Between 27 April and 1 June 1850 the great Victorian expounder of scientific principles, Professor Michael Faraday (1791-1867), formerly the gifted pupil of Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), gave six Friday Evening Discourses or lectures at the Royal Institute, London; the topics on "domestic philosophy" (or, as we would say, "popular science") included "a fire, a candle, a lamp, a chimney, a kettle, ashes" (A. E. Jeffreys, Michael Faraday. A List of His Lectures and Public Writings, 1960, no. 382, cited in Storey et al., 106). In fact, between his appointment of Director of the Laboratory in 1825 (added to which in 1827 he succeeded to Davy's chair of chemistry) and his retirement in 1862, as a science propagandist in the Davy tradition Faraday gave one hundred such lectures, attended not only by the general public but but such luminaries as novelist George Eliot, whose works (especially the mammoth Middlemarch reveal a great interest in scientific and medical topics. Faraday's lectures and courses put the Royal Institute "on a sound financial footing" (Storey et al., 105), and made the new experimental sciences, as well as the applied sciences of engineering and medicine, intelligible to the general public.

Not long after launching his major venture into weekly journalism, Household Words, on 27 March 1850, editor (or, as he preferred to be called "conductor") Charles Dickens wrote to the great scientist on 28 May to ask permission to re-print the first of his six lectures in the latest series. Although there is no record of Dickens ever having attended any of these lectures, he must certainly have felt "On The Chemical History of a Candle" newsworthy, and its author's "a star name who would credibility to [the] coverage of scientific issues" (Hamilton 346) in Household Words. Undoubtedly flattered to be invited to contribute to the latest popular organ conducted by Britain's leading man of letters, Faraday actually sent Dickens as requested his own hand-written notes for these lectures, undoubtedly happy to oblige the novelist whose works he had so enjoyed. James Hamilton in A Life of Discovery: Michael Faraday, Giant of the Scientific Revolution (2002), having read the scant correspondence between the writer and the scientist that survives, reasonably speculates that Dickens did not intend to publish Faraday's lectures verbatim, but rather to transform the technical talks into a series of less formal, "popular science" articles in "the light-hearted, demotic style that his magazine was adopting" (346).

Rather than effect the transformation himself, Dickens called upon one of his recently hired staff-writers, the humorist, writer on Irish affairs, and physician Dr. Percival Leigh (1813-1889), author of such highly readable but practical works The Comic Latin Grammar; a New and Facetious Introduction to the Latin Tongue (London: Charles Tilt, 1840) and the Punch parody of The Diary of Samuel Pepys entitled "Mr. Pips his Diary" in Richard Doyle's illustrated series Ye Manners and Customs of ye Engyshe (17 March through 29 December 1849). What Dickens required for the Faraday project was a scientifically literate journalist with a knack for making dry reading entertaining—a writer with a comic style not unlike his own. A contributor to such well-known London periodicals as Bentley's Miscellany, which Dickens himself had edited from 1837 through 1839, and a participant in Dickens's amateur theatricals in 1845, Dr. Percival Leigh, although not a friend, was certainly known to Dickens prior to his joining the staff of Household Words in 1850. Just weeks before its launch in response to the editor's direct request, Leigh came on board, his first contributions being "A Tale of the Good Old Times" (27 April, which accorded precisely with Dickens's progressive view of history) and "A Sample of the Old School. By an Old Boy" (18 May). After riding with some success the Dickens hobby-horse of the abuses of the undertaking trade (22 June), Leigh turned his attention to the hand-written drafts of Faraday's lectures that Dickens had borrowed.

The first of these articles,"The Chemistry of a Candle" (text), is based on "On The Chemical History of the Candle," a lecture that Faraday had delivered at Christmas 1848; Dickens in fact in his letter to Faraday seems to have been thinking of the scientist's "late lectures on the breakfast-table, and of those [he] addressed, last year [i. e., at the end of 1848], to children" Letters 6: 106). Leigh's adaptation appeared in Household Words on 3 August 1850, the humourist having added the rhetorical context of the prosperous middle-class Wilkinson family, living apparently somewhere in London, and having been paid four pounds four shillings for this initial adaptation. His creation of a witty mouthpiece for the erudite Professor Faraday in the person of the precocious Master Harry Wilkinson and his well-meaning but bumbling interlocutors Uncle Bagges, bumptious brother Tom, and kind-hearted Mrs. Wilkinson, is inspired. Master Harry emerges as a Faraday disciple who has the uncanny ability to recall every word that his idol has delivered in his lectures at the Royal Institution, to which by 7 September's "The Laboratory in the Chest" the enthusiastic uncle (perhaps inspired by the notion of getting a leg up intellectually on his brilliant nephew) has had himself elected. Since it would not have been appropriate for a mere youngster, no matter how intellectually gifted, to expound on the chemistry of beers and ales, for the fourth Household Words piece, "The Chemistry of a Pint of Beer" (15 February 1851), Leigh had to invent another persona entirely and dispense with the format of the lively dialogue that had worked so effectively in the previous three. Instead of the sprightly and scientifically-minded Harry Wilkinson, Leigh speaks to his readers through the persona of a "Mr. James Saunders, practical plumber and glazier, amateur chemist and natural philosopher." By virtue of personal experience as well as scientific knowledge Saunders is very much an expert on the subject of brewing beer. Percival Leigh might have derived more humorous domestic science articles from Faraday's lecture-notes had he been able to retain possession of them a little longer, but a letter from Dickens to the scientist implies that by February Dickens must have been feeling as if he should return the valuable notes. On 11 December 1850 he had written Michael Faraday to thank him for "generously lending . . . your valuable notes. Concerning which, let me say that I have them in safe keeping, and will shortly return them. The gentleman [i. e., Percival Leigh] who has them to refer to, still tells me when I ask if he has done with them, 'that they are not so easily exhausted, and that they suggest something else" (Letters 6, 230). What they had suggested immediately was the science of brewing, amusingly but not brilliantly expounded but an experienced tippler of the Dr. Marigold variety, a raconteur of the brewery, Mr. James Saunders, amateur chemist.

Related Material


Hamilton, James. A Life of Discovery: Michael Faraday, Giant of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Random House, 2002.

Leigh, Percival. "The Chemistry of a Candle." Household Words No. 19 (3 August 1850): 439-444.

Leigh, Percival. "The Chemistry of a Pint of Beer." Household Words No. 47 (15 February 1851): 498-502.

Leigh, Percival. "The Laboratory in the Chest." Household Words No. 24 (7 September 1850): 565-569.

Leigh, Percival. "The Mysteries of a Tea-Kettle." Household Words No. 34 (16 November 1850): 176-181.

Lohrli, Anne. Household Words: A Weekly Journal 1850-1859 Conducted by Charles Dickens: Table of Contents, List of Contributors and Their Contributions based on the Household Words Office Book in the Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists in the Princeton University Library. Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1973.

Storey, Graham, Kathleen Tillotson, and Nina Burgis. The Letters of Charles Dickens, The Pilgrim Edition. Vol. 6 (1850-1852). Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

Last modified 24 July 2023