Letter written by Charles Dickens’ first love revealed

Charles Dickens aged 18
Charles Dickens aged 18

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As a former English teacher with a passion for English literature, it was a bargain that headmaster James Priory found hard to resist.

It’s not every day that eBay features a letter written by Charles Dickens’s first love and it was with low expectations that Mr Priory put in the minimum bid.

Maria Beadnell in her youth, before she left Charles Dickens heartbroken

Maria Beadnell in her youth, before she left Charles Dickens heartbroken

Dickens met and fell in love with Maria Beadnell in 1829 when he was 18.

As a shorthand court reporter and son of a former inmate of the debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea, the young Charles was not deemed a good prospect by Maria’s family. Her father was a prosperous bank manager in London.

But, undeterred, the love affair lasted four years before Maria ended it, leaving Charles heartbroken.

Dickens never forgot Maria, and based the character Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield on her.

Maria went on to marry Henry Winter, a timber merchant and mill owner, who very soon started to experience business difficulties.

Meanwhile, Dickens’s writing was earning him great fame and wealth and in 1855 Maria wrote to him, rekindling the hopes and feelings from his youth. They agreed on a clandestine meeting.

However, Dickens was shocked by Maria’s appearance – the years had not been kind – but more especially her frivolous, butterfly mind which he found extremely annoying. Her youthful appearance and charm gone, the infatuation was over.

A few months later, Dickens began Little Dorrit, and Maria appears again, this time as the garrulous Flora Finching.

Maria’s husband died in 1871 and some years later, she moved to 6 Shaftesbury Road, Southsea, where she died in 1886. She is buried in Highland Road Cemetery, her grave conspicuous by a Dickens 2012 plaque and website address fixed to it.

With no other bidders on eBay, the letter, from Maria to her daughter Ella, is now in the possession of James Priory, whose study at Portsmouth Grammar School stands on the site of the Portsmouth Theatre, which Dickens visited in 1838.

· Maria’s fictional portrayal, Flora Finching, is just one of the Dickens characters in the repertoire of actress Miriam Margolyes, who will be appearing in the David Russell Theatre at the grammar school on Sunday, July 8 at 5pm.

Her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, brings 23 of his most colourful characters to life.

Tickets for this event, which has been organised by Patricia Pulham of the university’s Centre for Studies in Literature, are available via (023) 9284 3757 or by e-mailing events@port.ac.uk.