English because, if he couldn’t and if Dickens didn’t know any Russian, there would need to be a translator present as well.

  4. Dostoevsky definitely visited London, staying for eight days. There’re no indications that he spoke English, but it was pretty common for the educated Russians of that time to speak German or French or both. So if Dickens spoke either language, they could’ve communicated, but it was the point of my comment above, of 10/25/11, that I doubt Dostoevsky ever spoke or even met Dickens.

  5. No, I’m not in a position to suggest that Slater, or anybody else for that matter, is making it up. I am just saying that both the very fact of a meeting and esp. the intimate confession by Dickens to a complete stranger sound suspicious to me. Dostoevsky was totally unknown outside Russia in 1861.

  6. I thought the source of the story was a letter Dostoevsky supposedly wrote to someone else in 1878, about 16 years after the alleged meeting. Dickens died in 1870. And yes, I wonder if Dostoevsky was known outside of Russia by that time. When were the first English translations of his work published?

  7. Brian, read the post I link to above in comment 8. It says the letter to a doctor friend of Dostoevsky was first printed in 1987 or something like that. Dostoevsky was in England and met a variety of people, but there are questions about whether he met Dickens or wrote that letter, like the thing Val says here.

  8. My doubts that Dostoevsky had ever met Dickens are even stronger today when I checked Slater’s version with three very relevant sources in Russian. They all easily available on the Russian Internet, including exhausting footnotes. Dostoevsky’s wife Anna kept a very detailed diary first year of their marriage, 1867. And wrote a Memoir after his death in 1881. I didn’t have the time to read them through, but I ran “Dickens”, “London” and “England” through “Find”. The name Dickens appears in the Diary 12 times. But always as a reference of their reading him in, tellingly, French translations. And given how meticulous Anna was in her daily notes and how much she enjoyed discussions of the readings and he enjoyed mentoring her, and never once did she record his mentioning meeting their most favorite, at that time, author in person, let alone mentioning such an intimate confession of his? Impossible. Same in her Memoir.

    I also checked with the “Remembrance of Dostoevsky” written in 1882 by the very S. D. Yanovsky who was, allegedly, the receiver of the letter in 1878 from Dostoevsky which cited by Slater as the only evidence of that meeting btw Dostoevsky and Dickens. And again, no mentioning. Even though there are quite a few letters between the two, including 1878.

  9. This strikes me as one of those imaginary, what-if meetings that should have happened even if it probably didn’t. Was the 1878 letter from Dostoevsky recounting the incident genuine? If so, was he simply inventing a wish fulfilling fiction? This reminds me of another probably fictional meeting, between Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe when Dickens went on his first American lecture tour. It was dramatized in a BBC series on Dickens in the 70’s, Dickens of London. It was a bizarre, fascinating episode with a suitably demented Poe and an indulgent, but clearly disquieted Dickens.

  10. The source of this anecdote is an article in *The Dickensian*, Winter 2002, Stephanie Harvey, “Dickens’s Villains: A Confession and a Suggestion,” 233-35. But as doubts have been raised about its authenticity, the journal will publish a “Caution.” This is detailed on their web site:

    “Dickens and Dostoyevsky: A Notice

    “In the Winter 2002 issue of The Dickensian (vol 98, pp.233-35) we published an article on Dickens and Dostoyevsky which contained remarks apparently made by Dickens in an interview with Dostoyevsky in London in 1862. The occasion was allegedly recalled by Dostoyevsky in a letter of 1878 which was transcribed in a journal cited by the article’s author. Subsequent researchers have so far not been able to locate the journal cited nor indeed to verify that such a journal exists. The author was the unfortunate victim of a very serious road accident some time ago, and is not in a condition to respond to further enquiries on this issue.

    “We are therefore bound to issue a caution that the authenticity of this letter by Dostoyevsky remains to be proven, in spite of the fact that it has gained currency in a number of recent publications on Dickens.”

    Michael Slater had previously withdrawn his account of the alleged meeting from the paperback edition of his biography.

    All very mysterious.

  11. I have been following this trail with interest since I’ve also long wondered if such a meeting took place, considering Dostoevsky’s great interest in CD, especially the latter’s somewhat Manichean view of the world. But see in todays Sunday Times (London) that Claire Tomalin has also had to admit the meeting probably never took place, and will revise her new biography of CD accordingly, for the paperback.

  12. Quite possibly a hoax. Sorry, almost certainly a hoax. See the Times Literary Supplement, Apriul 10, 2013.

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