Charles Dickens is acclaimed as one of history's greatest novelists.
|Notable works||A Christmas Carol
A Tale of Two Cities
The Cricket on the Hearth
|Born||Charles John Huffam Dickens
February 7, 1812 (02-07-1812)
|Died||June 9, 1870 (aged 58)
Gad's Hill Place, Higham, Kent, England
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Charles John Huffam Dickens, FRSA (7 February 1812 - 9 June 1870), pen-name "Boz", was the foremost English novelist of the Victorian era, as well as a vigorous social campaigner. Considered one of the English language's greatest writers, he was acclaimed for his rich storytelling and memorable characters, and achieved massive worldwide popularity in his lifetime.
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously."
Dickens' novels and short stories have been so popular, that not one has ever gone out of print! Dickens wrote serialised novels, the usual format for fiction at the time, and each new part of his stories was eagerly anticipated by the reading public.
Charles Dickens was born in Landport, Portsmouth in Hampshire, the second of eight children to John Dickens (1786 - 1851), a clerk in the Navy Pay Office at Portsmouth, and his wife Elizabeth Dickens (née Barrow, 1789 - 1863) on February 7 1812. When he was five, the family moved to Chatham, Kent. In 1822, when he was ten, the family relocated to 16 Bayham Street, Camden Town in London.
Although his early years seem to have been an idyllic time, he thought himself then as a "very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy". He spent his time outdoors, but also read voraciously, with a particular fondness for the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. He talked later in life of his extremely poignant memories of childhood and his continuing photographic memory of the people and events that helped to bring his fiction to life. His family was moderately wealthy, and he received some education at the private William Giles' school in Chatham. This time of prosperity came to an abrupt end, however, when his father, after spending far too much money entertaining and retaining his social position, was imprisoned at Marshalsea debtors' prison.
The 12-year-old Dickens began working ten hour days in a Warren's boot-blacking factory, located near the present Charing Cross railway station. He earned six shillings a week pasting labels on the jars of thick polish. This money paid for his lodgings in Camden Town and helped him to support his family. The shocking conditions of the factory made an ingrained impression on Dickens.
After a few months, his family was able to leave Marshalsea, but their financial situation did not improve until later, partly due to money inherited from his father's family. Dickens's mother did not immediately remove him from the boot-blacking factory, owned by a relation of hers, and he never forgave her for this. Resentment of his situation and the conditions under which working-class people lived became major themes of his works, championing the causes of the poor and oppressed. As Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, his personal favorite as well as his most patently autobiographical novel, "I had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone, that I can call to mind, as I hope to go to heaven!" He eventually attended the Wellington House Academy in North London.
In May 1827, Dickens began work in the office of Ellis and Blackmore as a law clerk. This was a junior office position, but it came with the potential of helping him up to the Bar. It was here that he gained his detailed knowledge of the law and the poor's suffering at the hands of its many injustices, together with a loathing of inefficient bureaucracy which stayed with him for the rest his life. He showed his contempt for the lawyer's profession in his many literary works.
At the age of seventeen, he became a court stenographer and, in 1830, met his first love, Maria Beadnell. It is believed that she was the model for the character Dora in David Copperfield. Maria's parents disapproved of the courtship and effectively ended the relationship when they sent her to school in Paris.
In 1834, Dickens became a political journalist, reporting on parliamentary debate and traveling across Britain by stagecoach to cover election campaigns for the Morning Chronicle. His journalism, in the form of sketches which appeared in periodicals from 1833, formed his first collection of pieces Sketches by Boz which were published in 1836 and led to the serialization of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in March 1836. He continued to contribute to and edit journals throughout much of his subsequent literary career. Dickens's keen perceptiveness, intimate knowledge and understanding of the people and tale-spinning genius was quickly to gain him world renown and wealth.
On 2 April 1836, he married Catherine Thompson Hogarth (1816 - 1879), the daughter of George Hogarth, editor of the Evening Chronicle. After a brief honeymoon in Chalk, Kent, they set up home in Bloomsbury, where they had ten children:
Catherine's sister Mary entered Dickens's Doughty Street household to offer support to her newly married sister and brother-in-law. It was not unusual for the unwed sister of a new wife to live with and help a newly married couple. Dickens became very attached to Mary and she died after a brief illness in his arms in 1837. She became a character in many of his books, and her death is fictionalized as the death of Little Nell.
Also in 1836, Dickens accepted the job of editor of Bentley's Miscellany, a position that he would hold until 1839, when he fell out with the owner. His success as a novelist continued, however, producing Oliver Twist (1837-39), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), The Old Curiosity Shop and, finally, Barnaby Rudge as part of the Master Humphrey's Clock series (1840-41) -- all published in monthly instalments before being made into books. Dickens had a pet raven named Grip; it died in 1841 and Dickens had it stuffed (it is now at The Free Library of Philadelphia).
Dickens made two trips to North America.
In 1842, Dickens travelled with his wife to the United States and Canada, a journey which was successful in spite of his support for the abolition of slavery.
During this visit, Dickens spent time in New York City, where he gave lectures, raised support for copyright laws, and recorded many of his impressions of America. He toured the City for a month, and met such luminaries as Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant. On 1842-02-14, a Boz Ball (named after his pseudonym) was held in his honour at the Park Theater, with 3,000 of New York's elite present. Among the neighbourhoods he visited were Five Points, Wall Street, The Bowery, and the prison known as The Tombs.
The trip is described in the short travelogue American Notes for General Circulation and is also the basis of some of the episodes in Martin Chuzzlewit. Shortly thereafter, he began to show interest in Unitarian Christianity, although he remained an Anglican, at least nominally, for the rest of his life. Dickens's work continued to be popular, especially A Christmas Carol written in 1843, the first of his Christmas books, which was reputedly written in a matter of weeks.
After living briefly abroad in Italy (1844) and Switzerland (1846), Dickens continued his success with Dombey and Son (1848); David Copperfield (1849-50); Bleak House (1852-53); Hard Times (1854); Little Dorrit (1857); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); and Great Expectations (1861). Dickens was also the publisher and editor of, and a major contributor to, the journals Household Words (1850 - 1859) and All the Year Round (1858-1870).
In 1856, his popularity had allowed him to buy Gad's Hill Place. This large house in Higham, Kent, had a particular meaning to Dickens as he had walked past it as a child and had dreamed of living in it. The area was also the scene of some of the events of Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1 and this literary connection pleased him.
In 1857, in preparation for public performances of The Frozen Deep, a play on which he and his protégé Wilkie Collins had collaborated, Dickens hired professional actresses to play the female parts. With one of these, Ellen Ternan, Dickens formed a bond which was to last the rest of his life. The exact nature of their relationship is unclear, as both Dickens and Ternan burned each other's letters, but it was clearly central to Dickens's personal and professional life. On his death, he settled an annuity on her which made her a financially independent woman. Claire Tomalin's book, The Invisible Woman, set out to prove that Ellen Ternan lived with Dickens secretly for the last 13 years of his life, and has subsequently been turned into a play by Simon Gray called Little Nell.
When Dickens separated from his wife in 1858, divorce was almost unthinkable, particularly for someone as famous as he was, and so he continued to maintain her in a house for the next 20 years until she died. Although they appeared to be initially happy together, Catherine did not seem to share quite the same boundless energy for life which Dickens had. Nevertheless, her job of looking after their ten children, and the pressure of living with a world-famous novelist and keeping house for him, certainly did not help.
An indication of his marital dissatisfaction was when, in 1855, he went to meet his first love, Maria Beadnell. Maria was by this time married as well, but seemed to have fallen short of Dickens's romantic memory of her.
On 9 June 1865, while returning from France with Ternan, Dickens was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash in which the first seven carriages of the train plunged off a cast iron bridge that was being repaired. The only first-class carriage to remain on the track was the one in which Dickens was travelling. Dickens spent some time tending the wounded and the dying before rescuers arrived. Before leaving, he remembered the unfinished manuscript for Our Mutual Friend, and he returned to his carriage to retrieve it. Typically, Dickens later used this experience as material for his short ghost story The Signal-Man in which the central character has a premonition of his own death in a rail crash. He based the story around several previous rail accidents, such as the Clayton Tunnel rail crash of 1861.
Dickens managed to avoid an appearance at the inquest into the crash, as it would have become known that he was travelling that day with Ellen Ternan and her mother, which could have caused a scandal. Ellen had been Dickens's companion since the breakdown of his marriage, and, as he had met her in 1857, she was most likely the ultimate reason for that breakdown. She continued to be his companion, and likely mistress, until his death. The dimensions of the affair were unknown until the publication of Dickens and Daughter, a book about Dickens's relationship with his daughter Kate, in 1939. Kate Dickens worked with author Gladys Storey on the book prior to her death in 1929, and alleged that Dickens and Ternan had a son who died in infancy, though no contemporary evidence exists.
Dickens, though unharmed, never really recovered from the Staplehurst crash, and his normally prolific writing shrank to completing Our Mutual Friend and starting the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood after a long interval. Much of his time was taken up with public readings from his best-loved novels. Dickens was fascinated by the theatre as an escape from the world, and theatres and theatrical people appear in Nicholas Nickleby. The travelling shows were extremely popular and, after three tours of British Isles, Dickens made one more trip outside of Britain.
Dickens made his second trip to the United States in 1867. During this trip, most of which he spent in New York, he gave 22 readings at Steinway Hall between 1867-12-09 and 1868-04-20, and four at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims between 1868-01-16 and 1868-01-21. In his travels, he saw a significant change in the people and the circumstances of America. His final appearance was at a banquet at Delmonico's on 1868-04-18, when he promised to never denounce America again. Dickens boarded his ship to return to Britain on 1868-04-23, barely escaping a Federal Tax Lien against the proceeds of his lecture tour.
The effort and passion he put into these readings with individual character voices is also thought to have contributed to his death. When he undertook another English tour of readings (1869 - 1870), he became ill and five years to the day after the Staplehurst crash, on 9 June 1870, he died at home at Gad's Hill Place after suffering a stroke, after a full, interesting and varied life. He was mourned by all his readers.
Contrary to his wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, he was laid to rest in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads: "He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world." Dickens's will stipulated that no memorial be erected to honour him. The only life-size bronze statue of Dickens, cast in 1891 by Francis Edwin Elwell, is located in Clark Park in the Spruce Hill neighbourhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the United States.
Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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