Sarah Mathew reads 'Nicholas Nickleby'

During March 1840 Sarah Louise Mathew travelled by ship from Sydney to join her husband Felton Mathew in the Bay of Islands. He was acting Surveyor-General in Governor William Hobson’s party of officials and had just witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in February.

Sarah (1805?-1890) had emigrated to Australia to marry her first cousin Felton in 1832. Her diary, begun on the voyage to New Zealand on March 2nd 1840, is held in the Sir George Grey Special Collections (NZMS 79). It is one of a number of interesting documents written by both Sarah and Felton in the early years of settlement, which Professor James Rutherford researched in England and negotiated to add to the Library’s collection in 1940.

Sarah’s journal is full of sharp observation, interesting speculation and some shrewd opinions on the people and places that were so new to her. However, one of her comments in the diary has always intrigued me. This is her entry for March 7th 1840:

“This day being a little better I had my mattress taken up on deck and have been lying there all day reading at intervals Nicholas Nickleby, and listening to Mrs Freeman’s conversation”.

Ref: NZMS 79 001, excerpt from Sarah Mathew's diary, Sir George Grey Special Collections
“Nicholas Nickleby” was Charles Dickens’ fourth novel and appeared in 19 monthly parts between March 1838 until October 1839. It was only in October 1839 that it was published in book form. Sarah Mathew is reading it just 4 months later in the middle of the Tasman Sea as she battles seasickness. The novel has already managed to make the long sea journey to Australia and is now on its way to New Zealand.

This shows not only the immense popularity of Dickens, but is also perhaps a correction to our assumptions that Australia and New Zealand were too far away to respond to new ideas and popular books. Sarah Mathew was an educated and clever woman with a lively interest in keeping up to date with the latest in literature, and had the means, even then, to read the most recent hit novel from England.

Ref: AWNS-19250730-52-2, Sir George Grey Special Collections
There is a growing research interest in recording such instances of historical reading. A database is being developed called the Reading Experience, where I have just submitted this instance of Sarah reading 'Nicholas Nickleby'. A New Zealand section of this UK initiative is under construction.

Auckland Libraries has a number of books in the heritage collections about or by Sarah Mathew and her husband Felton Mathew, which are worth dipping into. There is also Dickens related heritage materials available including: a letter about Dickens, who was a popular topic at the time (GL B71.1 (Grey Letters), a scrapbook (MS 269), Dickens' papers (MS 77-97) and books by  and about Dickens.

Author: Georgia Prince, Sir George Grey Special Collections


  1. A digitised Sarah Mathew's album from the Sir George Grey Special Collections.



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