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  • 2/14/2007

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens (1812-1870), English Victorian era author wrote numerous highly acclaimed novels including his most autobiographical David Copperfield (1848-1850).

“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.”

As a prolific 19th Century author of short stories, plays, novellas, novels, fiction, during his lifetime Dickens became known the world over for his remarkable characters, his mastery of prose in the telling of their lives, and his depictions of the social classes, mores and values of his times. Some considered him the spokesman for the poor, for he definitely brought much awareness to their plight, the downtrodden and the have-nots. He had his share of critics like Virginia Wolf and Henry James, but also many admirers, even into the 21st Century.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote numerous introductions to his works, collected in his Appreciations and Criticisms of the works of Charles Dickens (1911) and in his highly acclaimed biography Charles Dickens (1906) he writes: He was the voice in England of this humane intoxication and expansion, this encouraging of anybody to be anything. Critic John Forster (1812-1876) became his best friend, editor of many of his serialisations, and official biographer after his death, publishing The Life of Charles Dickens in 1874. Scottish poet and author Andrew Lang (1844-1912) included a letter to Dickens in his Letters to Dead Authors (1886). Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) in his Little Journeys (1916) series follows in the footsteps of Dickens through his old haunts in London. George Gissing (1857-1903) also respected his works and wrote several introductions for them, as well as his Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1898) in which he writes: Humor is the soul of his work. Like the soul of man, it permeates a living fabric which, but for its creative breath, could never have existed. While George Orwell (1903-1950) was at times a critic of Dickens, in his 1939 essay Charles Dickens he, like many others before, again brought to light the author still relevant today and worthy of continued study: Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.

Charles John Huffman Dickens was born on 7 February, 1812 in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England (now the Dickens Birthplace Museum) the son of Elizabeth née Barrow (1789-1863) and John Dickens (c.1785-1851) a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. John was a congenial man, hospitable and generous to a fault which caused him financial difficulties throughout his life. He inspired the character Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield (1849-1850). Charles had an older brother Frances, known as Fanny, and younger siblings Alfred Allen, Letitia Mary, Harriet, Frederick William known as Fred, Alfred Lamert, and Augustus Newnham.

When Dickens’ father was transferred to Chatham in Kent County, the family settled into the genteel surroundings of a larger home with two live-in servants—one being Mary Weller who was young Charles’ nursemaid. Dickens was a voracious reader of such authors as Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, and Oliver Goldsmith. When he was not attending the school of William Giles where he was an apt pupil, he and his siblings played games of make-believe, gave recitations of poetry, sang songs, and created theatrical productions that would spark a lifelong love of the theatre in Dickens. But household expenses were rising and in 1824, John Dickens was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea Prison. All of the family went with him except for Charles who, at the age of twelve, was sent off to work at Warren’s Shoe Blacking Factory to help support the family, pasting labels on boxes. He lived in a boarding house in Camden Town and walked to work everyday and visited his father on Sundays.

It was one of the pivotal points in Dickens’ education from the University of Hard Knocks and would stay with him forever. The idyllic days of his childhood were over and he was rudely introduced to the world of the working poor, where child labor was rampant and few if any adults spared a kind word for many abandoned or orphaned children. Many of his future characters like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Philip Pirrip would be based on his own experiences. The appalling working conditions, long hours and poor pay typical of the time were harsh, but the worst part of the experience was that when his father was released his mother insisted he continue to work there. While he felt betrayed by and resented her for many years to come, his father arranged for him to attend the Wellington House Academy in London as a day pupil from 1824-1827, perhaps saving him from a life of factory work and setting him on the road to becoming a writer.

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