As a young girl growing up in rural Maine, Kate Douglas Wiggin desperately wanted to see Charles Dickens on his visit to Portland, only 16 miles away. Her mother and a relative planned to go, though tickets were considered wildly expensive. Kate was only 11 – the age of her most famous fictional character, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. And because Kate was so young, there was no thought given to bringing her to hear the great man read on March 30, 1868.
She and her sister Nora loved Dickens’ novels. Kate had read all but two, and they named their cat, canary, cow, lamb and chickens after Dickens characters. She even named her sled ‘The Artful Dodger.’
On the day after the reading, Kate and her mother took the train from Portland to Boston to visit family. Kate spied Dickens on the train and impulsively sat down next to him. They spent the rest of the journey in lively conversation. She told him about her animals, that David Copperfield was her favorite book and that sometimes she skipped over the dull parts of his novels.
When Dickens got off the train and disappeared into a carriage, she wrote, he left her ‘with the feeling that I must continue my existence somehow in a dull and dreary world.’
Continue she did: She grew up to write the children’s classic, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, along with many other popular books for children and adults. (You can buy Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm from the New England Historical Society bookstore, just click here.)
She was born Kate Douglas Smith in Philadelphia on Sept. 28, 1856, the daughter of a lawyer. Her father died when she was quite young, and her mother remarried and moved to Hollis, Maine.
Eventually her family moved to California in an effort to cure her stepfather’s lung disease. In her early 20s, she started the first free kindergarten for poor children in San Francisco.
Her marriage to Bradley Wiggin in 1881 meant she had to quit her teaching job. Still devoted to her school, she raised money for it through her writing. The Story of Patsy and The Birds’ Christmas Carol were enormously successful.
Her husband died suddenly in 1889, and she returned to Hollis. She lived for a time in a house she called Quillcote, now on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1911, she founded the Salmon Falls Library around the corner.
By then she had married George Christopher Riggs, a New York City businessman who supported her growing literary fame. She wrote popular novels for children and adults and, with her sister Nora Smith, scholarly works about childhood education. She also wrote a short nonfiction book called A Child’s Journey with Dickens.
In the spring of 1923 Kate Douglas Wiggin was invited to England as a delegate to the Dickens Fellowship. She caught pneumonia and died on Aug. 24, 1923, in Harrow, England. Her ashes were brought home and scattered over the Saco River.
Photo: Kate Douglas Wiggin, Courtesy Library of Congress, Bain Collection.