HISTORY OF CHARLES DICKENS
Today marks the 211th birthdate of Charles Dickens, considered by many the greatest English writer since Shakespeare — at least he was during his lifetime in the Victorian age. He enjoyed the distinction of fame and a measure of financial success during his lifetime, starting in his 20s. Many of his novels were published serially in newspapers or 3 pence pamphlets. Think of them as early Twitter novels. And like Twitter posts, they’re forever: his novels are still in print.
Although he was born in Portsmouth on February 7, 1812, and he often spent his holidays in later years on the shores of Kent, he is most known for his intimate knowledge of London, which is the setting of so many of his books.
Indeed, eleven years ago (as of the original writing of this article in December 2011), London was having a “Dickens of a time,” with special events and exhibits all over town.
In December, I went to no less than three: the exhibit of his books at the British Library, the immersive Dickens exhibit at the Museum of London, and his only remaining residence in London at 48 Doughty Street, now known as the Charles Dickens Museum which houses thousands of his personal effects.
Dickens in London
When he was still young, his family moved to Camden Town, London, around which he lived most of his life. Though he received an education as a child and was a voracious reader, his father’s extravagant spending habits eventually landed him in debtor’s prison, and young Charles, at 12, had to leave school and take work in a boot-blacking factory near Covent Garden.
Living as a boarder, on weekends, he would visit his family, who lived with his father in Marshalsea debtor’s prison in Southwark, south of the City and across the Thames. His painful recollections of his experiences during this time and his phenomenal memory for detail would provide motivation and content for many of his later novels: Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and especially David Copperfield.
He took an early job as a law clerk and eventually as a freelance reporter, later acting as a court reporter, where he witnessed important debates in Parliament. He never took to the law, though he later wrote about its foibles in Bleak House. And he never cared much for what he saw in government circles, either in England or when he crossed over to America, declining a dinner invitation from President Tyler. He furthered his craft through journalism, editing, and publishing — having edited several periodicals — though his mature career was primarily spent writing stories and novels.
As a young man, he enjoyed the theatre, attending every night when he could, and became friends with actors and stage managers. Though he toyed with the idea of performing when young, an illness during an audition delayed a life of performance for many years, but he did not altogether put it out of his mind.
Dickens and Melodrama
Because of his affection for plays, his stories and their characters were dramatically drawn, larger than life, and his plottings were melodramatic. This easily lent his stories to theatrical adaptation; some were performed almost immediately after publication. Even today, we have adaptions of A Christmas Carol by Mr. Magoo, Mickey Mouse, Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, Patrick Stewart, and the Muppets.
Dickens’ writings were immensely popular even during his lifetime, and their serialization and cliffhanger nature added even more to the drama. One such popular story was inspired by a particular event in his own life. In The Old Curiosity Shop, the character of Little Nell becomes iller and appears to be on the point of death. Many of Dickens’ readers wrote to him imploring him to spare the life of the character Little Nell, but her death in his mind was inevitable.
Nevertheless, the death of this imaginary character deeply affected him, taking days for him to recover. In his own life, when he was living at 48 Doughty Street while writing The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, his wife’s sister Mary Hogarth lived with them. He became very attached to her.
When Mary died suddenly at 17, Dickens was devastated and never really got over it, even years later.
Dickens’ Night Walks
As Dickens grew older, he found himself subject to bouts do insomnia and would walk the streets of London at night, sometimes 10-12 miles a night. He’d see parts of the city not always viewable by day, the rough parts, the scary parts.
He once wrote of walking at night by Bedlam (Bethlehem Mental Hospital) and wondering if, in sleep, we dream the same things as the insane do. Dickens would say that no one knew London’s streets and back alleys better than he did.
Dickens was an early adopter of some advanced technologies of his day and took advantage of the growing rail system, steam-powered ships, and the telegraph. He even used the telegraph to send coded messages to his mistress while abroad.
On his first trip to the United States, he boarded The Britannia, the first Cunard wooden paddle-steamer ship built to sail from Liverpool to Boston. This was to be his first trip to an appreciative America.
A Christmas Carol
The telling of melodramatic ghost stories, especially around Christmas, was widespread during the Victorian period.
Dickens’ fascination with ghost stories, mesmerism, and spiritualism led him to include ghostly apparitions in his other works as well, but in A Christmas Carol, as he called his “Ghostly little book,” Dickens, according to G. K. Chesterton, succeeded in
“transforming Christmas from a sacred festival into a family feast.”
The Ghost Club
Dickens was interested in the extraordinary in his teenage years and had an early interest in mesmerism (which later became known as hypnotism) along with a growing appreciation of spiritualism, which he often sought to find rooted in scientific fact. While he did not become as fascinated with spiritualism and seances as other authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he often included accurately reported stories of ghostly apparitions in magazines he edited.
One of Dickens’ favorites in his teens was The Terrific Register, a penny weekly magazine that dealt with murder, ghosts, and cannibalism. He related that it would
“make myself unspeakably miserable, and frightening my very wits out of my head…which, considering that there was an illustration to every number in which there was always a pool of blood, and at least one body, was cheap.”
Dickens became one of the earliest members of “The Ghost Club” when the Cambridge group was organized in London in 1862. Two decades later, the author of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, was a member.
Later in his life, Dickens would, as part of his speaking tours, do dramatic readings from his works. A Christmas Carol was among the most popular and was included in his first public reading in 1853.
But one of his favorites was a passage from Oliver Twist that describes the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes. Dickens would stand at a small table with a raised platform upon which he’d rest his hand that held his annotated book, where he’d read the underlined passage with DRAMA as he wrote in the margin. He would deliver this reading often, though each delivery would take a lot out of him.
He died in 1870, about a month after his last public reading of A Christmas Carol, at 58.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian