I made my usual run to Starbucks this morning, only to find the air conditioning was out. The place was surprisingly warm for a store with no ovens where the steam is applied to drinks in short 30-second bursts. When I commented on this, the lovely young baristperson replied that it was “hot as the Dickens”.
The term “hot as a Dickens” was first used in 1837, after Charles Dickens’ newlywed wife Catherine (pictured above) and his sister Frances appeared on the cover of the Fox Hunters’ Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. This created such a hue and cry (but mostly hue) among the English gentry that the magazine’s parent company Playsquire Incorporated was driven into bankruptcy, and Fox Hunters Illustrated was rebranded as a periodical devoted to vulpine pursuits. The term “hot as a Dickens” fell into disuse after a London paper mistakenly referred to Queen Victoria as being “hot as Emily Dickenson”. The queen was not amused.
With the sisters-in-law long retired from the modeling industry, the term went unused until 1867, when, during a reading tour in the United States, a first edition signed copy of A Christmas Carol was stolen from a hotel room in the town of Pickwick, Tennessee. News of the theft made all the Pickwick papers, and the thief was tailed through two cities before the book was eventually recovered in Memphis.
Two years later, after a similar attempt to steal an original manuscript of The Scarlet Letter met with equal failure due to mass media publicity, shortstop Art Full of the Dodgers finally confessed to the crimes. Full told investigators that that he had had expectations of great wealth in both cases, but that he could not find anyone willing to purchase the books, telling authorities that the Hawthorne novel was “just as hot as the Dickens”.
In 1870, during his 100-stop “final” book reading tour, Charles Dickens was in such a hurry to get to a performance in Brighton that atmospheric friction caused him and his carriage to burst into flame. When a similar occurrence of spontaneous combustion claimed the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1930, his wife Jean claimed in her diary that the flames rising from her late husband’s body were “as hot as Dickens’ were”.
And to this day, the temperature of Charles Dickens’ burning carriage remains the standard by which all spontaneous combustion events are evaluated.