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Sunday, 19 October 2014

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born at 393 Commercial Road, Portsea, near Portsmouth on February 7, 1812.

Charles Dickens's birthplace, 393 Commercial Road, Portsmouth. By Austriantraveler - Wikipedia Commons

His father John Dickens, was a naval pay clerk at Chatham, Kent. when Charles was young. A friendly man, he had an inability to keep out of debt and debtors prison.

His mother, Elizabeth, spent time in debtors prison as well. Charles was more fond of his easy going father than his unsympathetic practical mother. He based Mr Micawber on his father and Mrs Nickleby on his mother.

Two days after his twelfth birthday, on February 9, 1824, Charles Dickens was sent to work at a shoe-polish warehouse on the banks of the Thames, near the present Charing Cross railway station. He spent his time pasting labels on the jars of thick polish and earned six shillings a week.

Illustration by Fred Bernard of Dickens at work in a shoe-blacking factory after his father had been sent to the Marshalsea, published in the 1892 edition of Forster's Life of Dickens

A fortnight after starting his job, his father was arrested for debt. Dickens recalled this painful experience in the early chapters of David Copperfield, and it seemed to haunt him all his life: he called it “the secret agony of my soul”.

His father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison and, except for Charles, who had lodgings in Camden, and his sister, who was studying music, all the family lived in the prison with him like the Dorrit family in the first part of Little Dorrit.

Dickens continued to work in the warehouse until 1825, when after a timely inheritance, his father was able to send him to school at Wellington House Academy.

In 1827 Dickens started working as a junior clerk for a firm of solicitors in Holborn, but he hated the law, and was drawn instead to journalism.

At the age of 20 Dickens began as a parliamentary reporter for his uncle's publication, The Mirror of Parliament, and the liberal paper, The Morning Chronicle..

Dickens quickly made his name for himself as the fastest and most accurate shorthand reporter to record the voices and opinions of the House of Commons MPs.

Dickens was diverted into his literary career when the Monthly Magazine accepted his story, A Dinner at Poplar Walk in 1833.

Encoraged, Dickens began to send articles to magazines under the name of Boz, his younger brother's childhood nickname. They were successful and enabled him to pay off his family's debts.

The first edition of Dickens' first novel, Pickwick Papers appeared on March 31, 1836.

Original cover issued in 1836

Dickens received 14 guineas for each monthly installment of Pickwick Papers. It only took off when he introduced the character of Sam Weller.

Dickens met at the age of 17 Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a London banker. She was small, slim and pretty. He fell madly in love with her and pursued her for four years. She flirted with him impressed by his devotion but after a trip to Paris suddenly went cold on Dickens calling him a "boy". His pride was deeply wounded.

The comic portrait of Flora Casby in Little Dorrit is said to have been inspired by Dickens's meeting with Maria again later in life.

Dickens met his pretty and quiet wife, Catherine (Kate) Hogarth, through his work. She was the daughter of the Evening Chronicle's co-editor.

Kate Hogarth

Kate was quiet, sensitive "handsome, with a red rose bud mouth, short tip tilted nose and fresh complexion."

The 24 year old Dickens married Kate at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea on April 2, 1836, two days after the first monthly edition of Pickwick Papers appeared.


Kate was a lavish cook; Dickens loved good food and was especially partial to "lamb chops breaded with plenty of ketchup".

Charles Dickens and Kate had ten children: Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, born 1837; Mary Dickens, born 1838; Kate Macready Dickens, born 1839; Walter Savage Landor Dickens, born 1841; Francis Jeffrey "Frank" Dickens, born 1844; Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson Dickens, born 1845; Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens, born 1847; Henry Fielding Dickens, born 1849; Dora Annie Dickens, born 1850, (she died suddenly from convulsions as an infant) and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, born 1852.

Charles Dickens’s son Francis (January 15, 1844 – June 11, 1886) was a Canadian Mountie for 12 years. Francis Dickens joined the North-West Mounted Police as a Sub Inspector in Canada in 1874 shortly after the March West which brought the original police force of 300 members to the modern provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. He served at Fort Walsh, Fort Macleod and Fort Pitt, getting promoted to Inspector in 1880.

Dickens was very fond of his sister in law, Mary Hogarth (1819/20 – May 7, 1837) and was shocked when she died suddenly in her sleep in 1837. The novelist took a ring from her hand and wore it on his own little finger for the rest of his life and didn't write for two months after the tragedy.

Mary Hogarth was the inspiration for a number of characters in Dickens novels, including Rose in Oliver Twist and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.

Portrait of Mary Scott Hogarth, sister-in-law of Charles Dickens

The name “Dolly Varden” was given to a youthful style of girls clothing, which included slim-waisted flowered-print dresses and flower bedecked hats worn coquettishly tilted with a ribbon under the chin. The name comes from a good humored, attractive personality in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge- Dolly Varden.

All Dickens' earlier works appeared in serial form in 19 monthly parts at a shilling each with the last a double issue.

Dickens was paid between £250 and £600 for his serials. They would average up to 40,000 per each magazine edition.

When he wrote his novels, Dickens would go up to the mirror and vocalise and gesticulate his characters speeches.

The original of the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist was a young pickpocket whose trial he attended and whose sentence ( 7 years transportation) Dickens regretfully recorded as a journalist.

The sinister villain Fagin was also the name of Charles Dickens best friend Bob Fagin.

Charles Dickens made the first reference to fried fish when he referred to a “fried fish warehouse” in Oliver Twist.

Dickens has lived at 48 Doughty Street, nr Russell Square, Clerkenwell London for two years. He wrote Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby there at a little table in the first floor living room often at the same time chatting to visitors.

The Old Curiosity Shop was first published in serial form. At one stage Dickens received numerous letters imploring him to let "Poor Nelly Die" . Dickens let Nell live as long as possible to sustain interest.

In the USA the interest in Nell's fate was so intense that 6,000 people, working themselves into a Jacuzzi full of bubble bath frenzy, were at New York Wharf at which the ship carrying the final instalment was due to dock. As it approached the crowd cried out "Does Little Nell die?"

Dickens is much responsible for reviving the celebration of Christmas with his best selling story, A Christmas Carol. In Britain Christmas had almost died out before Dickens’ tale of Scrooge, the Cratchits, and Tiny Tim caught the public’s imagination in a huge way.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in just two months, beginning in October 1843 and finishing at the end of November. The book was published on 17 December 1843 and immediately sold out.

The Cricket on the Hearth sold twice as much as A Christmas Carol and was far more popular until the turn of the 20th century. The extravagance of Christmas Carol's gilted pages and cloth cover meant despite its success Dickens only made £130 from it.

In 1846 he founded the liberal newspaper Daily News. Dickens edited the first 17 editions and put his father on the staff to preside over the dispatches.

When Dickens was editing a magazine, a young poet submitted a piece called "Orient Pearls at Random Strung". to him. Dickens returned it with the comment, "Too much string".

In 1850 Charles Dickens published his semi autobiographical novel David Copperfield, which he said was his favorite of all his novels.

Set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities was published in weekly installments from April 30, 1859 to November 1859 in Dickens's literary periodical All the Year Round. All but three of Dickens's previous novels had appeared only as monthly installments. With sales of about 200 million copies, it is the biggest selling novel in history.

Cover of serial "Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

Dickens was responsible for contributing 247 new words and usages to the English language. Among his linguistic inventions were ‘doormat’ (coined in Great Expectations), ‘to clap eyes on’ (David Copperfield) and ‘butterfingers’ (The Pickwick Papers).

The word boredom first appeared in print in Bleak House.

In order to overcome insomnia Dickens pointed the head of his bed north measuring the distance to both edges with his outstretched arms “so that magnetic fields flow straight through the recumbent body." However his system didn't always work and he often ended up going for long night-time walks when he frequently received inspiration for his novels.

Dickens was a believer in the supernatural. He belonged to a group called ‘The Ghost Club’.

Dickens was a believer in mesmerism, so much so that he considered himself a doctor in the method of transferring the healing rays from himself to sick people.

Charles Dickens suffered from asthma. He found relief from his "chest troubles" only with opium, a popular asthma remedy of his day. Mr. Omer, one of the asthmatic characters in David Copperfield, reflected Dickens's own suffering.

Dyslexia was only recognized by doctors at the turn of the 20th century, yet in Bleak House Dickens accurately portrays Mr Knock the elderly marine store dealer as suffering from symptoms of word blindness.

Dickens spent three months at 3 Albion Villa, Folkestone where he wrote much of Little Dorrit.

Little Dorrit was serialised monthly between 1855 and 1857, and earned Dickens almost £12,000, more money than any of his other novels.

Charles Dickens started his first tour giving readings from his works on April 29, 1858. He made 129 appearances in 49 different towns throughout the UK.

Dickens' lucrative practice of reading publicly from his own work consumed a great deal of his energy for the rest of his life.

In his lifetime Dickens made more money from his lectures than he did from his novels. During his 1867 reading tour of USA, the Americans went into a frenzy about Dickens. He gave 76 performances for which he earned $228,000. After expenses of $39,000 Dickens was able to bank nearly £19,000.

Dickens was partial to foppish clothes, and on his 1867 reading tour of the United States, he was clad in a bright black velvet coat with a large red flower in his button hole.


Dickens had a remarkable memory derived from his time as a reporter on the House of Commons. According to the writer Peter Ackroyd, “He could repeat the mutterings of a sarcastic waiter or an irate housewife with sarcastic skill."

Dickens once stated that he, “hated Catholicism, despised Non-conformists”, professed himself “disgusted “by the established church” and described listening to a Baptist sermon as being “steamed like a potato.”

Queen Victoria wrote of Dickens in her journal: "He had a large, loving mind and the strongest sympathy with the poorer classes."

In 1847 Dickens collaborated with the wealthy Angela Burdett-Coutts to open Urania Cottage, a rehabilitation centre for London prostitutes, an association which lasted until 1858. Dickens took a very active interest in the project, interviewing new admissions himself and keeping a journal of the women's progress.

Dickens loved cats. He has a white moggy called Williamina, which waited up for him if he worked into the early hours of the morning. She would snuff out the candles with her paw.

Williamina was called William until she had a litter of kittens, which she insisted on moving into Dickens’ study. “The Master’s Cat” was the only one of Williamina’s kittens which Dickens kept.

After "The Master's Cat" died, Dickens turned its paw into a letter opener.

Charles Dickens had a beloved raven named Grip, who featured in Barnaby Rudge. It is purported that Grip was an intelligent bird, capable of parroting some words. His last, according to Dickens, were “Halloa, old girl!” Grip died after eating a paint chip and Dickens had the beloved pet stuffed.

Dickens knew little of sport, he once quipped "If I were on turf and had a horse to enter the Derby I would call that horse Fortnum and Mason convinced that with that name he would beat the field."

On holiday he and his children run barefoot races and play beach cricket and sometimes liked to play rounders with their neighbours. Apart from that the only exercise Dickens got was when he went on one of his 20-mile walks to think out plots for his stories.

His marriage had not been happy for some years, and in 1858 Dickens formally separated from Kate, printing announcements in The Times and Household Words denying that any third party was involved in the separation.

Dickens retained her younger sister, Georgina Hogarth as housekeeper. There were rumours that Charles was romantically linked to his sister-in-law.

By this tine, Dickens was pursuing the actress Nelly Terrain. They had secret rendezvous but Dickens was tormented by guilt which affected his writing.

His last home at Gad’s Hill near Rochester was a home Dickens coveted as a boy. It is now a school.

The ventriloquist Rod Hull and his Emu lived at Gads Hill for several years.

Gads Hill, Rochester was the basis for Sitis House in Great Expectations . (Where Pip played with Estella and Miss Havisham burned to death.)

By the late 1860s Dickens was feeling the increasing strain of keeping his liaison with Ellen Ternan secret. He seems to have established her in a series of houses on the outskirts of London and to have fitted frequent trips to see her around his other many and pressing engagements.

Charles Dickens gave his first public reading on his second United States tour at Tremont Temple in Boston on December 2, 1867. It was such a heavy schedule that he never recovered from it. He gave his last reading in the UK on March 15, 1870 at St James's Hall, Piccadilly in London. Although in grave health by this time, he read A Christmas Carol and The Trial from Pickwick.

"Charles Dickens as he appears when reading." Wood engraving from Harper's Weekly, December 1867 Wikipedia Commons
Dickens suffered a stroke at his Gad's Hill Place home on June 8, 1870 after a full day's work on Edwin Drood. He never regained consciousness and died the next day.

Contrary to his wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, Dickens was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads: “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.”

The next year Dickens' friend, John Forster cut out from 1000 letters the bit he needed for his biography and threw the rest away.

Dickens left in his will about £93,000.

The only known statue of Dickens is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His will forbade a statue of any kind, and when one was made by admirers the family refused it. It is located in Clark Park at 43rd Street and Chester Avenue in the city's University City section. He is seen posing with Little Nell.

Dickens statue

Dickens' didn't have much critical credibility in his age. In the 1890s a poll asked which of Dickens, Thackery and Buliver Lytton was the greatest. Lytton won hands down and Dickens came last.

In his time, Charles Dickens was only read by 0.25% of UK's population—today, popular TV shows reach 20 times that proportion.

Sources Encarta Encyclopedia, Nigel Rees Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 100 Great Modern Lives, Faber Book of Anecdotes, Food For Thought  

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