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Charles Dickens

The life of Charles Dickens makes the characters and stories that sprang from his two hands look tame by comparison.  From poverty and disgrace, from imprisonment and servitude, from sickness to depravity--all the elements and drama of a Dickens novel were present in the author as a young man.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in a house in the Mile End Terrace, Commercial Road, Landport (Portsea)—a house that was opened as a Dickens Museum on July 22, 1904.  When Dickens turned five, the family moved to Chatham, and young Dickens considered his years there the happiest of his childhood.  He grew up in a series of picturesque fishing villages on the southern coast of England, where his father worked as a naval clerk. 

Not surprisingly, Dickens loved the sea.  He wrote, "The sun, away at sea, just breaking through the heavy mist, and showing us the ships, like their own shadows... I have never beheld such sky, such water, such glorified ships sailing away into golden air."

His mother, Elizabeth (Barrow) taught him to read from the books his father, John, kept stored in a small attic library.  He became a voracious devourer of books of all sorts.  "[Reading] was my constant comfort," he wrote.  "When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life."

The works that sustained him most were Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphry Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, and Robinson Crusoe.  Dickens would inject himself into the stories and often played the characters in the books for weeks at a time.  He told in his own master work, David Copperfield, how he sustained his concept of Roderick Random for a month.  

When Dickens turned, 10, his life also took a turn.  His father received a promotion to a job on the outskirts of London, one of the world's first sprawling cities and a capital of the industrial revolution, filled with poverty and pollution, crime and mystery.    Dickens didn't want to move, but he had no choice.  He remembered leaving the small coastal town where he'd grown up with apprehension and fear. 

To Dickens, London was "The great city... like a dark shadow on the ground, reddening the sluggish air with a deep dull light, that told of labyrinths of public ways and shops, and swarms of busy people... Sounds arose—the striking of church clocks, the distant bark of dogs, the hum of traffic in the streets... tall steeples looming in the air, and piles of unequal roofs oppressed by chimneys."

On the day he left for London, he was overwhelmed by sadness.  "I consumed my sandwiches in solitude and dreariness, and it rained hard all the way, and I thought life sloppier than I had expected to find it." 

The new house the family moved into was uncomfortably small.  He said of his new neighborhood, "It was as shabby, dingy, damp and mean a neighborhood as one would desire not to see."  Instead of standing on the shore of his old town and looking out to sea, he now found himself standing on the edge of his property and gazing out across the black clouds of soot and smoke rising from the chimneys of London's industrial center.

Although the family had been relatively well-to-do, Dickens' father--who enjoyed living beyond his meager means--had for years been slowly sinking into debt.  When Charles turned 12, his parents decided he was old enough to help the family financially by taking a job at Warren's Blacking Company, a manufacturer of boot blacking that was run by friend of his mother's family.

His parents saw it both as solid economic move and also as an opportunity for their son to work his way up in the business world.  Dickens, though, saw it as a prison sentence.  He described the building where he had to go to work as "A crazy, tumbledown old house... its wainscoted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs all the time."  Dickens worked 10 hours a day pasting labels on the jars of boot polish and doing other odd jobs.

A few days after he began work, John Dickens was arrested and thrown into debtor's prison.  Young Dickens was devastated.  He went to visit his father in prison, and it was there that his father told him to take this as a warning, that if a man had 20 pounds a year, and spent 19 pounds 19 shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched.

His mother sold off or pawned most of the family's possessions and moved into the debtor's prison with her husband and the younger Dickens children.  Dickens moved in with a friend of the family and survived mostly on a diet of black tea and pudding.  Each morning, he walked the crowded streets to the prison, where he had breakfast with his family before going to the blacking factory.  On his way home, he would stop at the prison to join in dinner before returning to the tiny house where he lived.

Feeling the iron fist of shame, Dickens vowed to do whatever necessary to make sure that he would never be poor again or wind up like his father in prison.

In 1824, Dickens received relief from his own personal hell when his parents inherited some money from his father's family.  Dickens quit his job at the factory and spent the next two years at Wellington House, an academy at the corner of Granby Street and the Hampstead Road, where he was remembered as a merry and rather mischievous boy.  His father had been released from prison and took a job as a parliamentary reporter. 

Meanwhile, Dickens accepted a position with a Gray’s Inn attorney who had been attracted to the bright, clever look of the boy and took him into his office at a salary of thirteen and sixpence (rising to fifteen shillings) a week.  He worked there from May 1827 to November 1828, but he had lost none of his eagerness to excel and spent most of his spare time mastering Gurney’s shorthand and reading before and after work at the British Museum.

His hard work paid off.  He had an opportunity to become a reporter for the True Sun, and he jumped at the opportunity.  He spent his days traveling around the country, covering parliamentary proceedings and election campaigns.  At night, he worked at writing his first novel, creating elaborate stories involving complex, full characters rich in attributes--both good and bad.

But Dickens couldn't afford to wait for payment until his book was finished, so he struck upon an ingenious plan for serializing the chapters of his book in local magazines.  The scheme proved remarkably successful, and his reading public waited anxiously for each new edition. 

Once, when he had run out of writing paper and gone down to the local stationary store to purchase more, he overheard a woman asking when the next Charles Dickens serial would be out--the very story that he had interrupted working on running out of paper!

Dickens' literary career was at its peak.  He serialized Oliver Twist in Bentley's Miscellany beginning in 1837.  The following year, with the book only half completed, he began publishing monthly installments of Nicholas Nickleby.  Because he had so many projects in the works, he was barely able to stay ahead of his monthly deadlines.  But he was driven toward success.  After the completion of Twist and Nickleby, he produced weekly installments of The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.

Following a short working vacation in the United States in 1841, Dickens continued his break-neck literary pace.  He began publishing annual Christmas stories, beginning with A Christmas Carol in 1843. 

In 1850, he established a weekly journal, Household Words, to which he contributed the serialized works of Child's History of England (1851-53), Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860-61).  At the same time, he continued work on his novels, including David Copperfield (1849-50), Bleak House (1852-53), Little Dorrit (1855-57), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). 

But, as his popularity grew, Dickens became more and more disenchanted with life.  His works had always reflected the pain suffered by the common man, but novels such as Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend portrayed his growing anger and disillusionment with society.

In 1858, Dickens began a series of paid readings, which became instantly popular. Through them, he was able to combine his love of the stage with an accurate rendition of his works.  In all, he performed more than 400 times.  The readings often left him exhausted and ill, but they allowed him to increase his income, receive creative satisfaction, and travel the world.

Then, on June 9, 1865, Dickens' life took another curious turn.  While returning from a trip to France, the train upon which he was traveling was involved in a horrific crash at Staplehurst.  The first six carriages plunged off of a bridge that was being repaired.  The only first-class carriage to remain on the tracks was the one in which the author rode.

The event left him shaken, and his writing suffered.  His health gradually deteriorated, and his literary output fell off. 

Exactly five years to the day after the Staplehurst crash, Charles John Huffam Dickens died.  He was buried 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' reputation among critics declined drastically following his death with the advent of literary realism.  His work was considered too melodramatic and moralistic, too full of cartoon-like characters, wicked villains, and innocent children to be considered little more than child's play. 

But, with the passing of time, critics such as G.K. Chesterton began to reassess his work in light of its universal value.  Since 1950, more has been written about Dickens each year than about any other author in the English language outside of Shakespeare.

Today, in that part of London where Dickens once walked between the prison and the factory, streets are named after his literary characters: Pickwick Street and Little Dorrit Court, and nearby there is a Charles Dickens Primary School for children.

Charles Dickens wrote, "Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

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