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Great Marley’s ghost! Was Charles Dickens a brazen plagiarist?

November 28, 2011

With plagiarism much in the news of late, I note with great interest a story detailing a little-known episode from the life of Dickens in which he was accused of plagiarizing a ghost story.

At least it wasn’t the much-loved apparition of Jacob Marley that gets the action going in A Christmas Carol. That one, apparently, Dickens made up all by himself.

The Guardian, reporting on a British Library exhibit celebrating the 2012 bicentenary of Dickens’ birth, says a now-forgotten artist and writer named Thomas Heaphy “bitterly” (bitterly, I say!), complained that the great author had stolen plot details from a story scheduled to appear months in the future.

Heaphy insisted that Dickens must have seen his story at the printer’s, appropriated its salient details, and rushed his tale into an issue of Dickens’ own magazine, All the Year Round, in 1861.

Both stories featured a beautiful young woman who asked an artist if he could paint her picture from memory. The painter says yes, but a traditional sitting would be better. Turns out, the young lady is fatally indisposed, being already dead, and wants the memory picture to console her grieving father.

Dickens’ version “is hardly his finest effort,” notes the Guardian, which doesn’t even bother sharing the title. In fact, as anyone knows who has enjoyed Les Standiford’s popular biography, The Man Who Invented Christmas, the Dickens work we remember today is but of a fraction of his output.

For example, Dickens wrote three full-length sequels to A Christmas Carol, all of which sold well during his lifetime, none of which is read today (for good reason).

Dickens was also fascinated by ghosts from childhood, although the Guardian says he usually placed a “rational” explanation in his stories, and his magazine frequently outraged spiritualists and mediums by printing exposes of their fakery.

Confronted with Heaphy’s accusations, Dickens admitted the similarities between the two stories, but insisted it must be the result of an uncanny coincidence.

“Everything connected with it,” Dickens wrote, “is amazing; but conceive this – the portrait painter had been engaged to write it elsewhere as a story for next Christmas and not unnaturally supposed when he saw himself anticipated in All the Year Round that there had been treachery at his printers.”

So — did Dickens steal a story from a lesser writer? While it’s not unimaginable, outright theft seems unlikely. After all, Dickens was a towering talent with a fertile capacity for invention.

On the other hand, Dickens explanation — what a coincidence! Really! — seems equally unlikely, though also not impossible. After all, as Hemingway said, there’s no such thing as an original idea.

What do you think? Is Dickens innocent, the incident merely an astonishing coincidence? Or did a famous and successful author, perhaps facing a crushing deadline, prey on the work of an infinitely less powerful writer?




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