By Therese Porter, Director, Workshop Leader & Performer at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 in the Landport district of Portsmouth, the second of eight children of John and Elizabeth Dickens - charming but impecunious members of the struggling genteel class. From not particularly auspicious beginnings, he grew up to become one of the greatest, best known and most loved writers of the 19th century.
His family moved almost constantly throughout his childhood, eventually confining their peregrinations to London and its immediate environs; Dickens came to know - and describe - the city so well that it is forever associated with him. He received little formal education, and in 1824 at the age of twelve was sent to work in a shoe blacking factory after his father was consigned to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, along with his mother and most of his siblings. This childhood poverty and feelings of abandonment, although unknown to his readers until after his death, would heavily influence Dickens' later views on social reform and forever haunt the world he would create through his fiction.
After his father received a small inheritance, Charles was able to return to school for a short time and at 15 became a clerk in a solicitor's office, then a shorthand reporter in the law courts (thus gaining a knowledge of the legal world often used in the novels), and finally, a parliamentary and newspaper reporter. These years left him with a lasting affection for journalism and contempt both for the law and for Parliament.
In 1833 Dickens began contributing stories and descriptive essays to magazines and newspapers which were reprinted as Sketches by "Boz" in February of 1836. The same month, he was invited to provide a comic serial narrative to accompany engravings by a well-known artist and seven weeks later the first installment of "Pickwick Papers" appeared. Within a few months Pickwick was the rage and Dickens was soon the most popular author of the day. He resigned his newspaper job and undertook to edit a monthly magazine, Bentley's Miscellany, in which he serialized "Oliver Twist" (1837-39).
After a passionate but thwarted love affair with Maria Beadnell, a banker's daughter, in April of 1836 he married Catherine Hogarth, eldest daughter of a Scots family prominent in the arts. He and Catherine had ten children (nine surviving), and although the marriage was initially happy it eventually ended in a scandalous legal separation, in part due to his involvement with Ellen Ternan, a young actress.
By 1850 Dickens had published nine novels, including "Nicholas Nickleby" and "David Copperfield," the most autobiographical of his books. Many of the characters in his life became characters in his books, most notably perhaps, Mr. Micawber (his father) in David Copperfield and Mrs. Nickelby (his mother) in Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens himself appeared several times, but most especially as David Copperfield himself.
Throughout his life he pursued multiple careers as a journalist, critic, amateur actor and stage manager, playwright, and philanthropist. Although his quick mind, lively intelligence, penetrating curiosity and prodigious energy would have ensured success in any of these professions, the world is blessed by his turning in his young manhood to writing for his living. He went on to create some of the most enduring characters in literature, rivaling even Shakespeare. Oliver Twist, Samuel Pickwick, Sam Weller, Miss Havisham, Sairey Gamp, Nicholas Nickleby, and so many more are uniquely realized characters that live as vividly today as they did for his earliest readers. His deep interest in the societal problems of his time generated real change and controversy in his lifetime; the term “Dickensian” still has the power to invoke certain conditions.
His life was as intriguing and filled with wonder as any of his novels, and many of the situations and people he encountered found their ways into his works. He invented the modern Christmas with a series of Yuletide-themed books and stories (a new literary genre), the most popular of which was “A Christmas Carol,” conceived and written in a few weeks in 1843. "A Christmas Carol" was the first of his almost annual Christmas books and was hugely popular, cementing the way that many of us view Christmas to this day. Renowned for his lively and lavish entertaining, Dickens was a great celebrator and promoter of Christmas for most of his life. He was eventually so associated with Christmas that when Dickens died in 1870, a London costermonger's girl is said to have exclaimed, "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?"
Dickens would go on to write 15 major novels and countless short stories and articles. Besides writing and editing, Dickens toured as a dramatic reader and busied himself with charities that included schools for poor children and a loan society to assist poor people immigrate to Australia. His writing empathized with the poor and helpless and mocked or criticized the selfish, the greedy, and the cruel.
In many ways Dickens was the forerunner of the modern celebrity author, and in his time he was universally known, loved and celebrated. He traveled extensively on the Continent and visited America twice. The last several years of his life were spent delivering wildly popular dramatic readings of his written works. He died of a stroke at the age of 58 in 1870 at his country home of Gads Hill. He wished to be buried, without fanfare, in a small cemetery in Rochester, but the nation would not allow it and he was laid to rest in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, the flowers from thousands of mourners overflowing the open grave.
Dickens' works are still read, taught, and adapted to the stage (and screen) as much as in his lifetime, and none of his works has gone out of print.
Dickens' Dream, by Robert William Buss, Victorian artist, etcher and illustrator