Charles Dickens (1812-1870), English Victorian era author wrote numerous highly acclaimed novels including his most autobiographical David Copperfield (1848-1850);
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”
As a prolific 19th Century author of short stories, plays, novellas, novels, fiction and non, during his lifetime Dickens became known the world over for his remarkable characters, his mastery of prose in the telling of their lives, and his depictions of the social classes, mores and values of his times. Some considered him the spokesman for the poor, for he definitely brought much awareness to their plight, the downtrodden and the have-nots. He had his share of critics like Virginia Woolf and Henry James, but also many admirers, even into the 21st Century.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote numerous introductions to his works, collected in his Appreciations and Criticisms of the works of Charles Dickens (1911) and in his highly acclaimed biography Charles Dickens (1906) he writes: He was the voice in England of this humane intoxication and expansion, this encouraging of anybody to be anything. Critic John Forster (1812-1876) became his best friend, editor of many of his serialisations, and official biographer after his death, publishing The Life of Charles Dickens in 1874. Scottish poet and author Andrew Lang (1844-1912) included a letter to Dickens in his Letters to Dead Authors (1886). Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) in his Little Journeys (1916) series follows in the footsteps of Dickens through his old haunts in London. George Gissing (1857-1903) also respected his works and wrote several introductions for them, as well as his Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1898) in which he writes: Humour is the soul of his work. Like the soul of man, it permeates a living fabric which, but for its creative breath, could never have existed. While George Orwell (1903-1950) was at times a critic of Dickens, in his 1939 essay Charles Dickens he, like many others before, again brought to light the author still relevant today and worthy of continued study: Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.
Charles John Huffman Dickens was born on 7 February, 1812 in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England (now the Dickens Birthplace Museum) the son of Elizabeth née Barrow (1789-1863) and John Dickens (c.1785-1851) a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. John was a congenial man, hospitable and generous to a fault which caused him financial difficulties throughout his life. He inspired the character Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield (1849-1850). Charles had an older brother Frances, known as Fanny, and younger siblings Alfred Allen, Letitia Mary, Harriet, Frederick William known as Fred, Alfred Lamert, and Augustus Newnham.
When Dickens’ father was transferred to Chatham in Kent County, the family settled into the genteel surroundings of a larger home with two live-in servants—one being Mary Weller who was young Charles’ nursemaid. Dickens was a voracious reader of such authors as Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, and Oliver Goldsmith. When he was not attending the school of William Giles where he was an apt pupil, he and his siblings played games of make-believe, gave recitations of poetry, sang songs, and created theatrical productions that would spark a lifelong love of the theatre in Dickens. But household expenses were rising and in 1824, John Dickens was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea Prison. All of the family went with him except for Charles who, at the age of twelve, was sent off to work at Warren’s Shoe Blacking Factory to help support the family, pasting labels on boxes. He lived in a boarding house in Camden Town and walked to work everyday and visited his father on Sundays.
It was one of the pivotal points in Dickens’ education from the University of Hard Knocks and would stay with him forever. The idyllic days of his childhood were over and he was rudely introduced to the world of the working poor, where child labour was rampant and few if any adults spared a kind word for many abandoned or orphaned children. Many of his future characters like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Philip Pirrip would be based on his own experiences. The appalling working conditions, long hours and poor pay typical of the time were harsh, but the worst part of the experience was that when his father was released his mother insisted he continue to work there. While he felt betrayed by and resented her for many years to come, his father arranged for him to attend the Wellington House Academy in London as a day pupil from 1824-1827, perhaps saving him from a life of factory work and setting him on the road to becoming a writer.
In 1827 the Dickens were evicted from their home in Somers Town for unpaid rent dues and Charles had to leave school. He obtained a job as a clerk in the law firm of Ellis and Blackmore. He soon learned shorthand and became a court reporter for the Doctors Commons. He spent much of his spare time reading in the British Museum’s library and studying acting. In 1830 he met and fell in love with Maria Beadnell, though her father sent her to finishing school in Paris a few years later. In 1833, his first story of many, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” was published in the Monthly Magazine. He also had some sketches published in the Morning Chronicle which in 1834 he began reporting for and adopted the pseudonym ‘Boz’. At this time Dickens moved out on his own to live as a bachelor at Furnival’s Inn, Holborn. His father was arrested again for debts and Charles bailed him out, and for many years later both his parents and some of his siblings turned to him for financial assistance.
Dickens’ first book, a collection of stories titled Sketches by Boz was published in 1836, a fruitful year for him. He married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of the editor of the Evening Chronicle on 2 April, 1836, at St. Luke’s in Chelsea. A year later they moved into 48 Doughty Street, London, now a museum. The couple would have ten children: Charles Culliford Boz (b.1837), Mary (Mamie) (1838-1838), Kate Macready (b.1839), Walter Landor (b.1841), Francis (Frank) Jeffrey (b.1844), Alfred Tennyson (b.1845), Sydney Smith (b.1847), Henry Fielding (b.1849), Dora Annie (1850-1851), Edward Bulwer Lytton (b.1852). Also in the same year, 1836, Dickens became editor for Bentley’s Miscellany of which Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) was first serialised.
Thus began a prolific and commercially successful period of Dickens’ life as a writer. Most of his novels were first serialised in monthly magazines as was a common practice of the time. Oliver Twist between 1837 and 1839 was followed by Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), and Barnaby Rudge (1841). Dickens’ series of five Christmas Books were soon to follow; A Christmas Carol (1843), The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848). Dickens had found a readership who eagerly anticipated his next installments.
After the death of Catherine’s sister Mary in 1837 the couple holidayed in various parts of England. After Dickens resigned from Bentley’s in 1839, they moved to 1 Devonshire Terrace, Regent’s Park. Further travels to the United States and Canada in 1842 led to his controversial American Notes (1842). Martin Chuzzlewit was first serialised in 1843. The next year the Dickens traveled through Italy and settled in Genoa for a year of which his Pictures From Italy (1846) was written.
Dombey and Son (1846) was his next publication, followed by David Copperfield (1849). In 1850 he started his own weekly journal Household Words which would be in circulation for the next nine years. From 1851 to 1860 the Dickens lived at Tavistock House where Charles became heavily involved in amateur theatre. He wrote, directed, and acted in many productions at home with his children and friends, often donating the money raised from ticket sales to those in need. He collaborated with Wilkie Collins on the drama No Thoroughfare (1867). Novels to follow were Bleak House (1852-1853), Hard Times (1854), and Little Dorrit (1855-1857). In 1856 Dickens purchased Gad’s Hill, his last place of residence near Rochester in Kent County. He continued in the theatre as well, acting in Wilkie Collins’ The Frozen Deep in 1857 with actress Ellen Ternan (1839-1914) playing opposite him. The two fell in love and Dickens would leave Catherine a year later.
By now Dickens was widely read in Europe and in 1858 he set off on a tour of public readings. A year later he founded his second weekly journal All the Year Round, the same year A Tale of Two Cities (1859) was first serialised. Great Expectations (1860-1861) was followed by Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865). In 1865, traveling back from Paris with Ellen and her mother, they were involved in the disastrous Staplehurst train crash, of which Dickens sustained minor injuries, but never fully recovered from the post-traumatic shock of it. Two years later he traveled to America for a reading tour. His ‘farewell readings’ took place in London’s St. James Hall. Charles Dickens died from a cerebral hemorrhage on 9 June 1870 at his home, Gad’s Hill. He is buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, London, his tomb inscribed thus: “He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.” Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Scottish historian and author, upon hearing of his death said: The good, the gentle, high-gifted, ever-friendly, noble Dickens—every inch of him an honest man. Unfinished at his death, The Mystery of Edwin Drood was published in 1870.
My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time, - they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii, - and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did.—Ch. 4, David Copperfield
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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