“The Begging-Letter Writer” – an Article Written by Charles Dickens


The Begging-Letter Writer – A short story by Charles Dickens.

Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Lately, did you receive any email or posts on the social networks asking for money? If so, beware! This is could be the prelude to “The Begging-Letter” scam.

In a begging letter, a person claiming to be poor, or impoverished due to prevailing circumstances begs for money or help, from a rich person or a philanthropic organization. The writer asks for monetary assistance to meet the expenses for an emergency surgery, money for orphaned children, help to recover the money of their parents or kin from banks, and often offer a percentage of the recovered sum.

These begging letters are not new. Even as far back as the late 19th century scammers sent begging letters by traditional mail.

The Begging-Letter Writer” an Essay by Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Source: Jeremiah Gurney / Heritage Auction Gallery)
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Source: Jeremiah Gurney / Heritage Auction Gallery)

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From the time Charles Dickens rose to fame with The Pickwick Papers, he was constantly plagued by begging-letter writers. In May 1850 edition of Household Words (Volume I, Magazine: No. 8), Dickens wrote an essay titled “The Begging-Letter Writer” wherein he describes examples of the many begging letters he had received over the years, and the ruses employed by their writers to gain funds from the recipients.

John Forster (1812–76)

John Forster (1812–76), a noted biographer, critic, essayist and historian, met Charles Dickens in 1836 while they worked as young journalists for the ‘True Sun‘. Forster became Dickens’ closest friend and trusted adviser. Dickens appointed him as his literary executor. After Dickens’ death, Forster published a biography of Charles Dickens in three volumes (1872–4).

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John Forster - Oil portrait by Charles Edward Perugini
John Forster – Oil portrait by Charles Edward Perugini

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In Volume 2, Ch. 8, Forster commented that there is not ‘a particle of exaggeration‘ in Dickens’s description of his victimization as narrated by him in “The Begging-Letter Writer“:

Once he [Daniel Tobin] wrote me rather a special letter, proposing relief in kind. He had got into a little trouble by leaving parcels of mud done up in brown paper, at people’s houses, on pretence of being a Railway-Porter, in which character he received carriage money. This sportive fancy he expiated in the House of Correction. Not long after his release, and on a Sunday morning, he called with a letter (having first dusted himself all over), in which he gave me to understand that, being resolved to earn an honest livelihood, he had been travelling about the country with a cart of crockery. That he had been doing pretty well until the day before, when his horse had dropped down dead near Chatham, in Kent. That this had reduced him to the unpleasant necessity of getting into the shafts himself, and drawing the cart of crockery to London — a somewhat exhausting pull of thirty miles. That he did not venture to ask again for money; but that if I would have the goodness TO LEAVE HIM OUT A DONKEY, he would call for the animal before breakfast!Forster adds, “for much of what he suffered he was himself responsible, by giving so largely, as at first he did, to almost everyone who applied to him“.

In the next paragraph, Dickens describes the case of John Walker, to whom Dickens had given money several times in 1844.

At another time, my friend (I am describing actual experiences) introduced himself as a literary gentleman in the last extremity of distress. He had had a play accepted at a certain Theatre — which was really open; its representation was delayed by the indisposition of a leading actor — who was really ill; and he and his were in a state of absolute starvation. If he made his necessities known to the Manager of the Theatre, he put it to me to say what kind of treatment he might expect? Well! we got over that difficulty to our mutual satisfaction. A little while afterwards he was in some other strait. I think Mrss . Southcote, his wife, was in extremity — and we adjusted that point too. A little while afterwards he had taken a new house, and was going headlong to ruin for want of a water-butt. I had my misgivings about the water-butt, and did not reply to that epistle. But a little while afterwards, I had reason to feel penitent for my neglect.

Walker continued to write begging letters, which Dickens ceased to answer until he got one telling him that Walker’s wife had died and begging ‘a few crumbs from your table‘ to feed the children. Dickens sent his brother Fred to check whether Walker was really in distress.

He wrote me a few broken-hearted lines, informing me that the dear partner of his sorrows died in his arms last night at nine o’clock!

I despatched a trusty messenger to comfort the bereaved mourner and his poor children; but the messenger went so soon, that the play was not ready to be played out; my friend was not at home, and his wife was in a most delightful state of health. He was taken up by the Mendicity Society (informally it afterwards appeared), and I presented myself at a London Police-Office with my testimony against him. The Magistrate was wonderfully struck by his educational acquirements, deeply impressed by the excellence of his letters, exceedingly sorry to see a man of his attainments there, complimented him highly on his powers of composition, and was quite charmed to have the agreeable duty of discharging him. A collection was made for the ‘poor fellow,’ as he was called in the reports, and I left the court with a comfortable sense of being universally regarded as a sort of monster. Next day comes to me a friend of mine, the governor of a large prison. ‘Why did you ever go to the Police-Office against that man,’ says he, ‘without coming to me first? I know all about him and his frauds. He lodged in the house of one of my warders, at the very time when he first wrote to you; and then he was eating spring-lamb at eighteen-pence a pound, and early asparagus at I don’t know how much a bundle!’ On that very same day, and in that very same hour, my injured gentleman wrote a solemn address to me, demanding to know what compensation I proposed to make him for his having passed the night in a ‘loathsome dungeon.’

Have you received any similar email?
Were you tempted to respond to them?
Did you respond and burnt your fingers?

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Chennai: Come December…


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Myself 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Chennai floods (Source: ndtv.com)
Chennai floods (Source: ndtv.com)

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December 1, 2015:

It rained through the night in Chennai, Tamilnadu, India. The incessant rains that plagued us for the past three weeks did not seem to abate.

At 7.11 am, while I was still in bed my boarding and classmate Sunderaraj Kagoo, former Managing Partner of Star Brand Sweets, Colombo, had given me a call. I was not able to call him back since my cell’s battery had run down.

There was no way to charge my cell because we had  no electricity supply.

Of all the rainy days that started in mid-November, 2015, today it rained heavily and forcefully.

Since the cable TV line was completely out and my 100 MB internet connection was dead, there was no way to know what was happening around us. We were not able to go out of our house to shop for essentials due to the torrent.

My second daughter Subodhra living in Palayamkottai, 620 km away from Chennai, phoned my wife. She said it did not rain there in Tirunelveli. She inquired how we were faring since she saw several news channels on TV covering the floods in Chennai. She said that Velachery, about 5 km from our house was flooded and that boats were being deployed to evacuate the marooned from their flooded houses to safety. My wife assured her that we were safe.

At 6:45 pm electricity came on.

At 6:48 pm my cousin Lawrence rang up inquired whether we were safe. He assured us that his house safe. I could hear children shouting and music in the background and immediately knew that the first birthday of his second grandson Tom Philip was being celebrated. I blessed the child over the phone and told Lawrence that even if they had invited us for the birthday party we would not have made it.

At 7:00 pm my wife, daughter Sujatha and I ran to the house on the first floor of the flat opposite our house to attend the first birthday party of a year-old toddler.

At 7:30 pm while the party was on, the electric power was cut off and we had the birthday dinner by candle light.

We returned home at 8:00 pm.

It poured heavily.

At 9:00 pm since we had no electricity, TV broadcast nor the internet, I tried to call my daughter Subodhra at Palayamkottai to know about the situation in Chennai that she would have seen on TV . Alas, to our bad luck the Vodafone network was out of service.

At 9:20 pm remembering the phone call from Sunderaraj Kagoo, I tried his number, but I was not able to get through. Then I noticed that my service provider Aircel too was out of service.

Since there was no electricity, we were not able to turn on the electric mosquito repellers and had to sleep at the mercy of the swarming mosquitoes.

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After the inundation of the arterial Grand Southern Trunk (GST) Road south and north of Tambaram, all roads leading to Tambaram submerged at various stretches making Tambaram inaccessible to the rest of the city and for those heading towards Chennai city from Chengalpattu.

December 2, 2015:

It rained heavily in the morning.

I saw a few strangers in our neighbour Lokanayaki’s house. She told me that they were her relatives from nearby Pallikaranai and flood waters had entered their house up to their neck and so had come to her house for shelter.

Around 4:00 pm the rain ceased and there was only a pleasant drizzle. I took this opportunity to venture out on my two-wheeler to buy essential foods and medicines.

All the ATMs in our neighbourhood were out of service.

I went to one of the local medical shops. The proprietor was there and I asked him whether the card machine worked. The proprietor reluctantly said no. Then he asked how much my purchase would amount to. When I said more than ₹500, he said he would try to accommodate me since the backup battery had almost died out. He then took my order which amounted to ₹580 and switched on the card reader which came to life after a bit of coaxing. I thanked him for obliging and left the shop with the medicines.

The main road between Velachery and Tambaram is flooded in many places with hidden potholes lurking under the muddy waters. So, buses are not plying. I am not able to travel on my two-wheeler more than 100 metres either way from Pallikarani Oil Mill Stop.

I took the risk and waded through deep waters on my vehicle for about a kilometre and finally saw eggs stored on plastic trays at a shop. I bought a dozen eggs for ₹6 each.

On my way back home the engine of my two-wheeler stopped. I cranked the fuel tap to reserve and retraced my route. I found more than 50 people waiting in a queue to fill their motorcycles and cars at the petrol bunk. Finally, after waiting for about 30 minutes my turn came and after filling the tank with petrol and oil for ₹200, I returned home around 5:30 pm.

At 6:30 pm it was dark. I ventured out on my two-wheeler to buy a pair of batteries for my LCD torch. Almost all the shops were closed. Finally, I saw an electrical shop where an oil lamp lit the inside dimly. Luckily the batteries were available and I hurried home.

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In the evening we heard that Chennai was officially declared a disaster area.

December 3, 2015:

Rains continued to plague Chennai.

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Around 11:00 am we saw an army helicopter crossing far away from our house.

Around 1:30 pm we received electricity. We were able to see TV programmes.

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PM Narendra Modi viewing flooded Chennai from a helicopter (Source: financialexpress.com)
PM Narendra Modi viewing flooded Chennai from a helicopter (Source: financialexpress.com)

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We were made aware that the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu viewed the damages wrought by the incessant rains from the comfort of a helicopter. We also came to know that the Prime Minister who had come all the way from New Delhi too viewed the damages travelling on a separate helicopter.

At 6:30 pm some of our neighbours hurried towards the main road. My wife told me that the ATMs were working. I too took my debit card and ran to the main road. We were all disappointed for one ATM displayed the “Sorry. No money!” sign and the other two ATMs had shuttered down. It was a rumour.

Around 7:00 pm the electric supply was cut off and we were once again in the dark.

Around 7:30 pm my nephew Raphael Leo came home by motorbike to our house to inquire whether we and his mother-in-law who lives about 200 metres away from our house were safe. My son Subas Raj in Ellicott City, MD, USA had contacted him on WhatsApp and had asked him to check on us.

Though relief efforts were well underway across some of the flooded areas in Chennai, the lack of any coordinated relief response forced thousands of its residents to evacuate their houses on their own.

December 4, 2015:

From 5:00 am we had no rain and the sun shone through thick clouds. We were happy and thought the rains had finally ceased. With a letup in rainfall, floodwaters gradually began to recede in some areas in Chennai though 40 percent of the city remained submerged. Safe food and drinking water was in short supply.

Still no cell phone service. And there is no internet.

The electric supply comes in spurts. TV works intermittently even when electricity is available.

The internet was available from 1:45 pm today.

At 2:30 pm ominous dark clouds started gathering and it started to rain heavily.

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A patient getting shifted to another hospital from MIOT Hospital after flooding of the area due to heavy rainfall in Chennai . PTI
A patient getting shifted to another hospital from MIOT Hospital after flooding of the area due to heavy rainfall in Chennai . PTI

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Around 6:30 pm I saw the heart-wrenching news on TV channels about the loss of 18 patients who had died at the MIOT International Hospital in Manapakkam, Chennai, due to overflowing of flood waters from Adyar river that breached the hospital’s walls, damaging equipment in its path.

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Three Ministers: Natham Viswanathan, Gokul Indra, Selur Raju) (Source: vikatan.com)
Three Ministers: Natham Viswanathan, Gokul Indra, Selur Raju. (Source: vikatan.com)

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Two TV channels showed AIADMK Tamilnadu State Ministers Natham Viswanathan, Gokula Indra, and Selur Raju being chased away by the public when they visited the Chief Minister’s R.K. Nagar electorate. They had come to the CM’s electorate to meet the people in lieu of their head. The ministers arrived in a cortege of 18 cars, and without getting down from their vehicles, the ministers spoke to the people. This infuriated the people. They asked the ministers to get down from their vehicles and get their feet wet as they did. After an argument, the ministers with the protection and cordoning by the police escaped the fury of the mass.

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AIADMK cadres sticking stickers of JJ (Source: Dinakaran.com)
AIADMK cadres sticking stickers of JJ on foods and other essentials brought in for distribution by some charitable public and non-AIADMK organisations. (Source: Dinakaran.com)

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Then we came across the shameful news that in some areas in Chennai the AIADMK hooligans are abrogating the work done by the charitable people and NGOs in Chennai by sticking stickers of JJ on the food parcels brought by them for distribution. If they could not help at least they should not steal the credits that are due to the helping people with their hard earned money and organizations who do not belong to their party. Instead, these shameless ruffians could have volunteered to work in the flood affected areas instead of stealing efforts made by others; or they could have pressured their higher-ups from the lowly municipal councilors to the Chief Minister to distribute free food from their “Amma Canteens” and distribute free “Amma Water” Bottles.

There seems to be a voltage drop and the electricity might be cut off at any moment.

For now, my family and I are safe. Please see the TV news channels for the overall situation now prevailing in Chennai.

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