Charles Dickens

Dickens was born on 7th February 1812 in Landport, near Portsmouth, the third son of Elizabeth Barrow and John Dickens, a naval book-keeper. In 1816 the family moved to London and in the following year to Chatham in Kent before finally settling in London in 1823. Habitual squandering led to the financial collapse of the family and resulted in Dickens’s father being imprisoned for debt. As a result his 12 year-old son had to abandon school and support himself in the vast unknown city, working for some months in a boot-blacking factory, an experience he found traumatic and bitterly resented – above all with regard to his mother who insisted he continue there even after there was an opportunity to leave.i This marked his entire life, and the episode appears again and again in his fiction, with the depiction of defenceless and abandoned children.

He returned to school at his father’s behest, and spent three years at Wellington House Academy, a commercial school, after which, aged fifteen, he started work as a clerk in a lawyer’s office whilst also studying stenography. At the end of the 1820s he was able to put this experience to good use working for a range of newspapers as a parliamentary reporter – for a short period he was judged to be the best in the country – and as a journalist ( for the Mirror for Parliament, True Sun, the Monthly Magazine, and the Morning Chronicle). Subsequently he became editor-in-chief of Bentley’s Miscellany.

From 1833 onwards he dedicated himself to fiction, publishing his first sketches of London life. Aged 18 he fell in love with Maria Beadnellii, daughter of a rich banker, who rejected him. This was the first of quite an extensive series of women to whom he was attracted more or less platonically. But the most important of these relationships was to be with Ellen Ternan, whom he met in 1857.

1836 was an important year for Dickens. He married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of the editor of the Evening Chronicle. He brought into his home her 16 year-old sister Mary, whose death a year later had a great impact on subsequent depictions of delicate adolescent characters in his fictioniii. Most importantly however was the publication in that year of his collection of Sketches by Boz, and the publication in April of the first instalment of Pickwick Papers. This signalled the start of a quite extraordinary narrative output, both in terms of quantity and quality, which within a short period of time brought him both fame and notable wealth: Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) and Barnaby Rudge (1841).

About this time he met John Forster, his future biographer, then theatre critic of The Examiner, and they remained friends for the rest of his life. At the end of the 1830s, after a failed attempt to become an actor, he attempted to write farces, and continued to write them sporadically. His interest in the theatre, directed towards low-brow productions that would make their appearance often in his future fiction, was demonstrated also in 1838, in his revision and publication of the autobiography of Grimaldi, progenitor of the circus clown and proponent of pantomime, the Memoirs of Grimaldi.

He went for the first time to the United States in 1842, where he spoke at a number of conferences. He had expected to find in America a model of democracy, but clashed on the slavery question as well as expressing his indignation at the pirated editions of his novels. In October he published American Notes and in the following year Martin Chuzzlewit, which notably did not sell well. Of greater significance is his other novel of 1843, A Christmas Carol.

At the beginning of the 1840s, after Mary Hogarth’s death, another important if enigmatic figure appears in Dickens’s life: his fifteen year-old sister-in-law Georgina, who was faithful to him until the end. She refused proposals of marriage, taking care of his home, bringing up his children and covering up his love affairs. She did this even after his separation from his wife, scandal notwithstandingiv.

These were the years in which Dickens, by now a famous and respected author, frequented the political and literary salons of London, and became a member of the Athenaeum. He made a number of journeys abroad, staying sometimes for longer periods of time, in France, Switzerland and Italy (where he lived for a year), recording his experiences on his return in Pictures from Italy (1846).

In the years preceding the Great Exhibition of 1851 in which Great Britain celebrated its triumphs and progress, Dickens looked towards the marginalised and degraded, and was active on the social level, supporting and proposing projects with his immensely rich but philanthropical friend Angela Burdett-Coutts. Their collaboration, a combination of tireless activity and organisational capability on one side and boundless riches on the other, brought tangible results, as in the foundation of Urania Cottage, a home for reclaimed prostitutes.

Dickens frequented the theatre regularly, with amateur recitals sometimes organised for charitable purposes. His work as a writer was consolidated by the four Christmas Books which followed A Christmas Carol, and surpassed in 1848 with the publication of Dombey and Son.

In 1849 Dickens returned to the salient experiences of his life, retelling them in that splendid work David Copperfield; whilst he was still busy writing instalments of the novel, he founded in 1850 the weekly journal, Household Words – replaced in 1859 by All the Year Round. Contributors included Elizabeth Gaskell, George Meredith, Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, to name only a few of the better-known writers he published. The 1850s were the time of his fullest artistic maturity. From this period date the great novels Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-57) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

In collaboration with Wilkie Collins he wrote The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices and more importantly, the drama The Frozen Deep; he met Ellen Ternan at its first performance in 1857. Given the two radical decisions he took the following year, it is impossible to see that meeting with the 18 year-old actress as anything but a crucial turning point: a few weeks later, in 1858, with total Victorian self-righteousness, Dickens separated from his wife, with whom he had had ten children, and for the first time appeared on the stage as a professional.

For its importance to Dickens one must also remember the purchase of Gad’s Hill, the house in Kent he had dreamed of since childhood; this was a significant expense which must have influenced his decision to take a theatrical direction as more likely to be profitable when compared with the sales of his novels. Once that decision was taken, his involvement in theatre took the lead, since Dickens had to build a repertoire, and thus needed to select his sources, adapt them, and transform them into scripts. This was a simpler task where he had to work with stand-alone texts such as the Christmas books: A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth and The Haunted Man, or those Christmas stories published in his magazines in the 1850s and 1860s: The Poor Traveller, Boots at The Holly-Tree Inn, Doctor Marigold. More or less autonomous single episodes or chapters from his novels were also adapted, such as Mrs. Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit; Bardell and Pickwick and Mr. Bob Sawyer’s Party from Pickwick, and Sikes and Nancy from Oliver Twist.

The adaptation of a novel for a Public Reading was a rather more complex process given that such a project involved the gathering together in one unified form of the diverse threads of a complex tapestry; the task was notably demanding in the case of the scripts made from Nicholas Nickleby and Dombey and Son, as they involved a significant number of chapters, a difficult task indeed to condense an entire novel: such is the case with Great Expectations, which was never performed, and with David Copperfield, performed to great acclaimv.

The preparation of scripts and speaking tours, which were hard work in terms of their frequency and location (not only across Great Britain but also America, in the period November 1868 to April 1869) had the effect of significantly reducing his activity as a writer of fiction, though not impacting on its quality. In the last ten years of his life he wrote only three great novels: Great Expectations (in 1861) which revisits, in more dramatic form, the experience of Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), an extraordinary evocation of London in all the complexity and contradiction of the city, and finally his exploration of the mysteries of the soul and all possible interpretations of art, in his last, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In the midst of all this formidable, tireless output, one must not forget the many short stories that Dickens wrote, some of which are of great beauty, such as The Signalman (1866) and George Silverman’s Explanation (1867), nor his significant activity as publicist and conference speaker, collectively published in Reprinted Pieces (1858) and The Uncommercial Traveller (1861).

Charles Dickens died at Gad’s Hill on 9th June1870.

(Taken from Marisa Sestito’s introduction to the Italian edition of C. Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Marsilio, Venice, 2001)

i This was due to a timely small inheritance. More than twenty years later, reflecting on his time in the factory, Dickens wrote: “I do not write resentfully or angrily, for I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am, but I shall never forget, I can never forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back”, F. Kaplan, Dickens. A Biography, London 1988, p. 44. The only member of the family whom Dickens loved was his sister Fanny. He did not respect the others, in particular his father, regarding them as ‘bloodsuckers’ who tried to profit from his success, continually bombarding him with demands for money. He did not derive much satisfaction from his own children. Indeed, on reading of decisions he made and behaviour he exhibited, recorded by biographers, one wonders how much of a loving or present father Dickens really was.

ii She is the source of the figure of Dora, the child wife of David Copperfield.

iii These are sometimes too idealised or angelic to be believable; this is most evident in the character who is closest chronologically to the death of Mary, Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist. Considering how much Dickens played on the letters of the alphabet and on proper names, allegorising them, forming of them more or less decipherable keys to reading, one cannot fail to see in Rose’s surname a homage to his 17 year-old sister-in-law, dead that May (‘may’…’lie’).

iv These rumours regarding a relationship with her brother-in-law were probably spread by her own mother.

v The comment made by an exceptional spectator, the famous actor William Macready, restorer of Shakespearian text, characters and stage directions, previously cut in 17th and 18th century adaptations. Macready, witnessing the interpretation of the aged Peggotty in her desperate search for her seduced niece (one of thirteen characters to whom Dickens gave voice), was that this Dickensian character evoked the power of old King Lear in the storm.

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