Through his masterful storytelling, Charles Dickens painted the details of a world both cruel and promising. Here’s a look at the author’s life, loves and the Victorian world that inspired his classics.
A small boy, barely 12 years old, sits in a rat-infested London warehouse, endlessly, wrapping, tying, and pasting labels onto jars of black boot polish. He has walked five miles to get to work, and after 10 hours, will walk that many more to get back to his rented room. He sees his family only on Sundays, when he visits London’s Marshalsea prison, where his father has been jailed for debt. The child’s whole family except for one sister, in fact, now resides in the debtors prison. This childhood episode shadowed Charles Dickens’ life and colored his writing. Dickens went on to achieve unprecedented celebrity as the most popular novelist of his century, and his fictional tales about abused, neglected, parentless children still resonate with readers over 150 years after they were written.
Dickens’ England: The Gruesome Truth #1
The average life span of London residents in the middle of the 19th century was 27 years. For members of the working class, that number dropped to 22.
A Christmas Carol
Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, with its sentimental, festive and transformative story about Christmas is one of the most enduring holiday classics. Published in 1843 − the same year the first Christmas card was sent − it became one of the most popular books of all time, and has been adapted countless times for stage and screen, including arguably the greatest 1951 film version, starring Alastair Sim as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. Its adaptions range from ballets and plays to the animated Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and even modern Muppet classics. The redemption tale that follows Scrooge as he recaptures the generosity and optimism of his youth has withstood the test of time. (See some of the actors who have portrayed Scrooge.)
Dickens’ England: The Gruesome Truth #2
In 1839, nearly half of the funerals in London were held for children under the age of 10. Many died from contagious disease and malnutrition. In 1847, half a million Londoners, roughly one-fourth of the population, suffered from typhus, largely due to lack of sanitation.
A Fairy Tale First Love
Dickens claimed his first love was Little Red Riding Hood, who was, of course, the archetypal innocent about to be devoured by unexpected evil. “Little Red Riding Hood was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.” His real love life was full of twists and odd choices. But more on that later…
Dickens’ England: The Gruesome Truth #3
It was not unusual for children of 6 or 7 to have full-time jobs. Many youngsters outside London worked hauling coal that fueled the Industrial Revolution.
Education (or lack thereof) and Why Learning Shorthand Paid Off
The little education Dickens received as a youth ended for good by the time he was 15 when his father failed to come up with tuition. He got a low-level job as a junior clerk at a legal firm. Never sympathetic toward lawyers, the young Dickens passed a good deal of time there entertaining co-workers with his mimicry and dropping cherry pits onto the hats of people walking below his window. Soon, however, he mastered shorthand, the skill that would enable him to write so prodigiously later in life. He began working as a reporter, ultimately covering Parliament, and later landing a staff job on the Morning Chronicle — the day’s leading competitor to the London Times.
Dickens’ England: The Gruesome Truth #4
Despite the high moral tone associated with the Victorian age, an 1851 census revealed that one-third of England’s population never set foot inside a church.
Dickens’ Love Life: A Victorian Tele-Novella?
Dickens fell head-over-heels in love with Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a London newspaper editor. The couple married and the newlyweds moved into a tiny apartment. Soon after they wed, they made the curious choice of bringing along Catherine’s 16-year-old sister, Mary. By all accounts the early days of their marriage were happy. In 1837, his wife was pregnant with their second child when Mary suddenly died of heart failure. Dickens saw Mary as the personification of goodness and innocence snatched away by random evil, perhaps the equivalent of his self-proclaimed first love — the equally innocent Little Red Riding Hood. He fell apart in grief and began to carry a lock of Mary’s hair with him. He kept all her clothes and spent hours staring at them. He went so far as to make arrangements for himself to be buried next to her upon his death.
One can only wonder what his wife Catherine must have made of his obsessive behavior. She had little time to to ponder, however, because Dickens soon invited her other sister, Georgina, into the household. Still, Catherine and Dickens continued to have children with clockwork regularity and had 10 children together. While their family grew, their marriage eroded as Dickens made his wife the focus of his fury. He would eventually leave his wife abruptly and take most of his children, declaring her incompetent as a mother. The children were not encouraged to visit or spend time with their mother. But there were more relationship twists and turns to come. . .
Dickens turned his amour toward a young theater actress named Ellen “Nelly” Ternan and claimed that the idea for A Tale of Two Cities leapt into his mind while working scenes with her on stage. She became his secret companion for the rest of his life although many biographers disagree about the nature of their relationship. One claims to have convincing evidence that during her time with Dickens, Ellen gave birth to a child who died. Another insists that there was no physical relationship between them at all. Biographer Fred Kaplan writes that Dickens, “[h]aving had sexual relations for much of his adult life… was not likely to renounce them voluntarily when he found himself deeply in love with an attractive young woman.” We do know that he bought homes for Ternan, traveled to France with her, and stayed closely involved with her until his death. The 2013 film The Invisible Woman focused on their longtime affair.
Dickens’ England: The Gruesome Truth #5
Hangings were commonplace and widely attended. During Dickens’ childhood, there were more than 220 crimes punishable by death. These infractions ranged from murder and highway robbery to the theft of five shillings from a shop, forgery, and among the most bizarre, damaging Westminster Bridge.
His Death & The End of An Era
Dickens’ life came to end soon after he collapsed from a stroke while dining with Georgina Hogarth at his home. Within 24 hours, on June 9, 1870, he was dead. He wasn’t buried next to Mary Hogarth as he once wished, or in the simple grave he had requested. Instead, against his wishes, he was laid to rest in the Poets’ Corner within Westminster Abbey. Neither his wife nor Ellen Ternan attended the funeral, or did she? There is speculation that Ternan may have attended Dickens’ funeral in disguise. His grave was left open for two days as thousands of fans, both rich and poor, filed past — proof positive of the tremendous power he had to touch the hearts of everyone from scholar to peasant.
His death, in many ways, marked the end of the Victorian age, although Queen Victoria would rule for many years to come. For, when readers look back on that era today, it is not England’s queen they remember. It is Pip, encountering a mysterious convict in the marshes of East Anglia. It is David Copperfield fleeing his evil stepfather and Nicholas Nickleby discovering the horrors of a Yorkshire boarding school. It is Nell dying, and Nancy being murdered, and Miss Havisham endlessly living on, perpetually dressed for her wedding day. And it is Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, the Aged Parent and Infant Phenomenon, the Artful Dodger, the dispsomaniacal Sairey Gamp, the obsessive Bradley Headstone, the hapless Miss Flite, and all of the other more than 2,000 men, women, and children that Charles Dickens created to touch our hearts and to “brighten, brighten, brighten” our days.
For more info, visit the Charles Dickens page at Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.