Updated: Dec 18, 2022
Charles John Huffman Dickens was an English writer and critic born in Landport, Hampshire England on 7th February 1812. Dickens is regarded by many as the greatest author of the Victorian period and even more Secondary School English teachers as the greatest of all time. His skill for creating characters and settings resulted in a legacy that continues in strength today, with uncountable adaptations of his work in audio, stage, film and novel formats. His style has been so influential that the term ‘Dickensian’ is used to refer to creative content or situations that embody the gritty, grim realism of his human landscapes and any that approach it. His work enjoyed huge popularity during his lifetime, mostly due to the realistic portrayal of the class divide and the suffering of the working classes, as well as the overarching belief in a corruption of the human spirit resulting from the industrial revolution and mechanisation of the soul.
Dickens left school to work in a blacking factory that produced polish which would become the window into the grimy underbelly of working class England that so influenced his literature. His father and family had been incarcerated at a debtors prison, part of a cycle of debt that would ensnare many unfortunate people, one would have to pay the prison for being incarcerated and so the cycle would inevitably continue, usually ending in an unpleasant, impoverished death in one of England’s many dungeons.
Dickens was the only member of his family not incarcerated, meaning the fate of the entire family as well as his own lay on this child's shoulders. This was a world that swallowed children, literally, as many industrial positions required children to crawl into or under large machines that tore off limbs or killed them, with no compensation or investigation since they had no worker's rights.
Dickens received no formal education, yet he would go on to edit a weekly journal for 20 years, write 15 novels, five novellas, hundreds of short stories, including The Signalman, lecture and campaign vigorously for children’s rights, education and other social reform and be recognised for his literary prowess for centuries to come.
From ‘working’ class to working class hero
Although Dickens’ early years had been relatively comfortable, his fathers debt had seen his entire family fall from their well-kept lifestyle in the idyllic countryside of Chatham, Kent to the struggle of busy industrial London. This harsh contrast would serve him well in understanding and portraying the divide that was often invisible to those on both sides of it.
The countryside a distant memory, Dickens now worked a ten hour day at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, near Charing Cross Station, for six shillings a week. The experience of the harsh working conditions and physical labour shaped his view on socio-economic reform and would become the backbone of his personal and literary endeavours, he later lamented “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age,” indeed, his novels are scattered with lost children, scrabbling to survive in a ceaselessly cruel world. On his first day in the Blacking warehouse one of the boys, dressed in a ragged apron and paper cap came up to him to show him the trick of getting the labels pasted on the bottles, Dickens recalls “his name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.”
However, in a world of fierce change and revolutions, Dickens would leave the Blacking warehouse behind him, although it had already helped in forming the man he would become. His Grandmother died, leaving £450 to his Father which was enough to pay off his debtors and free the family from prison.
Dickens then attended the Wellington House Academy in Camden Town where “much of the haphazard, desultory teaching, poor discipline punctuated by the headmaster's sadistic brutality, the seedy ushers and general run-down atmosphere, are embodied in Mr. Creakle's Establishment in David Copperfield.”
He then worked at the Law Office of Ellis and Blackmore and enamoured his colleagues with his humour and mimicry, whilst spending most of his time in the theatre, even claiming to have gone to the theatre every day for a period of three years. In his free time, he taught himself shorthand writing and through this and a family connection was able to become a freelance reporter at Doctor's Commons for nearly four years. This experience would give him great insight into the legal system and inform later works such as Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son and Bleak House. There was especial importance in this act as it introduced the general public to the machinations of a system that previously dumbfounded them.
In 1830 Dickens fell in love. Maria Beadnell, who would later become Dora in David Copperfield was the object of his affections, however, her parents disapproved and in an intervention characteristic of the time, sent her to school in Paris, terminating any hope of romance.
Although six years later he would marry Catherine Thomson Hogarth with whom he had ten children.
Dickens put his energy into his new career as a journalist, getting a job at The Mirror of Parliament and becoming a political journalist, a job which would take across Britain. Dickens moved fast inside the literary world, impressing people with his short collections of sketches outside of his journalism and a number of friends in publishing. In 1836 he finished the Pickwick Papers and by 1838 Oliver Twist was published, becoming the first Victorian novel with a child protagonist.
His success as a novelist increased, the young Queen Victoria being a huge fan of his work and reportedly staying up through the night to read and discuss his writing.
What the Dickens? Dickens in the US
In 1842 Dickens and his wife arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. He spent a month in New York City where he lectured, also raising questions on international copyright laws and his work being pirated in America.
On his return, he began work on his first Christmas stories with A Christmas Carol published in 1843 followed by The Chimes. A Christmas Carol, in particular, tapped into a cultural tradition that saw much popularity and has even been cited as being responsible for the very nature of Christmas celebrations today. ..ways Dickens influenced Christmas with his writing:
Carols were not that popular in Victorian England, it was not only the title but the content of his novel A Christmas Carol that saw a surge in popularity that maintained itself into present day.
The husband of his fan Queen Victoria, Prince Albert had introduced the Christmas Tree to England in 1840 but it was short story 'Christmas Tree' that made it a nationally recognised festive icon
A Christmas Carol had a very clear subtext – holiday pay. An idea previously unthought of in the Industrial world, but one that was brought clearly to the fore through the characters Bob Cratchit and Scrooge. Scrooge even becoming synonymous with anyone mean, tight or unfestive.
The ghost of Christmas past was a possible progenitor for Santa Clause. The Ghost of Christmas past is a clear amalgamation of various European characters, it was this literary representation and later the adaptations that would give way to the face of Coca Cola.
Along with Angela Burdett Coutts Dickens set up a home of redemption for ´fallen women` of the working class, named Urania Cottage. As well as his tireless campaigning for children and workers' rights, he became something of a spokesperson for the underprivileged through his literature and political work. This only saw his literature, which represented these voiceless people, become ever more popular and the idea of a Christmas for everyone, regardless of social station.
Dickens most notable works include, but by are no means limited to:
The Pickwick Papers
A Christmas Carol
A Tale of Two Cities