"Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real."

Cormac McCarthy

Last updated 4 October  2019  © Julia Edwards

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(1812-1870)

Charles Dickens was the author of fifteen novels, many of them still very famous today, including A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Most of his stories were serialised - published in monthly or weekly episodes - in newspapers and magazines, which meant that Dickens was very well known and also hugely successful during his own lifetime. When The Old Curiosity Shop was serialised in America, people were so keen to know what happened next that they waited on the quay for the ship to arrive with the next instalment. A bit like J.K. Rowling, really.

Dickens was born in Portsmouth, the second of eight children in a family that was far from wealthy. When Dickens was 12 years old, his father was so badly in debt, he was sent to debtors' prison at Marshalsea. Dickens stayed with an elderly lady in Camden Town for a few months so that he could finish his schooling, but his mother and younger brothers and sisters had to go to Marshalsea with his father. Dickens and his sister visited them on Sundays, and this experience must have made a strong impression on him as he later set one of his novels in Marshalsea prison.

Charles Dickens, photographed by George Herbert Watkins. He can't actually be writing because otherwise his quill would be blurred!

To pay for his own lodging and food, and to help his parents, Charles left school soon after and went to work in a factory that made boot-blacking (shoe polish). His job was to stick labels onto the jars of blacking for ten hours a day, six days a week. He earned just six shillings a week for it, which would be about £30 now, which comes out at only 50p an hour.

 

Dickens never forgot what it was like to have to work hard, for harsh employers who were immediately ready to punish a child for being too slow or making the slightest mistake. A lot of his writing draws attention to the horrible reality of child labour, which he campaigned against fiercely. At the beginning of Oliver Twist, the hero, Oliver, is in the workhouse, which was where many people ended up when they couldn't earn enough money to feed themselves and their families. Later, Oliver joins a gang of pickpockets, because children could make a much better living by stealing than by doing honest work.  Many of Dickens' other books also feature characters or families who are poor.

 

Dickens also never forgave his mother for wanting him to stay on at the factory when the family inherited enough money for Dickens' father to be released from prison. Perhaps this gave him a negative view of women all his life, because when he separated from his wife, Catherine, possibly due to an affair he'd had with another woman, he refused to allow eight of her nine surviving children to see her again. Only the eldest, Charles Jr., was allowed to move out with her, but since he was 21 by then and legally adult, he might have been better able to stand up to his father.

Dickens worked extremely hard all his life, and in later years travelled all over the country, as well as to America, to give readings of his work. He died of a stroke at the age of 58, and was buried in Westminster Abbey with much ceremony.