Life Writing & Death: Dialogues of the Dead

Charles Dickens Post Mortem & Bare Life under the New Poor Law


  • Ruth Richardson King's College London



workhouse, mortality, human dismemberment, predation, mythopoeic biography


The theme of this article is how life writing can bury things, sometimes for generations, and how secrets buried in life can re-emerge after death, and disturb. Lives often make best sense read backwards, so here we start with revelations that emerged only after Charles Dickens’s death: in his will, and in John Forster’s famous biography and its use of the important document known as the ‘autobiographical fragment’ written by Dickens himself in the late 1840s. Forster covered gaps in the biography by guiding attention away from certain aspects of Dickens’s life, in particular his family’s geographical origins. Forster’s decisions concerning what secrets could be shared have worked to influence generations of biographers. Recent discoveries have brought fresh light to Dickens’s life after both Dickens and Forster had been dead for over a century. Attention is given to why some of these discoveries had not been made sooner, their implications and reverberations, and a fuller understanding is shared of Dickens’s fierce antipathy to the cruelties of the workhouse regime under the UK New Poor Law.

Author Biography

Ruth Richardson, King's College London

Ruth Richardson is the author of several books and many academic papers. She is a Londoner, currently Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London’s Centre for Life-Writing Research, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Writer in Residence at the Gordon Museum at Guy’s Campus, and Past President of the Dickens Society. She has been an Associate Scholar in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and Honorary Professor in Humanities and Medicine at Hong Kong University. Her interests lie in the history of bodily appropriation and donation, and in the interaction of medical and lay cultures of bodily understanding.





Life Writing & Death: Dialogues of the Dead