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Dickens, Charles

Category: Writer

Charles Dickens by Ary Schaffer 1855

Charles John Huffam Dickens 7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world's most memorable fictional characters and is generally regarded as one of the UK’s greatest novelists.  During his life, his works enjoyed unprecedented fame, and by the twentieth century his literary genius was broadly acknowledged by critics and scholars. His novels and short stories continue to be widely popular.

At a time when Britain was the major economic and political power of the world, Dickens highlighted the life of the forgotten poor and disadvantaged within society. Through his journalism he campaigned on specific issues—such as sanitation and the workhouse—but his fiction probably demonstrated its greatest prowess in changing public opinion in regard to class inequalities.  He often depicted the exploitation and oppression of the poor and condemned the public officials and institutions that not only allowed such abuses to exist, but flourished as a result.

His most strident indictment of this condition is in Hard Times (1854), Dickens's only novel-length treatment of the industrial working class. In this work, he uses both vitriol and satire to illustrate how this marginalised social stratum was termed "Hands" by the factory owners; that is, not really "people" but rather only appendages of the machines that they operated. His writings inspired others, in particular journalists and political figures, to address such problems of class oppression. For example, the prison scenes in The Pickwick Papers are claimed to have been influential in having the Fleet Prison shut down.

 

The exceptional popularity of his novels, Bleak House, 1853; Little Dorrit, 1857; Our Mutual Friend, 1865;  underscored not only his almost preternatural ability to create compelling story-lines and unforgettable characters, but also ensured that the Victorian public confronted issues of social justice that had commonly been ignored.

Born in Portsmouth, England, Dickens was described as a "very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy", who spent a lot of time outdoors, but also read voraciously. He retained poignant memories of childhood, “helped by a near-photographic memory of people and events, which he used in his writing”.

Living beyond his means, his father, John Dickens, was forced by his creditors into the Marshalsea debtors' prison in Southwark London in 1824. His wife and youngest children joined him there, as was the practice at the time. Charles, then 12 years old, boarded with Elizabeth Roylance "a reduced [impoverished] old lady, long known to our family", whom Dickens later immortalised, "with a few alterations and embellishments", as "Mrs. Pipchin", in Dombey and Son. Later, he lived in a back-attic in the house of an agent for the Insolvent Court, Archibald Russell, "a fat, good-natured, kind old gentleman... with a quiet old wife". They provided the inspiration for the Garlands in The Old Curiosity Shop.

Illustration by Fred Bernard of Dickens at work in
a shoe-blacking factory

To pay for his board and to help his family, Dickens was forced to leave school and work ten-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, on Hungerford Stairs, near the present Charing Cross railway station, where he earned six shillings a week pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. The strenuous and often harsh working conditions made a lasting impression on Dickens.

A few months after his imprisonment, John Dickens's paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Dickens, died and bequeathed him the sum of £450. On the expectation of this legacy, Dickens was granted release from prison. Under the Insolvent Debtors Act, Dickens arranged for payment of his creditors, and he and his family left Marshalsea, for the home of Mrs. Roylance.

Charles' mother Elizabeth Dickens did not immediately remove him from the boot-blacking factory. This incident made a lasting impression on him:  "I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back".

Maria Beadnell

This unhappy period in his youth was incorporated into his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield: "I had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone, that I can call to mind, as I hope to go to heaven!"

Charles was eventually sent to the Wellington House Academy in North London. "Much of the haphazard, desultory teaching, poor discipline punctuated by the headmaster's sadistic brutality, the seedy ushers and general run-down atmosphere, are embodied in Mr. Creakle's Establishment in David Copperfield."

Dickens worked at the law office of Ellis and Blackmore, attorneys, of Holborn Court, Gray's Inn, as a junior clerk from May 1827 to November 1828. Then, having learned Gurney's system of shorthand in his spare time, he left to become a freelance reporter. This experience was used in works such as Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, and especially Bleak House—whose vivid portrayal of the machinations and bureaucracy of the legal system did much to enlighten the general public.  His journalism, in the form of sketches in periodicals, formed his first collection of pieces Sketches by Boz—Boz being a family nickname he employed as a pseudonym for some years.

In 1830, Dickens met his first love, Maria Beadnell, thought to have been the model for the character Dora in David Copperfield. Maria's parents disapproved of the courtship and ended the relationship by sending her to school in Paris.

Dickens showing his parting - a sign he was left handed and on the right Catherine is wife

In November 1836 Dickens accepted the job of editor of Bentley's Miscellany, a position he held for three years, until he fell out with the owner. In 1836 as he finished the last instalments of The Pickwick Papers he began writing the beginning instalments of Oliver Twist—writing as many as 90 pages a month—while continuing work on Bentley's, writing four plays, the production of which he oversaw. Oliver Twist, published in 1838.

Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39), The Old Curiosity Shop and, Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty as part of the Master Humphrey's Clock series (1840–41) were all published in monthly instalments before being made into books.  Dickens began work on the first of his Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol, in 1843, this was followed by The Chimes in 1844 and The Cricket on the Hearth in 1845.  In late November 1851, Dickens wrote Bleak House (1852–53), Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1856).

So what was the source of his inspiration?

In the first place, Dickens was yet another laudanum user along, it would seem, with most of the rest of Victorian England.  The bouts of depression were probably attributable to his abstention from the drug.  But this would be too simplistic an answer.

Dickens reading to his daughters

Dickens was a prolific writer. Over his career he edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote 15 novels, 5 novellas and hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles.  He lectured and performed extensively.  His first reading tour, for example, lasting from April 1858 to February 1859, consisted of 129 appearances in 49 different towns throughout England, Scotland and Ireland.

He was an indefatigable letter writer.  He undertook numerous charitable acts and campaigned vigorously for children's rights, education, and other social reforms.  Dickens was approached by Great Ormond Street Hospital, for example, to help it survive its first major financial crisis through a charitable appeal. His 'Drooping Buds' essay in Household Words earlier in 3 April 1852 was considered by the hospital's founders to have been the catalyst for the hospital's success.

So manic was his output and activity that a number of psychoanalysts have hypothesised that he was a manic depressive.  But again this is too simplistic and it implies he was 'ill', which he clearly wasn’t.  I am not sure the analysis of him as a manic depressive is right, but he was a very typical left hander and extremely sensitive and passionate about everything.

Mary Hogarth

On 2 April 1836, he married Catherine Thomson Hogarth.  The first of ten children, Charley, was born in January 1837. Dickens's younger brother Frederick and Catherine's 17-year-old sister Mary moved in with them and Dickens became very attached to Mary.  She died in his arms after a brief illness in 1837. His grief was so great that he was unable to make the deadline for the June installment of Pickwick Papers and had to cancel the Oliver Twist installment that month as well.  Dickens is thought to have drawn on memories of her for Little Nell and Florence Dombey.

Dickens, through the high emotion of his life, appears to have been almost permanently open to spiritual input and inspiration.  He became totally absorbed in the stories he wrote, he in some respects lived them. 

 

A Christmas Carol, for example, was one of his most popular stories.  As the idea for the story took shape and the writing began in earnest, Dickens became totally engrossed in the story. He wrote “that as the tale unfolded I wept and laughed, and wept again as I walked about the black streets of London fifteen or twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed."

Although many of the characters Dickens incorporated into his novels were based on actual people, he had some interesting things to say about what happened when they appeared in his stories - they lived for him - came alive again and acted out another life.  Fagin in Oliver Twist, for example, was based on the famous fence Ikey Solomon; Mr Skimpole in Bleak House was based on Leigh Hunt; Lawrence Boythorne and Mooney the beadle are drawn from real life – Boythorne from Walter Savage Landor and Mooney from 'Looney', a beadle at Salisbury Square.  It is as if he had summoned their ghosts to help him!

Ellen

In 1857, Dickens hired professional actresses for the play The Frozen Deep, which he and his protégé Wilkie Collins had written. Dickens fell deeply in love with one of the actresses, Ellen Ternan, Dickens was 45 and Ternan 18 when he made the decision to separate from his wife, Catherine, in 1858.  Catherine left, never to see her husband again, taking with her one child, and leaving the other children to be raised by her sister Georgina.  But we will never know what went between them because in early September 1860, Dickens made a great bonfire of almost his entire correspondence.  Since Ellen Ternan also destroyed all of his letters to her, the extent of the affair between the two ‘remains speculative’.  On his death, Dickens settled an annuity on Ternan which made her a financially independent woman.

Between 1868 and 1869, Dickens was affected by giddiness and fits of paralysis and collapsed on 22 April 1869, at Preston in Lancashire.  When he had regained sufficient strength, Dickens arranged, with medical approval, for a final series of readings at least partially to make up to his sponsors what they had lost due to his illness. There were to be 12 performances, running between 11 January and 15 March 1870, the last taking place at 8:00 pm at St. James's Hall in London. Although in grave health by this time, he read A Christmas Carol and The Trial from Pickwick

 

On 8 June 1870, Dickens suffered another stroke at his home after a full day's work on Edwin Drood. He never regained consciousness, and the next day, on 9 June, five years to the day after the Staplehurst rail crash [see observation] , he died at Gad's Hill Place.

A printed epitaph circulated at the time of the funeral reads:
"To the Memory of Charles Dickens (England's most popular author) who died at his residence, Higham, near Rochester, Kent, 9 June 1870, aged 58 years. He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world."

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