Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens in 1855
oil on canvas, by the
French artist Ary Scheffer.
Courtesy of the
National Portrait Gallery,
There are few writers whose name is so closely linked to Christmas as that of Charles Dickens. Who doesn’t know his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, the first and most famous of his Christmas books? One of these days many will have read the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts of past, present and future or they will have watched one of its countless screen adaptations. This has become quite a tradition, almost like reading the Christmas gospel. Charles Dickens’s four other Christmas books, however, are less known to readers worldwide although they are impressive stories as well. They are The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and the largely autobiographical novel The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848). 

Neatly wrapped Charles Dickens’s novels surely found their way under many a Christmas tree this year, too. Although they are nineteenth century works they keep being popular presents – classics in the best sense of the word. Dickens lovers, of course, welcome them with great joy, but children and teenagers often tend to look at them with some distaste because Victorian literature isn’t actually very much in fashion today. Moreover they are books that remind of school, that look lengthy and that are difficult to read because their English is antiquated. I must admit that I’ve read only few works of Dickens because I’m more interested in twentieth century and contemporary writers. Nonetheless I devoured the first three Christmas Books (1843-1845) and Hard Times (1854). They were wonderful and inspiring reads! Great Expectations (1860/61) is on my pile of books to read. 

Unarguably Charles Dickens is one of the greatest authors of the Victorian age and he was very prolific, too. However, I’m pretty sure that nobody would have expected such a career when he was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England/U.K., on 7 February 1812. He was the second child of a clerk in the Naval Pay Office who had another six children with this wife in subsequent years and a habit of living beyond his means. The family soon moved to Bloomsbury in London and later to Chatham in Kent where the father was transferred respectively. Until Charles Dickens was eleven, he enjoyed a happy childhood with much freedom roaming fields, reading popular novels and attending school for a while. Following financial difficulties the family moved to Camden Town in London in 1822. Two years later his father’s debts got completely out of control and made a traumatic end to Charles Dickens’s carefree existence. 

While the rest of the family was forced to move into the Marshalsea debtors' prison in Southwark, London, in 1824, twelve-year-old Charles Dickens was taken from school and sent to Warren's Blacking Warehouse to earn not just his own living, but also to help satisfy his father’s creditors. It must have been a dreadful experience for the boy to work ten-hour days all of a sudden and to have to endure the harsh working conditions common in factories at the time in addition to living separated from his family. After a couple of months the father could pay his debt thanks to a legacy from his late paternal grand-mother and the family was released from the debtors’ prison, but Charles Dickens’s mother insisted that he continued to work in the factory. In the end it was his father who removed the boy from the factory and sent him to school again for a while. Those few months, however, had a lasting impact on Charles Dickens’s soul and made him an ardent social critic as confirms his later fiction. 

In 1827 Charles Dickens left school and began working as a junior clerk at a law office at Gray's Inn. As soon as he had taught himself shorthand, he first entered upon a writing career. He became a freelance reporter covering legal proceedings for different journals, but he was also attracted to the stage. However, after having missed an acting audition at Covent Garden, he fully devoted himself to writing. As from 1833 he worked as a parliamentary journalist for The Morning Chronicle and his first short story A Dinner at Poplar Park appeared in the Londoner Monthly Magazine. Over the following three years Charles Dickens published several sketches under the pseudonym Boz. which were very popular and compiled to a collection titled Sketches by Boz. in 1836. The same year the writer married his editor’s daughter Catherine Hogarth. 

The commercial success of Sketches by Boz. prepared the grounds for an even bigger one: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, better known as The Pickwick Papers, which came out in monthly instalments in 1836/37. From then on the rise of Charles Dickens as a novelist was unstoppable. While he continued as a journalist and editor of weekly as well as monthly periodicals (some of which he founded) all his life, he produced one highly successful novel after the other and most of them are widely read up to this day: The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837-39), The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1838/39), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840/41), Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty' (1841), The Christmas Books (for titles and publishing years see above), The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849/50), Bleak House (1852/53), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-57), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860/61), Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and the unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). 

It’s obvious that much of Charles Dickens work was strongly influenced by the writer’s own childhood experiences in the factory. Especially David Copperfield, Bleak House and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain are generally regarded as largely autobiographical although the novelist always took great care not to reveal the sources of his vivid and often shockingly realistic descriptions. In his writings the author based many characters on real people like for instance the family friend Elizabeth Roylance making an appearance as Mrs. Pipchin in Dombey and Son or Archibald Russell and his wife who have been immortalized as the Garlands in The Old Curiosity Shop. He also took recourse to places he knew well. So the scene of all Dickens novels is London where he spent almost all his life with the exception of travels to the USA and Canada and a short period in Italy, Switzerland and France. 

The literary production of Charles Dickens remained prolific throughout his life. In addition he started giving public readings of his works in 1853 and in the late 1950s he founded a theatrical company to bring the play The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins on the stage. For ten years he managed the Urania Cottage, a new kind of home for “fallen” women providing education in domestic household chores instead of punishment. Also the writer’s private life was turbulent. In 1857 the 45-year-old Charles Dickens fell up to the ears in love with the eighteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. After the birth of his tenth child the following year he separated from his wife Catherine and humiliated her in public. It goes without saying that such industry asked its toll. In 1869 he suffered a first light stroke which was followed by a fatal one a couple of months later. Charles Dickens died at Gad's Hill Place in Higham, Kent, England/U.K., on 9 June 1870. 

For further reading I recommend the following (of countless) biographies:

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