Charles Dickens exposed many of the accepted but inhumane practices of his day with books like Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, and Bleak House. Instead of focusing on the upper class and writing unnatural stories, he focused on the common people and the drama’s that unfolded in real life. He put it this way: “Be natural, my children, for the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.” (Agnew & Bidwell 223) Charles Dickens understood that people liked stories about realistic characters with problems like the ones they faced themselves. Such natural stories empowered and gave a sense of hope, of good triumphing over evil. Not only using his pen, he also used his words and influence to raise awareness for the poverty that surrounded him. Charles Dickens always striving to be “natural” and fulfill “all the rules of art” utilized the experiences and people in his life to write stirring books that changed literature and society for the better.
On February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens, who would become one of the greatest authors of all time, was born to John and Elizabeth Dickens. He was the second child out of eight. Although Charles Dickens was born in Landport, he did not grow up there. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Norfolk and then finally to Chatham, in which place Charles Dickens spent most of his childhood. (Chesterton 24)
Early on, John Dickens (Charles Dicken’s father) neglected his son’s education and mostly left the teaching to his wife. John Dickens was neglectful in most aspects of his life. When life was comfortable, he was comfortable, but there was always a marked laziness about him. He mostly expected young Charles to entertain him. At a very young age, almost from the time he could walk, Charles was called upon by his father to sing before his relatives. Perhaps this entertainment paved the way for young Dickens’s desire to achieve fame and his performing abilities. (Chesterton 26)
In Chatham, there was a very nice house on Gad’s Hill. When Charles was a boy, he used to look at the house with his father, who told him that if he worked hard, someday he could own it. Apparently Young Dickens fixed Gad’s Hill in his mind as his future home because thirty-five years later, he bought the house. This goes to show with what purpose he could pursue a goal. (Chesterton 33-34, Charles Dickens family and friends)
Charles Dickens’s mother, as previously mentioned, educated Charles and his sister Fanny in Latin. After they had learned the basics, she sent them to a school in town where they furthered their education. To all accounts Charles enjoyed going to school. He and the other boys were required to wear white beaver hats for the uniform. This article of clothing later showed up in his book David Copperfield. (Chesterton 26, Page)
In the Dickens home was an old garret. As a young boy Charles discovered that this garret was full of books. It is unclear where the books came from. He read the stories and they seem to have impacted him, for in his childhood writings traces of Arabian Nights (one of the books he read) are to be found. He spent many hours reading and acting the characters from stories. A few of the books that made a mark on his life were Arabian Nights, Roderick Random, Tom Jones, and Robinson Crusoe, although there were many more that he loved. (Page 32-33)
Charles Dickens said of those books: “‘They kept alive my fancy and my hope of something beyond that place and time-they and the Arabian Nights and The Tales of the Genii.’” He also said “I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch.’”-(Page 32)
Not only did Charles read books, but he also watched the convicts at a nearby prison work. Could this have impacted his book Great Expectations? In Great Expectations the main character Pip is frightened by an escaped criminal who in these words demands help:”‘You get me a file.’ He tilted me again. ‘And you get me wittles.’ He tilted me again. ‘You bring ’em both to me.’ He tilted me again. ‘Or I’ll have your heart and liver out.’ He tilted me again.” The scene in the book with the criminal was very vivid and ended up affecting the whole story. In Chatham many rough and tumble travelers passed through, which could have been another opportunity for the budding author to study people and become more natural. Charles Dickens is known among literary circles as a man who understood ordinary commonplace people. His books always show the noble and wicked sides of men. (Page 30, Chesterton 29, Great Expectations 5)
Charles Dickens had a cousin by the name of James Lamert, who may have contributed to Dickens’s love of the theater. James loved going to the theater and sometimes took Charles along. Not only did this cousin love the theater but he also contributed to multiple papers and wrote poetry. These two became inseparable friends and one might conjecture that James had a large impact on his young cousin. (Page 29)
Unfortunately for Charles, but fortunately for us, John Dickens amassed many debts and was thrown into debtor’s prison. Charles Dickens was carelessly sent to a blacking factory by James Lamert, who had relatives that ran the factory. It is not understandable why James Lamert was so careless as to the happiness of his little cousin, but the fact stands, that he sent him there. Charles had to paste labels onto shoe blacking pots. It was a lowly job and the people he worked with were course and vulgar. While these circumstances left an ugly black scar on Dickens’ life, his experience gave him material for his future book David Copperfield in which he would show the nature of debt and child labor in an unforgettable way. In fact, his character Wilkens Micawber, who is constantly in debt, but always keeps a smile is believed to have been based on John Dickens. Charles Dickens, usually prone to comical exaggeration, remained almost totally silent upon this dark time of his childhood. He only told the story of his childhood twice – once to a close friend, and once when he wrote his book David Copperfield. (Chesterton 31-33)
After his father came out of debtor’s prison Charles Dickens was sent to school, where he finished a very basic education. At the age of fifteen he got a job as a clerk in a lawyer’s office in Lincoln’s Inn. He also maintained another clerk position around that time in a firm of attorneys in Grey’s Inn. As usual he kept his eyes open watching the actions, personalities, and habits of those around him, and as usual filed them away to use them in one of his later books: The Pickwick Papers. Likely the reason that Dickens’ books were so accurate was the fact that he worked and lived in normal situations and kept his eyes open. (Kitton & Chesterton 26-27)
Early Adult life
John Dickens left his job in the military and became a journalist for the House of Commons. Charles was intrigued and decided to learn shorthand and attempt journalism. At the start he struggled with it, but continuing, he mastered it. At the age of nineteen he succeeded in becoming a journalist for the House of Commons with a paper called the Morning Chronicle, where he was acknowledged as the most adept shorthand writer in the house. (Kitton & Chesterton 26-27)
Charles Dickens finally began doing what he is now known for in his early twenties, when he sent an anonymous short story into the monthly magazine. He was so thrilled when it was published, that he took a thirty-minute walk because he said his eyes at that moment were not fit to be seen. He continued to work as a journalist while he wrote his first stories. His reporting caused him to travel a lot which brought him in contact with many people and gave him a lot of materials for his books and stories. He continued to write stories, and they continued to get published. He eventually took on an alias of “Boz” which had originally been the nickname of his younger brother Augustus. (Kitton & Chesterton 26-27)
He soon offered to write sketches for the Morning Chronical for a raise in his salary. They accepted. Meanwhile his sketches began appearing in another paper under the alias of Tibbs. In 1836 he gathered up his collection of stories and sold the copyright to Macrone for £100 and they published them in two volumes, named Sketches by Boz. This book did remarkably well, and the young author began his rise to fame. (Kitton & Chesterton 30)
Shortly after this success, a junior partner of the publishing house, Messrs. Chapman made a call upon Charles Dickens at his lodgings. He suggested to Dickens that he might write something every month and send it in. Dickens accepted, but only on the condition that he might come up with his own story and not just write what they wanted. Then he began sending in monthly issues to what would become one of his biggest hits, The Pickwick Papers. People of all sorts loved it! No one knew who this Boz could be until a short poem appeared in the paper Bentley’s Miscellany:
“’Who the dickens “Boz” could be
Puzzled Many a learned elf,
Till time revealed the mystery,
And “Boz” appeared as Dickens’ self. “ – (Dickens)
About this time, Catherine Hogarth (the daughter of the editor for the Morning Chronicle) came along and soon became Mrs. Dickens. The two were madly in love. His letters to her started with “My Dearest Kate” or “My Dearest Love” and ended with “Your faithful and most affectionate Husband.” Catherine had two sisters Mary and Georgina who were both close to Dickens. In fact, Mary moved in with them shortly after their marriage. Sadly, she died at only seventeen after taking ill at a theater. She died is Charles’ arms. He took a ring off her finger and wore it in her remembrance for the rest of his life. Later, Georgina moved in and began nannying the Dickens children. (The Letters of Charles Dickens, 7, 12, 14, Chesterton & Kitton)
From this point on, he wrote prolifically. As with Pickwick, all his books were published in monthly segments in a paper. His first novel was Oliver Twist, which he started as he was finishing The Pickwick Papers. Oliver Twist showed the public the truth about the disgusting and mismanaged poorhouses, a large problem at the time. Most of his books dwelt on the “natural” issues of his day. He was not so proud that he could not talk about lowly and even disgusting realties, for when one is “natural” and walks with the people he cannot avoid such issues. With his other books he went on to uncover many more dirty truths about England at the time. (Kitton & Chesterton 31-34)
Dickens stood up for the school children as well. He wrote in the preface of his book Nicholas Nickleby that he remembered seeing a boy from a boarding school, with a hand cut open by an “inky pen knife”. Before writing his book, Nicholas Nickleby which was about the cheap boarding schools, Dickens travelled around England visiting schools and interviewing locals. In one situation Dickens pretended to be looking for a school for his son and asked a man in town about the boarding school nearby. The man said it was a good school but acted awkward and tried to change the subject before he finally broke down and said not to send a child to that school, and that he wouldn’t send a dog there. Charles Dickens also interviewed the boarding school masters to get sketches for the evil Wackford Squeers who would run the boarding school in Nicholas Nickleby. Wackford Squeers beat and starved the boys while making them work and clean. On top of that the things he taught were incorrect. In one scene he told the pupils, that window was spelled “winder”. When his book came out, several school masters who read the story complained that Dickens had copied them, and one man even went so far as to say that he remembered two men interviewing him and one man sketching his picture although the character in the story only had one eye and the man in question had both. Charles Dickens wrote of Nicholas Nickleby saying, “This story was begun, within a few months after the publication of the completed “Pickwick Papers.” There were, then, a good many cheap Yorkshire schools in existence. There are very few now.” (Nickolas Nickleby Forward)
Some of his books showed the folly of law practiced for the sake of law. In Bleak House the Jarndyce family has been stuck in a lawsuit for seventy years, and although they wish to get out of it are subject to their parents’ and grandparents’ lawsuit. In Nicholas Nickleby the stockbrokers are shown working with the law makers to manipulate the stocks to their own advantage. (Bleak House) (Nickolas Nickleby chap 2)
Years passed and Dickens continued to grow famous. He wrote many great books, and with Catherine’s help fathered ten children. Unfortunately giving birth to so many children began to take a toll on Catherine’s health. She began to slow down and had lost her youthful beauty. Her housekeeping was not what it once had been. Mr. Dickens began to grow discontent with his wife. It is true she found faults with him as well, but the majority of the discontent was on his side. He felt that she did not do enough as a mother. This was in part because her sister Georgina Hogarth was nanny to the children and did most of the mothering. In his discontent he sought out a previous girlfriend and they sent letters back and forth. He arranged for them to meet up only to discover that she like his wife had lost her beauty. He quickly dropped the relationship. (Charles Dickens Family and Friends; The Mystery of Ellen Ternan)
While his home life was messy, his public life showed him as a kind man. In one night, he raised £3000 for a children’s hospital when he gave a compelling speech telling of all the poverty-stricken children. He could move an audience in speech and in his books. He must have deeply cared about the suffering of others. This charitable deed makes what happened next appear even more out of character. (Page 262)
The now 45-year-old Charles Dickens met a girl named Ellen Ternan when he was casting for a play he had written: The Frozen Deep. He hired Ellen, her mother, and her sister. He was bewitched by Ellen who was only 18. Shortly after their meeting it is believed that they began an affair. The evidence is only circumstantial, but most researchers believe that Charles and Ellen were a couple. A short time after this Charles and Catherine legally separated. Charles kept the children and Georgina stayed on as the nanny leading to rumors that she might be in an affair with him. At the same time rumors were spreading like wild fire about Dickens and Ternan. In 1858 Dickens posted an article in the paper saying that he was not in an affair. In 1865 he, Ternan, and her mother were on a train together. The train wrecked. Charles hustled Ternan and her mother away but stayed to help as many of the injured as he could. Later, he only mentioned that he was on a train with two ladies. Page 263, The Mystery of Ellen Ternan)
How could such a man be so cruel to his wife one might ask? Great men often fall and can deceive themselves. During this time, it is evident from Charles Dickens’ letters that he believed he was doing the only thing possible given the state of their marriage. He believed Being “natural” does not shield one from sin, on the contrary sin can appear defendable because one understands people and the complicated motives behind their actions. (Page 262, Charles Dickens and Wife Catherine Separation)
In 1870, Charles Dickens passed away. According to his obituary, with his last breath he said to his children: “Be natural, my children, for the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.” (Agnew & Bidwell 223) Charles Dickens certainly lived that principle out, as can be readily seen from any of his books.
To this day Charles Dickens stands out from the masses of famous people with his paradoxical beautiful messy reality, for he was “natural” and “fulfilled all the rules of art”. He wrote stories about life, which was, and still is not a clean subject. He boldly encountered the problems of his time. He had a less than perfect family life, from his father who lived in debt to his own problems with his wife. He was not a perfect man, but regardless of his mistakes he made a positive impact on society with his books about poorhouses, schools, criminals, and the law. From his time in a blacking factory to the people in his life, he noticed everything and turned it into a story. Charles Dickens appealed to everyone and changed society for the better, along with literature in a lasting way that is visible to this day.
Agnew, John. & Bidwell, Walter. Eclectic Magazine: Foreign Literature, Volume 12; Volume 75 pg 223. Leavitt, Throw and Company, 1870.
Chesterton, G.K. Charles Dickens. New York, Dodd Mead & Company, 1906.
Chesterton, G.K. & Kitton Frederick George. Charles Dickens. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1903.
Dickens, Charles. Edited by his sister-in-law and his eldest daughter. The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol 1. Piccadilly, Chapman and Hall,1880.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. City, Penguin Books, 2003.
Dickens, Charles. Nicholas Nickleby. London, Collins Clear-Type Press, London 1839.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London, Chapman & Hall 1853.
Page, Norman, Charles Dickens: Family History Vol 1., Psychology Press, 1999.
Perdue, David. “Dickens’ Family and Friends.”” Charles Dickens and Wife Catherine Separation.” “The Mystery of Ellen Ternan.” https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/charles-dickens-family-friends.html#wife Accessed March 11 2022 https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/dickens-catherine-separation.html Accessed March 11 2022 https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/ellen-ternan.html accessed April 4 2022