One of the most famous English novelists of all time is ‘Charles John Huffam Dickens’. He was named after his maternal grandfather, the disgraced Charles Barrow, though he never knew him; he defrauded the Navy Pay Office in Somerset House in London and fled the country in 1810 before Dickens was born. He took the name John from his father and Huffham (misspelt by the Parish clerk when he was born) from a London friend of his father. Over the years, the characters in his family and their fluctuating fortunes would provide plenty of material to inspire the young man’s imagination.
He was born on 7th February 1812 in the small town of Landport just outside Portsmouth but his family soon moved to London to follow their father’s work. Little is known of John Dickens’ early life or education except that he experienced wealth and high society through the Crewes family and at their estates in Cheshire and Townhouse in Mayfair. His father was the family butler and having seen how they lived, John assumed that he was also entitled to a similar lifestyle. At the age of twenty-seven he married Elizabeth (aged twenty-two) and soon started to spend money recklessly. This led to his own family’s ruin on many occasions. After an idyllic childhood in Portsmouth up to the age of ten, Charles became unhappy and lonely in the big city with only his imagination for company. His family were often in debt and moving from house to house across London to avoid angry creditors or unpaid landlords. Although he did not know at the time, this early exposure to reality would provide the foundations for many of his famous characters including Mr Micawber, largely based on his father, in the semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield.
Charles’ character was shaped by his experiences through poverty, seeing the world’s injustices and his feelings for human decency and these became strong themes in all his novels.
At a very early age he wanted to be an actor. His father would take him to a public house and put him on a table where he would sing, dance and impersonate characters to the amusement of the local assembly. But, at the age of twelve his family desperately need the money so he was sent to work in a Blacking Factory. John’s debts eventually caught up with him and he was incarcerated in Marshalsea Prison for debtors.
‘The sun has set on my life forever’ remarked Charles as his father John was committed.
The Blacking Factory was filthy and full of rats and when it moved premises to Covent Garden, he was forced to work in a window where he was constantly stared at. For Charles, the rats, the dirt, the decay and the shame of being on
display working in the factory window made him determined to succeed in later life.
At the age of seventeen he began to write things down; he knew there was something greater inside him. He knew the London streets intimately and would often visit Seven Dials to watch how people went about their daily lives. He wrote feverishly with sketches, short stories and essays and at the age of twenty-three was approached by the publisher William Hall and asked if he wanted to write a series of sketches about some Cockney sportsmen. He accepted and searched for a title, settling on the name written on the back of the London to Bath Coach – Moses Pickwick. This became the Pickwick Papers and was published all over the world. He was capturing a certain type of Englishness serialized in a modern format of monthly instalments. In the beginning he was selling four thousand copies and by the end, when he was twenty five years old, he was selling forty thousand along with Pickwick hats and coats. The Pickwickians were immortalized and Charles’s fame became a global celebrity.
During this period, he had married the editor’s daughter, Catherine Hogarth aged twenty; it was his next piece of business. He loved her ardently and passionately but also her younger sister Mary who had moved into their house in Doughty Street. They went to the theatre one evening so see a farce ‘Is she his wife’ but later that evening Mary collapsed at home and died of heart failure. She was seventeen years old and Charles Dickens was heartbroken. She died in his arms and her last words were spoken to him. He cut off a lock of her hair and took the ring off her finger and wore it for the rest of his life. He expressed a wish to be buried with her and on her tombstone he wrote ‘Young, beautiful and good’. He never recovered from this loss and for the remainder of his life he was pursued by a vague and unhappy loss or want for something. This inspired him to write even more furiously and confront ‘The battle of life’, one of his favourite expressions. He flung himself back into his work producing his next book Oliver Twist, which included episodes from his own life of childhood agony, grief and above all, loneliness.
Throughout his life, it never occurred to him that he was common. He noticed and became ashamed of his hands; they were also common. He was full of contrast and contradictions. With strangers he was merry and brave but with his own family, he was reserved and taciturn. With sad or shy people he could be sympathetic and kind but with his friends he was eager and restless with an energetic outlook; he was often impatient and domineering. Lee Hunt observed that ‘his face has the life and soul in it of fifty human beings’. Mrs Carlisle said that ‘it was as if his face was made of steel’. He loved the children in his books but cared little for his own as they grew older. He worshipped food and drink in his fiction but in real life drank and ate much less. He was reported to be only truly happy when he was alone in his study. But he wasn’t alone, he was surrounded by his characters. As he was writing he would put on their faces and talk to himself in the mirror, imitating their voices and demeanour. His characters talked to him and touched him. In truth, he became them.
‘The more real the man the more genuine the actor’, Charles Dickens.
Dickens’s next book Nicholas Nickleby changed the face of English education; his satire on Dotheboys Hall school run by Wackford Squeers led to the immediate closure of private schools in Yorkshire and elsewhere. He had also satirized the Poor Laws in Oliver Twist; he was reported extensively in the press and he was making a difference – and he loved it. The power of the imagination meant he was able to convince his readers of the truth of his most extravagant visions.
It was said of Dickens that when the fire in one of his stories was threatening to go dim, he would throw on a child to stoke up the story. His children do die in his novels but he burned with them and felt their agony.
After Nicholas Nickleby came The Old Curiosity Shop with Little Nell who died in the story. When Dickens was writing the final scenes he was laid up in bed with a broken heart as he inhabited the characters and lived and died with them. Oscar Wilde was as always erudite, commented at the time ‘it would take a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing’.
He was still haunted by his parents and his father’s spending habits despite buying them a cottage in Devon. John would often try to forge Charles’s signature to pay off some debt or other and they had a constant habit of turning up in London.
Charles visited the USA and was a celebrity drawing huge crowds. He was dined, made speeches and hosted a dinner for one thousand guests and met the President (Tyler) who declared ‘I had not expected to meet so young a man, sir’. When he returned from USA not content, he took his family away again to Europe and climbed Vesuvius with one solitary guide. He climbed the last few feet of the summit alone and finally reached the brink declaring, ‘I look down into the flaming bowels of the earth, then I came back again alight in half a dozen places burning from head to foot’.
He had fire in his work and became the writer of his age; he was made the editor of a newspaper ‘The Daily News’, was invited to chair committees and made speeches about the Victorian slums. He was writing a new book (A Christmas Carol) and became possessed with a story about redemption; a story where a man is forced to face the truth about himself and then change. The book was a huge success and the spirit of Christmas was newly defined by Dickens. He was everywhere.
This was a triumphant moment in his career but he did not think of himself at all. He did not dwell on any of his achievements. He was still a private man and wrote of Shakespeare that ‘It is a great comfort to my way of thinking so little is known about the poet; it is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something should come out’.
He went on to write David Copperfield, his favourite of his books but it cost him dear. His health started to deteriorate, his hands were shaking and he suffered from depression but his view was that ‘to do nothing was exhausting’ and on he worked. He inhabited the characters Steerforth and Copperfield as he wrote. But
in the spring of 1851 his father died after a terrible operation on his bladder and two weeks later his youngest daughter, Dora died suddenly. After sitting at the bedside of his dead infant all through the night, he began to work again; by day and by night. ‘Much better to die doing’ he resolved.
At the age of forty-six, his life changed forever when he met a young actress in a West End play ‘The Frozen Deep’ which she had written along with his friend Wilkie Collins. The eighteen year old actress’s name was Ellen Ternan – Dickens fell deeply in love with her and all his yearning found its focus on her. She was the one thing missing from his life.
Under the influence of these feelings he started to resent his wife Catherine and gave instructions that the marital bedroom should be split in two. He had a brick wall erected between himself and his wife and then after twenty-two years of marriage he asked her for a divorce without giving the slightest reason. She went to live with her family and Georgina, her sister stayed and took change of the family household. The Newspapers started to print stories about him and he shunned his friends that expressed the merest sympathy for his wife.
He began to write of doomed marriage ‘the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, like the flowers had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes’.
He gave his wife a house and carriage in Camden Town. Whether he and Ellen Ternan were lovers remains a mystery; nothing is known for certain. His personality seemingly so transparent was full of dark places. At his lowest point he decided to embark on a reading tour of the country; he wanted to exert his power over his readers in person. It was reported that his eyes had the ability to meet those of every single person in the audience. He inhabited all the characters again on stage and had a different voice for each of them. He had the book on a lectern but he knew all the words and stories by heart. His incomparable writing and storytelling held his audience spellbound. The theatres were sold out with people queueing sometimes all night; Dickens’s became the actor that he always wanted to be. He was exhausted by his performances but as he was acting he was also writing his next novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.
He burned all his letters at his house in Gad’s Hill, from Tennyson, George Elliot, and Wilkie Collins. He then wrote Great Expectations where he re-wrote his past. He was inimitable and unstoppable.
After his second reading tour he rested through the whole of the summer of 1869. He could not actually rest and so he started to work on his next novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. Eventually after this third reading tour he was exhausted and carried off stage after each of his performances. His health started to fail and one evening on Wednesday 8th June 1870 he had a fit after dinner at his house in Gad’s Hill. ‘I think you need to come and lie down’ said Georgina Hogarth who was still living with him and Dickens replied ‘Yes, upon the ground’. He slipped from her grip and fell heavily on the floor. These were his last words as he died later the next day on 9th June; he was fifty eight years old.
He is buried in Westminster Abbey next to Samuel Johnson, and near the busts of Handel, Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare and rightly recognized as one of the greatest writers that this country has produced.
Charles Dickens’s battle with life was turbulent and as fascinating as his work.