One of the most remarkable surviving exchanges of correspondence involving Thomas Atkinson is a pair of letters between him and the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. The letters, part of the Dahlquist Collection in Hawaii, shed unexpected light on the plight of the Siberian exiles that Thomas and his wife Lucy met during their travels in that vast territory.
Thomas wrote to Dickens in the summer of 1857, very soon after he had first arrived back in England from Russia. “I called at your house yesterday and unfortunately found you had gone to the country for Midsummer. If indeed I had found you at home most probably you would have decided it rude that a perfect stranger should intrude upon you without an introduction. However I determined to present myself without a word or line from anyone and let the object of my visit plead my cause. At least it was not a selfish reason which brought me to your door.”
Here Thomas is referring to the house at Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester in Kent. Dickens had only moved into the house a month before, but stayed there for the rest of his life.
Thomas continues: “Having spent seven years wandering through Siberia and the Regions adjoining and occasionally receiving some of your works which often helped to pass away an hour and make me feel as if transported from the wild scenes which surrounded me to the fireside in my own land. It is under such circumstances that a man is made to feel the full force of your thoughts and appreciate your works.”
Ho goes on to say that he also wishes to express the gratitude of others for Dickens’ words: “During my travels in Oriental Siberia I made the acquaintance and in fact lived amongst the political exiles banished into these regions since the accession of the late Emperor Nicholas, many of whom had served in our own Navy and others who had lived in our little island. To these men and their families your works were a boon.”
The exiles he referred to were the Decembrist exiles who had been sent to Siberia for life for opposing the accession to power of Tsar Nicholas I. Later they were followed by their wives and families and their plight became a cause of great sadness amongst the Russian population, who saw them as champions of freedom and democracy. Atkinson continues: “These men were most particularly desirous that I should convey to you a knowledge of the great pleasure your writings had afforded them (in a region so remote and vested by many with such terrible horrors and such great admiration for you as a man they have often said “should we have a Dickens in our country with the free use of his pen and consolation of his thoughts what a blessing it would be for the land and what changes he would work in the moral conditions of the people, but this is denied to us.”
Atkinson concludes by asking Dickens to forgive his intrusiveness and noting that as he was planning to meet some of the exiles again in the future, “I would not leave England without in this slight degree accomplishing their wishes and be unable to say I had made known their feelings of respect to you.”
Dickens clearly received the letter and was evidently much affected by it. On 8th July 1857 he replied to Atkinson, as follows:
Sir, Constant occupation has prevented my replying to your very interesting letter until now. I have been deeply touched by your communication to me of the approval and good will of those unfortunate gentlemen among whom your wanderings have carried you. If you can see any of them again, pray assure them that I believe I have never received a token of remembrance in my life, with so much sadness mingled with so much gratification. I wish I could do more for them than remain true to the principles which faithfully maintained, would render their wrongs impossible of infliction. Lord help them and speed the time when their descendants shall speak of their suffering as of the sacrifice that secured their own happiness and freedom,
Charles Dickens’ letter to Thomas Atkinson
Strong words indeed from Dickens, who was clearly very moved by Thomas’ note and his story of the Siberian exiles. The letter has never been published before and ought to lead to at least a footnote in the next Dickens biography.
Nor was this the only connection between the two men, although the second connection is somewhat more distant. Alatau Atkinson, Thomas and Lucy’s son, was married in England in January 1868 – seven years after Thomas’ death – to a young woman called Annie Humble, who came from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her father in turn was Stephen Humble, who had made a reputation as a fine portrait painter. Humble died in 1858, aged 46, when Annie was only nine years old, but amongst the many people he painted was a young Charles Dickens. This is the portrait, seen on display in the 1930s when it came up for auction:
Thomas Atkinson never returned to Siberia after his return to England in 1856, although there are accounts of Russians visiting him and Lucy at their home in the Old Brompton Road. The exiles in Siberia probably never knew for sure if their message to Dickens had been delivered. Today, after more than 160 years, we can confirm that it was.