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Mrs Dickens' songbook

A songbook belonging to Catherine Dickens, wife of Charles, was recently brought to life at the Library.


Natalie Rose Cassaniti and Meredith Lawn perform songs from Mrs Dicken’s songbook

Meredith Lawn and Natalie Rose Cassaniti perform songs from Mrs Dicken’s songbook, courtesy @shanerozario

It was the kind of element of surprise that would no doubt have gained Charles Dickens’ approval. The afternoon session of the ‘Boz in Oz’, or 112th International Dickens Fellowship, conference delivered a musical coup at the State Library amid the program of discussions of the author’s works. One hundred and forty-eight delegates came from far and wide — some from Germany, Japan, Sweden, the UK and the US — for five days of walking, talking, eating and breathing Dickens with fellow enthusiasts and scholars.

Not to be outdone, the Library put on a display of significant Dickensia in its collection, including the original manuscript of Dickens’ article ‘Emigration’ from 1852, a pirated edition of The Pickwick Papers printed in Van Diemen’s Land in 1838, and a letter written by Dickens to Melbourne lawyer and politician Archibald Michie, thanking him for his interest in his son Alfred and for his invitation to visit Australia.

The opportunity to view these documents and publications is precious to devoted connoisseurs. But what really brought the occasion to life was music archivist Meredith Lawn relating how she came across a leather-bound songbook belonging to Mrs Charles Dickens while she was looking for something else in the collection.

Several scores within it are inscribed with personal messages to Mrs Dickens from the composers themselves, including six songs with lyrics by the Scottish poet James Ballantine, dated 1853.

The daughter of music critic George Hogarth, Catherine Dickens was musically literate; she trained in piano and singing as a child and her family was in contact with several famous composers and performers, including Felix Mendelssohn, who stayed with the Hogarths in 1829. Once she married Charles Dickens, she hosted frequent entertainments and musical soirees — although by the time of the songbook the marriage was not a happy one, leading to the couple’s separation in 1858.

‘The music in the volume is too well preserved to believe it was actually used,’ said Meredith, whose sleuthing skills would have earned Dickens’ admiration. ‘There are no signs of wear on the pages due to being turned, nor any annotations on the music.’

Meredith speculated about how the songbook, which includes two songs based on Dickens’ newly published novel Bleak House, came to Australia. Was it perhaps brought in the luggage of one of Catherine’s sons, Alfred and Edward, when they came to live here? No one will ever know.

Page from ‘Mrs Dickens’ songbook’

Pages from ‘Mrs Dickens’ songbook’, Q784.3/M (FL9644810)

While the provenance of the volume remains a mystery, behind the scenes, things had taken a dramatic turn: when the songbook was in the Library’s Collection Care lab for repair, Meredith’s colleague Natalie Rose Cassaniti, a professionally trained classical soprano now studying opera, saw it. She contacted Meredith about performing some of the music. ‘I didn’t know she was a singer and she didn’t know I was a pianist,’ laughs Meredith.

‘At about the same time I discovered that the Library had acquired a grand piano as part of the Michael Crouch bequest, which was sitting in the corner of the Friends Room.’ says Meredith, who in her 20 years as the Library’s music curator has never had the opportunity to demonstrate her own musicianship at her place of work.

As if the duo’s combined talents were not surprising enough, State Librarian John Vallance not only hosted the occasion, but also accompanied Natalie on the piano for one song.

‘The three of us rehearsed once a week for several weeks in the Friends Room in the late afternoon when it was closed to the public,’ says Meredith.

There was a frisson of anticipation in the audience when John suggested that ‘these pieces have probably never been performed in Australia before and have not been heard anywhere in over 100 years’.

The reaction to this unexpected performance was one of audible delight, swiftly followed by an enthusiastic, sustained ovation for Natalie’s spirited performance. She brought to life lyrics about spring and unrequited love, animating the hushed atmosphere of a nineteenth century parlour concert chez Dickens with a more informal twenty-first century sensibility.

The 112th International Dickens Fellowship Conference was held in Sydney from 25 to 30 October, supported by the State Library of NSW.

By Caroline Baum, State Library Reader in Residence