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Charles Dickens’ favourite sister

December 2007 | by Faith Cook

Charles Dickens’ favourite sister

When Charles Dickens described the cheerful and improvident Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, he had a vivid and personal model in mind – his own father, John Dickens. Charles and his older sister Fanny could never forget those dark months when their bankrupt father was locked up in a notorious debtors’ prison in London.

Fanny and Charles had always been close companions. Both highly imaginative, they would create their own fanciful world drawn from shared experiences. But now, twelve-year-old Charles was sent to work at a run-down shoe-polish factory near the Thames, pasting labels on bottles of blacking.

Fourteen-year-old Fanny’s situation also changed dramatically – she gained a coveted place at the Royal Academy of Music, founded just the previous year in 1822. Her gift? An exceptionally beautiful singing voice.

At weekends Charles and Fanny would still meet and visit their parents in prison until at last the family was bailed out by a legacy from a relative. Charles was then able to continue his education.

London theatres

Another gifted child attending the Academy was Henry Burnett. When he was only ten Henry had sung a solo in Brighton Pavilion before George IV. The king was enthralled. Drawn together by their common talent, it is not surprising that Henry and Fanny later fell in love and married.

But Henry came from a far different background from Fanny Dickens. Early in life he had been taught the gospel of Jesus Christ and had known many earnest Christians.

Catapulted into a world of adulation and success, Henry and Fanny toured the London theatres, performing to enthusiastic audiences. Although Henry tried to push aside any scruples of conscience, he could not quite forget all he had known.

At last the young couple moved to Bath and there attended Argyle Independent Church where William Jay was the minister. Henry responded warmly to the preaching but Fanny found the pull of popularity too strong. She longed for the stimulation and excitement of the London stage. At last her wishes prevailed and they moved back to the capital and no longer attended a place of worship.

Entering a new world

Henry and Fanny enjoyed the company of many friends, including Charles Dickens. Despite his early problems, Charles was now basking in his first major literary success, the publication of The Pickwick Papers.

Although the birth of a crippled son sobered Fanny, she loved the high life and the glamour of popularity. But not so Henry Burnett. Deeply aware that his way of life was displeasing to God, he decided he must give up theatre work. The family then moved to Manchester in search of alternative employment.

Being strangers in a strange city, they had few friends and Fanny was unhappy. But not this time because she missed the fanfare of her London circle. She too was becoming concerned about the state of her soul before God.

Not far from their new accommodation stood a small chapel, its welcoming lights beaming into the gloom of the Manchester night. As Henry and Fanny walked past one Sunday, they noticed people gathering for worship. On a sudden and unexpected impulse Fanny said she wanted to join them. Amazed, Henry agreed and they went inside.

No grand music – not even exceptional preaching – marked the service, but something gripped and moved Fanny. ‘I seemed’, she said later, ‘to be in a state of mind altogether new to me, and during the sermon it was as if I was entering a new world’. Indeed she was.

Immensity of love

As she sang the hymns and listened to the preaching each week, Fanny saw at last the emptiness of her life and knew her only hope was in Christ. A letter has survived written to the pastor, in which she speaks of the formality of her previous religion:

‘I repeated prayer with my lips but not from my heart … I seldom read the Word of God and when I did so, I read it as a task. I seemed to live as if this world were my home for ever, entirely forgetting that I was merely a pilgrim wending my way to eternity’.

But all had now changed. Fanny continues: ‘By degrees my eyes were opened and I saw with shame and confusion my utter worthlessness in the sight of God and unless I came to him through his dear Son I could not be saved. I prayed that I might know the Lord Jesus – his dignity, his power, the immensity of his love for us sinful creatures in dying for us on the cross. I prayed for faith in him…’ And God heard her prayer.

Yet Fanny knew that the days ahead would be hard. Much of the family income depended on her professional singing engagements, and so she begged the pastor’s prayers that she might be able to withstand the temptations to which she was exposed. With characteristic energy she flung herself into a life of pleasing and serving God. We read: ‘Her whole being and heart, her attainments, her family, her all, were devoted to her Saviour’.

Leaving this world

For eight years Fanny Burnett continued steadfastly as a Christian wife, mother and professional singer. Then one evening in 1846, as Fanny was performing at some function, her voice cracked and broke. She could not continue.

‘There is nothing seriously wrong with me’, she thought desperately. But at the insistence of her brother Charles, Fanny travelled to London for an expert diagnosis. Fanny had contracted tuberculosis.

Two hard years were left. Charles was at Fanny’s bedside, together with Henry, when the end came. Speaking gently to his dying sister, Charles asked if she had any care or anxiety in the world. ‘No, none’, was Fanny’s simple reply, adding that she relied on the mediation of Christ and felt no terror.

But Fanny wept over her young family, especially her crippled son: ‘Do not think that I am unwilling to die. These tears are not because I am leaving the world but because I am leaving very many whom I love’.

During her last moments of life, Fanny was heard whispering words of Scripture: ‘When you pass through waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you’. Fanny was only thirty-eight when she died.

Charles Dickens felt the loss of his favourite sister deeply and immortalised her crippled son in the character of ‘Tiny Tim’ in The Christmas Carol. But there is little evidence that he ever understood or followed in the faith that sustained Fanny to the end.


One thought on “Charles Dickens’ favourite sister

  1. Very moving description of Fanny’s faith and strength dealing with her own illness and Harry,
    her little son who died five months later in January 1849. Both suffered from tuberculosis, Harry’s of the spinal form. I am working on a book on Henry Burnett and his family and I was wondering if you might know exactly when in 1846 the family moved
    back to London for her treatment?

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