How to Be a Decent Person: Charles Dickens’s Letter of Advice to His Youngest Son
By Maria Popova
History has given us its fair share of deeply moving letters of fatherly advice, chief among them gems by Sherwood Anderson, Ted Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and Jackson Pollock’s dad. But count on Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) to raise the bar with unparalleled tenderness and wisdom.
When his youngest and favorite son, Edward Bulwer Lytton — nicknamed Plorn and often referred to by his father as “the noble Plorn” and “the darling Plorn” — left for Australia on September 26th of 1868 to attend university, Dickens had an unexpectedly strong emotional reaction to his departure, as did the boy. In a letter to his wife, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library | public domain), Dickens recounts the parting scene:
I can honestly report that he went away, poor dear fellow, as well as could possibly be expected. He was pale, and had been crying, and (Harry said) had broken down in the railway carriage after leaving Higham station; but only for a short time.
Just before the train started he cried a good deal, but not painfully. … These are hard, hard things, but they might have to be done without means or influence, and then they would be far harder. God bless him!
On October 4th, Dickens can hardly contain his sadness in a letter to his good friend Charles Fechter:
Poor Plorn is gone to Australia. It was a hard parting at the last. He seemed to me to become once more my youngest and favourite little child as the day drew near, and I did not think I could have been so shaken.
And on October 11th, he laments:
I find myself constantly thinking of Plorn.
Eventually, on Christmas day that year, he pens Plorn this beautiful and timeless letter of advice:
My dearest Plorn,
I write this note to-day because your going away is much upon my mind, and because I want you to have a few parting words from me to think of now and then at quiet times. I need not tell you that I love you dearly, and am very, very sorry in my heart to part with you. But this life is half made up of partings, and these pains must be borne. It is my comfort and my sincere conviction that you are going to try the life for which you are best fitted. I think its freedom and wildness more suited to you than any experiment in a study or office would ever have been; and without that training, you could have followed no other suitable occupation.
What you have already wanted until now has been a set, steady, constant purpose. I therefore exhort you to persevere in a thorough determination to do whatever you have to do as well as you can do it. I was not so old as you are now when I first had to win my food, and do this out of this determination, and I have never slackened in it since.
Never take a mean advantage of anyone in any transaction, and never be hard upon people who are in your power. Try to do to others, as you would have them do to you, and do not be discouraged if they fail sometimes. It is much better for you that they should fail in obeying the greatest rule laid down by our Saviour, than that you should.
I put a New Testament among your books, for the very same reasons, and with the very same hopes that made me write an easy account of it for you, when you were a little child; because it is the best book that ever was or will be known in the world, and because it teaches you the best lessons by which any human creature who tries to be truthful and faithful to duty can possibly be guided. As your brothers have gone away, one by one, I have written to each such words as I am now writing to you, and have entreated them all to guide themselves by this book, putting aside the interpretations and inventions of men.
You will remember that you have never at home been wearied about religious observances or mere formalities. I have always been anxious not to weary my children with such things before they are old enough to form opinions respecting them. You will therefore understand the better that I now most solemnly impress upon you the truth and beauty of the Christian religion, as it came from Christ Himself, and the impossibility of your going far wrong if you humbly but heartily respect it.
Only one thing more on this head. The more we are in earnest as to feeling it, the less we are disposed to hold forth about it. Never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning. I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.
I hope you will always be able to say in after life, that you had a kind father. You cannot show your affection for him so well, or make him so happy, as by doing your duty.
Your affectionate Father.
Complement with Dickens on how to heal a mourning heart in a beautiful letter to his bereaved sister.
Published February 7, 2013