Arts and Leisure

Kate Douglas Wiggin, 11, Charms Charles Dickens, 56

As a young girl growing up in the rural village of Hollis,  Maine, Kate Douglas Wiggin desperately wanted to see Charles Dickens on his visit to Portland, only 16 miles away.

It so happened that Kate’s mother had planned to take her by train to Charlestown, Mass., to visit an uncle for a week. They would stop at a cousin’s house in Portland, and her mother and cousin planned to see Dickens that night — March 30, 1868.

Kate was only 11 – the age of her most famous fictional character, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. And because of her youth, no one considered bringing her to hear the great man read on March 30, 1868. The ticket prices were also wildly expensive. She didn’t recall the exact price, she later wrote, but people mentioned it with bated breath in Hollis. “Any one who paid it would have to live down a reputation for riotous extravagance forever afterward,” she wrote.

Kate Douglas Wiggin at age six.

Kate Douglas Wiggin, Anguished

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.’

To miss the great man while her mother went to see him caused her “poignant anguish,” she wrote. However, “my common sense assured me that a child could hardly hope to be taken on a week’s junketing to Charlestown, and expect any other entertainment to be added to it for years to come. The definition of a “pleasure” in the State of Maine, county of York, village of Hollis, year of our Lord 1868, was something that could not reasonably occur too often without being cheapened.”

On the night of the reading, Kate slipped out of the house and followed her mother and aunt the four blocks to the hall where Dickens would appear. She looked in the windows and watched the crowd, but didn’t get a glimpse of him. Chastened, she returned to bed.

On the morning after the reading, Kate and her mother boarded the train and headed for Charlestown.

Dickens

When the train stopped at North Berwick, the passengers rushed to one side of the car to look out the window. Kate joined them. “There on the platform stood the Adored One!,” she wrote. The train restarted, and Dickens climbed back into the car behind hers. She left her mother and went into Dickens’ car, where she sat and watched him with his companion, Mr. Osgood, for half an hour. Then Mr. Osgood went into the smoking car, and Kate got up and sat next to the Adored One.

“Invisible ropes pulled me out of my seat, and, speeding up the aisle, I planted myself timorously down, an unbidden guest, in the seat of honor. I had a moment to recover my equanimity, for Dickens was looking out of the window, but he turned in a moment, and said with justifiable surprise:—

“God bless my soul, where did you come from?”

They spent the rest of the journey in lively conversation. She told him about her animals and that David Copperfield was her favorite book. Sometimes, she said,  skipped over the dull parts of his novels.

“I distinctly want to learn more about those very dull parts,” Dickens said, and she told him.

By the end of the conversation, he had his arm around her and held her hand.

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.’

Kate Douglas Wiggin as an adult

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.

Literary Fame

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 about her train ride with Dickens, 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. This story was updated in 2021.

 

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