Constance Dickens (nee Desailly) was the wife of Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, affectionately dubbed Plorn by his father, the author Charles Dickens. Plorn was a contraction of a much longer ‘nonsense’ nickname.

The pair married on July 7 1880 at the Desailly residence in outback Wilcannia, New South Wales.

In 1869 at the age of 16, Plorn had followed his brother to Australia, encouraged by his father to seek his fortune in a ‘brave new world’. He found work at Momba station near Wilcannia. Charles Dickens died in 1870, and when Edward received his inheritance he bought a share in Yanda station, near outback Bourke.

He had thought of returning ‘home’ to find a bride, but instead chose Australian born Constance;

DICKENS – DESAILLY – On the 7th inst., at the residence of the bride’s parents, by the Rev. D. D. Rutledge, Edward Bulwer Lytton, youngest son of the late Charles Dickens, to Constance Emily Rose, second daughter of Alfred Desailly of Netallie, Wilcannia, N.S.W, (The Argus, July 12 1880.)

The match must have been considered quite a coup for the Desailly family.


Unfortunately, bad seasons and the economic depression of the 1890s forced Edward to sell Yanda. Thereafter, he would never be financially secure, except perhaps for the period when he was a State MP (1889-1894) He liked to gamble and to trade in speculative shares, which made matters worse.

For a man like Edward it was important to keep up appearances. There were subscriptions to exclusive clubs, wining and dining on visits to Sydney, not to mention all the other costs involved in he and Constance living according to their station.

Constance stoically endured the financial stress, year after year. There was another great sadness for her, the inability to have children. She suffered at least two miscarriages.

Following his defeat at the 1894 election Edward even worked as a rabbit inspector. At one point he applied for an appointment in Western Australia, with the Department for the Protection of Aborigines. He sent a letter to the Melbourne based author and historian George Rusden, asking to be recommended to the W.A. Premier. Rusden had helped Edward in the early days, but was now retired, with diminished influence. The response from Rusden was not encouraging’

March 10 1898

My dear Plorn,

I have just received a note from Sir J. Forrest [Premier of W.A.] telling me that he that he has duly considered my letter, but that he fears there are too many resident applicants to permit him to go out of the Colony for any appointment, and especially the one referred to, but that your application will be placed with others and have consideration when the appointment has to be made.

Edward did not get the job.

Oh dear, poor Constance; her life increasingly resembled a Dickens’ novel, with Plorn as Mr Micawber.

The following is an extract from a letter to Constance from Edward’s maternal aunt, Georgina Hogarth, in 1897. Her sister was in Europe, and had contacted Georgina, perhaps in the hope of obtaining financial assistance for Plorn, whose health was failing. She explained that Constance had been trying to earn a bit of money by taking a typing job in Sydney’s Martin Place.


Edward Dickens died from tuberculosis at Moree in 1902, aged 49. His debts, including an unpaid loan of £800 from his brother Henry, were four times the value of his estate. It is little wonder that the grieving and impoverished Constance took comfort in alcohol. She died in Melbourne in 1914, aged 55. Little is known of her life in those final years, but it seems she moved around a lot, probably staying in furnished rooms or with friends.


Charles Dickens wrote one book, The Life of Our Lord, exclusively for his children. He was strongly against it ever being published. However, in 1933 his son Henry died and his will stated that if a majority of family members agreed, the book could be shared with the world.

The story involving Constance now assumes elements of Jarndyce V Jarndyce in Bleak House as Edward’s share of the book rights was dispersed;

Constance had stated in her will that any monies from the Charles Dickens estate should go to her sisters; Clara, who lived in England and, as the above article states, Emma Brougham. It then trickled down to the next generation, to people with little connection to the famous author.

Constance was buried in an unmarked grave at Box Hill. It would have been a pauper’s grave, but fortunately a benefactor, Mrs Elizabeth Gaunt, paid for it. Later, the Dickens Society and descendant Robin Da Costa-Adams obtained permission for a memorial stone to be placed. The Desailly family contributed to the cost.

The memorial on the grave of Constance Dickens.

Robin Da Costa Adams wrote a biography of Constance, but unfortunately it is now out of print. Copies are held at the National Library in Canberra and the State Library of Victoria.

  1. Rabbit Inspector? Counting them? Culling them? the mind boggles…

    • Pauline

      Counting them essentially. If there were too many on a property the owner had to get rid of them by any means possible. There were rabbit inspectors in my father’s time…. and probably still are.

  2. Thank you for a good insight into the life of Constance Dickens.

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