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Charles Dickens

Young David with his mother, his stepfather Murdstone and Miss Jane Murdstone in a television adaptation of David Copperfield, Dickens's 'favourite child'.

A dreadful and inspiring education

Born on this day in 1812, Charles Dickens was a small, sickly boy who loved lantern shows, performing songs with his sister Fanny, reading and rereading books - Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, the Arabian Nights - and dreamily watching the River Medway with ‘the great ships standing out to sea or coming home richly laden’.

At the age of twelve his idyllic childhood was swept away and he was helplessly deposited in a rat-infested blacking factory to work ten hours a day pasting labels on bottles. Only the memories of the books he had read kept his spirit alive. In subsequent decades Britain would end child labour - the first country in the world to do so - but the experience was agonizing for Dickens, and would become a mainspring of his fiction.

His father escaped from debtors' prison with the help of an inheritance, and after another nine months Dickens escaped the factory. In the next ten years he endured one last year of education under a brutal master, was apprenticed as a solicitor's clerk, began diligently reading in the British Museum, taught himself shorthand and thoroughly explored London - he "knew it all from Bow to Brentford" like the back of his hand. He also became a superb political reporter and fell unhappily in love.

A sensational new creation

In 1834 he published his first street sketches, eventually collected as Sketches by Boz. In 1836, three days before he married, he released the first installment of a sensational new creation, Pickwick. A novelist had sprung full blown from the brow of the reporter -

The depiction of the benevolent old innocent Mr Pickwick and the streetwise but good-hearted Sam Weller as a sort of latter-day Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the rich evocation of that pre-railway, pre-Reform Bill England that was so rapidly disappearing, the idyll of Dingley Dell, the sparkling social comedy and hilarious legal satire, the comic and pathetic scenes in the Fleet prison, the astonishing variety of vividly evoked and utterly distinct characters, the bravura wit and, above all, that endless fertility in laughter-causing detail’ that Walter Bagehot later called 'Mr Dickens's most astonishing peculiarity' (Collins, Critical Heritage, 395)—all these things combined to give The Pickwick Papers a phenomenal popularity that transcended barriers of class, age, and education. Mary Russell Mitford wrote to an Irish friend, 'All the boys and girls talk [Dickens's] fun—the boys in the street; and yet those who are of the higher taste like it the most. . . .Lord Denman studies Pickwick on the bench while the jury are deliberating' (ibid., 36) (Oxford DNB).

In early 1837, Dickens wrote the first installment of Oliver Twist. Originally a satire on the new poor law, Oliver Twist became -

a unique and compelling blend of a 'realistic' tale about thieves and prostitutes and a melodrama with strong metaphysical overtones. The pathos of little Oliver (the first of many such child figures in Dickens), the farcical comedy of the Bumbles, the sinister fascination of Fagin, the horror of Nancy's murder, and the powerful evocation of London's dark and labyrinthine criminal underworld, all helped to drive Dickens's popularity to new heights. (Oxford DNB)

A publishing phenomenon

Dickens began Nicholas Nickleby, "a rambling, episodic, often wildly funny book" with another gallant young hero while he was still writing Oliver Twist. As usual this work was published in installments, a demanding way for an author to work since it requires complete control from beginning to end without the possibility of revisions once an installment has been released to the public. Working prodigiously he was also making close friends and holding convivial dinner parties, editing a weekly and supporting a growing family. Like his heroes, he was resourceful.

When the unconnected stories in Master Humphrey's Clock didn't sell, Dickens quickly switched gears and created The Old Curiosity Shop, which became another roaring success, this time with a heroine, Little Nell. Always curious, he made a tour of America that was both an investigation of the Republic and a triumph.

Dickens was acquainted with sorrow. His greatest friend (Mary, his wife's sister) and his beloved sister Fanny died young. He lost two of his ten children, and his marriage collapsed.

Call them sentimental, as some have, or call them among the most compelling books ever written. Dickens poured out his genius in A Christmas Carol, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. They are full of fantastic and grotesque, hopeful and heroic, innocent and comical characters whose types we recognize in all parts of the world today.



More than 180 films and TV adaptations, plays and musicals have been created based on Dickens's work. From February to May, Masterpiece Classic on PBS returns with new adaptations of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit and The Old Curiosity Shop. (Laura Linney hosts.)


Dickens's Dream
Watercolour by Robert William Buss, 1870
Image: Charles Dickens Museum. The Museum at 48 Doughty Street exhibits manuscripts, paintings and original furniture.

Dickens died at the age of 58. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. Hearts "still vibrate to his indignant anger, his love, his tears, his glorious laughter, and his triumphant faith in the dignity of man".

I like to imagine the stories that Dickens would write about elected officials somehow acquiring millions of pounds while working for the public and speculators recklessly gambling with and losing the pensions of hardworking older Brits. Or, on the other side of the Atlantic, what would Dickens make of a tax cheat becoming Treasury tax chief? What I cannot imagine is how he would eviscerate the depravity of those rich and politically connected who, we have learned, exploit young boys. But he would. Oh yes, he would.

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