Charles Dickens: The Life of the Author
The Young Dickens
portrait of Charles
Dickens, after the 1838 drawing in
chalk by Samuel Laurence.
NYPL, Berg Collection
When Charles Dickens was a small boy, perhaps eight or nine years old,
he got lost in the City, the teeming financial and commercial center
of the great metropolis of London. A friend of the family had taken him
to look at the outside of St. Giles's Church with the hope of quenching
a fantastical notion that had taken hold of him: young Dickens was convinced
that on Sundays, the beggars of London, having cast off their weekday
pretenses to blindness, lameness and other physical maladies, and freshly
attired in their holiday best, were to be seen marching into the temple
of their patron saint, where they would then partake of divine service.
St. Giles's was viewed "with sentiments of satisfaction" and, one
infers, edification all around, but shortly afterwards, on the Strand
(a well-known street in London), Dickens somehow became separated from
his companion. At first, he was horrified; but he soon rallied and
determined to set off to seek his fortune.
"Thus I wandered about the City, like a child in a dream," he reminisced
in "Gone Astray," an elegiac essay written more than thirty years later, "staring
at the British merchants, and inspired by a mighty faith in the marvellousness
Dickens's birthplace at No.1 Mile End
Terrace, Landport, a district on the
outskirts of Portsmouth.
NYPL, Berg Collection
Strange to think that a baron of finance, proceeding gravely through
the City "in a procession of one" (to borrow a Dickensian turn of phrase),
could inspire thoughts of "marvellousness" in a young boy. But then,
as Dickens wryly observes in "Gone Astray," he was considered an "odd
child"--and it was his eye, or rather his mind's eye, that set him apart.
Looking back on his own childhood, Dickens saw "a very small and not
over-particularly-taken-care-of boy." That very boy grew into a young
man who, through the sheer fertility of his creative genius and an
astonishing amount of hard work, transformed himself into the most
famous writer of his age. In April 1856, Dickens wrote to his friend
and future biographer John Forster of how clear it was to him that "one
is driven by irresistible might until the journey is worked out!"
His own mighty journey began in the English seaport of Portsmouth.
On Friday, February 7, 1812, the second child and eldest son of Elizabeth
and John Dickens was born, and was christened Charles John Huffam Dickens.
The Dickens family
A clerk in the Naval Pay Office, John Dickens was loquacious, feckless, grandly
theatrical, and highly skilled at amassing debts. That six more children
followed Charles did not help matters. In the words of his son, John Dickens
was "an optimist--he was like a cork--if he was pushed under water in one
place, he always 'bobbed up to time' cheerfully in another, and felt none
the worse for the dip."
Much given to both the grand gesture and grandiloquent locutions, John
Dickens would be immortalized by his son as the ridiculous and yet endearing
Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield
(1849-50; 1850), a character
who, in the midst of a crisis, likens himself to "a shattered fragment
of the Temple once called Man." Like the genial Mr. Micawber, he was
able to forge his affection for the rhetorical flourish and his improvidence
into a kind of art. Contemplating a long-lived relative, and presumably
a little short in the pocket, he once said this: "And I must express
my tendency to believe that his longevity is (to say the least of it)
extremely problematical." Forster records Dickens's delight in this "celebrated
sentence" of the well-intentioned but often exasperating father, whose
industry, the son maintained with affectionate loyalty, was always "untiring." Dickens's
feelings about his mother were much more ambivalent.
Dickens (1785/6-1851) and
Elizabeth Dickens (1789-1863),
Charles Dickens's parents.
NYPL, Berg Collection
A woman gifted with "an extraordinary sense of the ludicrous," Elizabeth
Dickens is said to have gone to a ball on the evening before she brought
the future novelist into the world. She was admired as a cheerful soul,
and it seems she was somewhat more practical than her husband. Like the
hapless Mrs. Micawber, she would try to shore up the family's finances
with a scheme to open a school, which of course failed. Elizabeth Dickens
inspired her son to draw one of his most amusing portraits, the absurd
Mrs. Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby
(1838-39; 1839), who prattles
on with sublime inconsequentiality and to great comic effect. Dickens
found it very droll that his mother asked him whether he "really believed
there ever was such a woman!"
Dickens's childhood was a sorry mixture of the fondly remembered and
the wholly detested. The Dickens family was both large and almost always
hard-pressed. In the profoundly autobiographical David Copperfield,
the ever-pinched Mr. Micawber gives David some shrewd advice: "Annual
income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result
happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds
ought and six, result misery." And yet, like Dickens's father, Mr.
Micawber remains ever hopeful--"In case anything turned up" is indeed
his favorite expression.
A troubled youth
For Dickens, the happiest years of his childhood (1817-22) were spent in Chatham,
a bustling port on England's southeast coast. He was sent to school, and
began to read voraciously--"as if for life." In Dickens's "own favourite
child" of his novels, David Copperfield writes with wonder of his late father's
||Mere natural genius
||[T]here can be no question of the importance
of Dickens as a human event in history; a sort of conflagration
and transfiguration in the very heart of what is called the conventional
Victorian era; a naked flame of mere natural genius, breaking out
in a man without culture, without tradition, without help from
historic religions or philosophies or from the great foreign schools;
and revealing a light that never was on sea or land, if only in
the long fantastic shadows that it threw from common things.
--G.K. Chesterton, "Charles Dickens: His Life" (from the
14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1929)
out of which paraded a "glorious host" of imaginary creatures to keep
him company as a child--Humphry Clinker, Tom Jones, Don Quixote, the
Vicar of Wakefield, Gil Blas, Robinson Crusoe, and many more. "They kept
alive my fancy," David recalls, "and my hope of something beyond that
place and time." Indeed, the novels of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett,
Daniel Defoe, Cervantes, and Oliver Goldsmith were to become lifelong
passions for Dickens; and, in many ways, they would serve as the models
for his own art. In fact, he has been called the last of the great 18th-century
novelists, as exemplified by the picturesque (and picaresque) Pickwick
as well as one of the first of the novel's "modern" practitioners, as
witness such densely textured and heavily symbolic later works as Bleak
(1852-53; 1853) and Our Mutual Friend
Rambling about the beautiful countryside one day, young Dickens and
his father came upon a handsome country house, Gad's Hill Place, which
stood on a high spot of ground on the main road between Rochester and
Gravesend. This "wonderful mansion," which basked in a glorious Shakespearean
glow (it is the very spot where Falstaff, in Henry IV, Part I,
relieves the travelers of their treasure), became a sort of childhood
dream for Dickens. His father told him: "If you were to be very persevering,
and were to work hard, you might some day come to live in it." (For
once, John Dickens proved prescient. In 1856, Charles Dickens would
purchase the "stupendous property" that had so enchanted him as a child,
and take possession of it early the next year; and in 1860, the wandering
novelist, whom one observer described as the "veriest vagabond," would
settle there permanently.)
A view of Dickens's beloved home in Kent, Gad's
Hill Place, which
he had dreamed of owning as a child. This engraving was published
in the American magazine Every Saturday: An Illustrated Journal
of Choice Reading, April 9, 1870. An accompanying article describes
Gad's Hill as "one of those comfortable old-fashioned mansions which seem
to have taken root nowhere but in the most picturesque parts of rural
England, and are the brick-and-mortar embodiment of the idea of home."
This issue of Every Saturday also featured the first installment of
Dickens's final work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
NYPL, Print Collection
The Chatham idyll ended abruptly when John Dickens was transferred
to London in 1822, a move that in no way inspired him to remedy the
ill management of his affairs, which continued to bring terrible strains
upon the household and creditors to the door. By early 1824, the house
of cards was about to collapse. In early February, only a few days
after his twelfth birthday, young Charles was sent to work pasting
labels on bottles at a tumbledown, rat-overrun shoe polish factory
on the Thames. Pay was six shillings a week, hours 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. "It
is wonderful to me," he would later write of this catastrophe, "how
I could have been so easily cast away at such an age."
a series of artifacts relating to
the young Dickens, including this photograph
of the house in Lant Street, London, where
he lived while his father was in debtor's prison.
NYPL, Berg Collection
But worse was to come when, on February 20, John Dickens was arrested
for debt, and soon after the entire family (except for Charles and
his older sister Fanny, who was studying at the Royal Academy of Music)
joined him in the Marshalsea debtor's prison. Each evening, young Charles
returned alone to his lodgings in Camden Town, a three-mile walk from
Warren's Blacking factory. These cruel turns of fate--his humiliating
enslavement to menial labor and his father's imprisonment and disgrace--would
haunt Dickens for the remainder of his life. Abandoned children and
orphans like Pip--the hero of Great Expectations (1860-61; 1861)--are
everywhere in his work, and abandonment of course need not be literal
to wound deeply and permanently.
Declared insolvent in late May, John Dickens was released from prison;
and eventually he removed his son from the blacking factory and placed
him again in school.
But Elizabeth Dickens could not comprehend why he should be removed
from a situation of gainful employment--and for her son, this was a
bitter betrayal. "I never afterwards forgot," Dickens would write years
later, in an autobiographical fragment that was not published until
after his death, "I never can forget, that my mother was warm for sending
selection of Dickensiana in
The New York Public Library's
Berg Collection, including a mahogany
writing table and brass lamp from Gad's
Hill Place. The card calendar,
in the tin box, is stopped on June 9, the
day of the great man's death in 1870.
NYPL, Berg Collection
By all accounts, Dickens was a remarkably sensitive child, and this
awful period of "humiliation and neglect" marked him indelibly. Even
at the height of his fame, he would forget himself in his dreams, and,
as he said, "wander desolately back to that time of my life."
The Bostonian Annie Fields, the wife of Dickens's American publisher
and one of the most perceptive admirers of both the public and the
private man, frequently enjoyed the novelist's companionship during
his second triumphant tour of North America (November 1867-April 1868).
After one such evening she wrote in her diary, "Such charity! Poor
man! He must have learned great need for that ... He is a man who has
suffered, evidently ..."