Undoubtedly, Charles Dickens is one of the best writers in the world. He is even considered a marvellous novelist of the Victorian era. Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol are some examples of Dickens's work. People started loving his work so much that they coined the term 'Dickensian' to describe his work style.
Now the question arises why Charles Dickens is still praised and how his work became so good that it still inspires us and will keep inspiring future generations? Let's get into the story of Charles Dickens to find the answer.
Charles Dickens Early Life
Charles Dickens was born on 7th February 1812 in Portsmouth. His father's name was John Dickens and his mother's Elizabeth Dickens. The family was from England. Charles's parents had 8 children in total, two of whom died at a very young age. Charles Dickens's wife was Catherine Dickens, and they had ten children. Charles Dickens was very fond of playing and reading books.
Charles's father was a clerk at Navy Pay Office. His work was safeguarding the money and handing the paychecks to respective sailors. Because of his father's profession, Charles lived in many different places in England. In his childhood, he loved playing outside and reading as many books as possible.
John Dickens was a very hardworking and ambitious man, i.e. he always wanted to get a higher rank at his job. Finally, they moved to London, and Charles's father was able to pay for his private education.
Charles Dickens Education
When Charles was in London, he learned about the performances held at local theatres. The actor inspired him in theatres, and sometimes, in excitement, he used to jump on the table of a local pub to sing and dance. He dreamt of becoming an actor, so he performed plays with his siblings.
Charles's father was an optimistic man. He was against the thought that people should live in places where they are born throughout their life. He believed that with hard work and right dedication, and efforts towards a goal, one could easily achieve success and wealth. He gave this lesson to all of his children.
One day Charles was out with his father. While walking, his father pointed toward a mansion named Gads Hill Place. He told Charles that if he worked very hard, one day, even he could own a mansion like that.
There is no doubt that John Dickens was a hardworking and excellent father, yet he made a mistake like a middle-class family. He spent money before he could make it. Even this wasn't wrong because he had so many children and a wife to be taken care of.
Charles Dickens's father had to struggle a lot financially. Even they faced such a situation where Charles had to leave the private school and work in a blacking polish factory at the age of 12. He worked 11 hours a day, earning him only 6 shillings (3.98 INR at Present). Though this was an act of child labour, it was legal at that time.
Charles's job was tedious, but he was lucky to have found it. Getting the job was lucky because his father was behind bars for unsuccessful loan repayment. Charles's father borrowed 40 pounds and 3 shillings, and the only way to get him out was by repayment of the loan.
Charles's father wasn't allowed to work or earn. Therefore, he couldn't be released because the entire Dickens family had to move to prison because they had no place to live.
At this point, Charles Dickens was only twelve, and he was the one who had a job. He rented a room which was big enough for him. Charles used to meet his family every Sunday and tried to help them in every possible way, but the poor boy couldn't do much. The responsibility of freeing up his family fell on Charles's small shoulder.
There was a time when John Dickens faced the same problem. He lived like Charles for only a year, and finally, John Dickens was able to go back to school. However, John Dickens inherited some wealth from his mother, which helped him clear their debt. This scenario greatly affected Charles Dickens for the rest of his life.
Charles Dickens realized that some families are very fortunate because they had a way to inherit wealth or anything else to save their family on time, but what about the people who weren't lucky? He also realized that even good families with good people could fall on hard times.
When Charles was 18, he became a junior clerk for an attorney, and it was in the year 1827. He started learning to write shorthand. While working, Charles paid attention to the clients who came there to take legal advice. He wrote stories about those people and their physical appearance.
Charles was a funny boy and had a habit of finding humour in every awful situation. Sometimes he used to laugh at issues of people who were complaining. He was unaware that this was the beginning of his writing career, and he could write about difficult topics by mixing them up with humour.
As Charles grew up and gained more experience, he tried to run after he dreamed of becoming an actor. At age 20, Charles Dickens was selected for an audition for a play at Covent Garden. Unfortunately, he couldn't attend the audition because of a terrible cold. He was never given a second chance.
Charles left the clerk's job and became a journalist at Morning Chronicle. Though he worked in media, he was still interested in law. Charles sat through court cases to collect all the House of Commons information and reported it to the media head. It was the place where he met the daughter of his editor Catherine Hogarth. Eventually, Charles proposed to her within three months, and both were married in 1836.
Charles Dickens Writing Career
Charles Dickens wrote realistic things which he saw around him. He portrayed how time was during the Victorian Era and how the lower class survived this dirty, dark and crude period. Some of his thoughts on social topics are way very critical, but there was no point that Charles Dickens hated England. He truly loved the place. All he wanted was for this place to become better for lower-class people.
Charles Dickens realized that writing a story is the best way to address political issues. Of course, it wasn't all dark. He even wrote about touching scenes like enjoying a simple life, spending time with family, and good stories. Even one of his best stories, A Christmas Carol, is praised for capturing England's all holiday tradition. This story warms people's hearts even today. Every story of Charles Dickens contained an underlying lesson where the major focus was improving the lives of the lower class.
Industrial Revolution was at its peak during the beginning of the Victorian Era. Every country that wanted to progress in economic progress had to get cheap labourers into factories. In 1834 England established a rule for the lower class. It stated that anyone who lived on the street would be taken to a workhouse where they had to work forcefully. Charles was 22 at this point.
Children got an education while their parents worked in factories for food and shelter. However, the factories weren't good for workers. It was not less than prison for the lower class. Once they entered, there was no place to escape. Everyone knew this scenario; however, people in the upper class were taught that being poor was someone's fault. Any kind of harsh treatment was suitable for them because they deserved it.
Charles Dickens knew that even the hardworking or the rich could sometimes fall on hard times, but it doesn't mean they should be taken to the workhouse, which was like hell for them. He was clear that upper-class people who made laws were unaware of the reality and had no sympathy for the working class. He took this matter seriously, and it became his mission of life to change the mind of the people of England.
Before writing anything, Charles mainly focused on two things which set him apart from other writers. First, no one likes to listen to lectures. Secondly, people won't care about anything unless and until they can relate themselves to the story. So firstly, Dickens thought of making the story engaging, something entertaining so that people would always circulate in their mind "what happened next" and hid his moral lessons in the story's context.
Charles even wrote about the middle and upper class, where he mentions that being born in the upper class doesn't mean they are immune to hardship. Even they can go through tough times like the lower class. Charles Dickens began to publish his stories at the age of 24 in a serialized manner. Initially, his stories weren't that successful, earning only 14 pounds in a month. However, when the fourth issue was published, the sales just skyrocketed. It went from 400 to 40000 copies per month.
It was a hit because he published only two to three chapters at once and not the full novel, making people curious about what would happen next. It was just like watching TV serials in modern times. His fans even discussed what was going to happen in the next chapter. People were very excited to talk about his stories to their friends. Soon the name Charles Dickens became very famous in London, and he was now a celebrity writer.
When Charles Dickens was 25, he started to publish his serialized Oliver Twist, which addressed how life was at the workhouse for a child. Oliver was the main character of this story. Oliver was born into a good family, but a hard time fell due to this misfortune. He had to work at the workhouse. Readers were able to relate this scenario with them. They thought about what would happen if they also went through the same circumstances. Charles wrote the story in a humorous way which was easy for anyone to read. As his story spread out, more and more people began to sympathize with the lower class and understood that things needed to be changed.
These were not only the issues going on, and they were many. Charles wanted to research the biggest social issues throughout England, but that was a time without the internet, so the only possible way through which he could do it was by acting like a reporter and travelling himself.
When he heard about the ill-treatment of the young boys at the orphanage, he went to that place to get a clear idea of what was happening. He often visited asylums and found that they weren't given proper treatment and even visited some worst parts of London. This incident inspired him to write Nicholas Nickleby.
Now everyone might wonder why Charles Dickens visited those places only to get content ideas for his book and why he didn't do anything to help them. Well, Charles never claimed that he got solutions for such problems. Also, he used to sit outside court as a reporter, and he knew how complicated a task it was to change a law.
Charles Dickens was helpless, and the only thing he could do was to observe the truth and publish a book. Publishing a book was enough to make people aware of the issue and sympathize with the lower class. Everyone wants their country to be a better place, and Charles Dickens was the only person who did so many social reforms in the United Kingdom.
Charles was never able to fulfil his childhood dream of becoming an actor. He decided to become a showman. In 1842 Charles and his wife Catherine went to the United States so that he could do a public reading of his work. Well, this may sound normal, but a book was one form of entertainment during that time, and when a writer offered his works publically, it was like some celebrity hosting a show.
Dickens cared about the lower class so much that he kept his show ticket price lower for the working class and even sold them outside theatres every time. People who saw him live were just crazy. Charles's performance was so compelling that people said there could be no rival of his performance with his work. He beautifully read in the voice of each of his characters.
During 1844 and 1845, Charles lived in Italy and Switzerland. By 1847 he had earned a lot of money and started taking action by helping people. He organized many shows and wrote a few more books.
There was almost no job for women at that time. They had only one option, i.e. to get married and take care of her family. And if they fell on hard times, the women had no choice apart from being fallen women. If they were arrested, many of them were taken to Magdalen Hospitals, where they were told that they were awful and harshly punished for their sins. The only other option for an uneducated woman was to live in the workspace, which was no less than a prison.
Charles Dickens knew that women don't deserve to be in these situations, and they are capable of changing their life if only they were given a chance. He founded a home for homeless women at Urania Cottage. Women who lived there were taught skills which would help them get a proper job. Charles would also interview them to listen to their life stories, from which he would draw inspiration for his future works.
A New Chapter in Charles Dickens's Life
When Dickens was 44 years old, he came to know that the mansion he dreamt of buying as a child was for sale. He purchased it for £1,790. After buying it, he thought that it would be a good idea to rent it out. But when he saw the house, he loved it and realized why he had been working so hard till then. His house was like an escape from the city. It was the time when Charles started to have a bit of crisis.
Charles Dickens was at the peak of his career, but he wasn't happy with his wife Catherine and spent time at his mansion, Gad's Hill Place, throwing parties. At that time, divorce was prohibited. Not like banned, but it was a practice that people should not talk about divorce or implement especially any public figure. He knew he was at his career's peak, and a single wrong decision would turn all his reputation down, so he just pretended that everything was working out fine.
Dickens was organizing parties, and at one such party, he invited the cast of local theatre and his celebrity friend like author Hans Christian Anderson. He met a young actress named Ellen Ternan, who was just 18 years old. Charles was then 45. They secretly started having an affair and kept everything private, so their reputation didn't go down.
In 1858 Charles and Catherine separated and started to live alone. Though they no longer lived together, they had to stay legally married. Charles tried to divorce his wife by proving she was mentally ill. He almost wrote 98 letters to his wife describing his issues. These letters were discovered in the year 2014 and were sold in an auction, creating a debate among scholars.
Some say that Dickens lied about his wife's mental health. He only wanted a divorce so he could easily be with Ellen Ternan. Others say that Catherine was sick and Charles wanted to take her to an asylum because he cared about her.
Charles Dickens continued his secret relationship with Ellen. He bought her a house outside London so that he could make regular visits. They were secretly in the relationship for about thirteen years and even had a child, but unfortunately, he died. After that, they would never go on to have a second one.
On 9th June 1865, a tragic incident took place. Charles and Ellen were travelling together by train. The train was approaching Staplehurst, but the tracks were being repaired, and the conductor had no idea about it. The conductor hit the brakes, but it was too late. All first-class compartments fell into the river below, and only one of them remained on track in which Charles Dickens was sitting, and even that compartment was dangling over the edge. The second-class compartments had enough hold to keep themselves on track.
Charles jumped into the water and tried to help the people. If he found someone clinging somewhere, then he would hold them. Some people even died in his arms while Charles tried to help them. A total of ten people were killed in that accident, and many were seriously injured. Charles was helping bodies get out of the water then suddenly remembered that he had a manuscript of his latest book named Our Mutual Friend, which was still inside the train car. He risked his life and went in to get his manuscript before the compartment went over the edges. Charles Dickens avoided travelling by train for the rest of his life because it gave him anxiety.
No one knew about their secret relationship for years because Ellen burnt almost all of their letters. Historians started collecting evidence and piecing them together so that they could conclude something. Even a movie on Ellen Ternan's life named The Invisible Woman in 2012 portrayed her relationship with Charles Dickens.
Death and Legacy
Charles Dickens suffered from serious health issues after the train incident. In 1876, he got an opportunity for a speaking tour in America for which he would get 20000 pounds after expenses, and this sum is almost a million-dollar today. He was still suffering from the anxiety to travel but couldn't say "no" to such a huge sum.
However, after his return from America, everyone understood that Charles's health was declining. In 1870 he had a stroke which led him to death at Gads Hill Place. By that time, he was 58 years old and believed that he would live a longer life.
Charles Dickens never compromised with his work. Even he was working on the day which he died. He was working on one of his novels called Edwin Drood, which was about a murder mystery. Unfortunately, the novel wasn't completed, and as a result of which, it remained a topic of debate among fans for years, predicting what could be the possible ending. When Charles Dickens died, his net worth was 93,000 pounds, which is close to 4 million today.
Before his death, he made a will to want a very quiet private funeral at Rochester. However, even this became a topic of debate as fans wanted him to pay tribute to his work. Charles's family finally allowed him to be buried in Westminster Abbey. After this announcement, crowds of people came to pay respect.
Today he is not between us, but the legacy Charles left behind will last forever and ever. His works are still read and appreciated in schools all over the world. His works are implemented in thousands of movies, and even songs are made from them, Oliver. Every December, all the families over the globe refresh their minds by reading A Christmas Carol. There is no word for a man who did so much and achieved so much.
He once said, "Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do it well; whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself completely; in great aims and in small I have always thoroughly been in earnest."