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Charles Dickens: his life and works

Ahead of a major Charles Dickens season on the BBC this winter, Charlotte Hodgman speaks to Alex Werner, curator of a new exhibition on Dickens, about the author’s life and his relationship with London

Published: December 11, 2011 at 1:25 pm
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The story of Charles Dickens, one of the world’s most influential and best-loved authors, is something of a ‘rags to riches’ tale. But during his lifetime little was known of his troubled childhood and its impact on his later writing.


Born in Portsmouth on 7 February 1812, the second of eight children, Dickens’s early childhood was fairly unremarkable: at age nine he attended school in Chatham, Kent, where he appears to have developed an early love for reading and for the north Kent area itself, which featured in much of his adult writing.

Alex Werner, head of history collections at the Museum of London and lead curator of a new exhibition on Dickens, explains: “Charles’s father, John, was employed at Chatham’s naval pay office but, as was the norm for government workers, he and his family were relocated on a number of occasions between 1812 and 1821.

“It was after the family’s move to London in 1822, however, and John Dickens’s subsequent descent into debt, followed by his detention in Marshalsea debtors’ prison in 1824, that life became more difficult for the Dickens family.”

Just before his father’s incarceration, Dickens was removed from school and sent to work at Warren’s boot blacking factory, a building that once stood near to the present day Charing Cross station. Here, he spent 10–12 hours a day pasting labels to stoneware pots of boot polish for just six shillings a week.

"Leaving school at the age of 12 and being forced into work was an incredibly humiliating experience for Dickens, who had aspirations of a more distinguished life," says Werner. "Both his father's imprisonment and his own child labour had a profound impact on Dickens's later life and works and made him determined to make something of himself." Indeed, some of Dickens's childhood experiences at the factory can be seen in his semi-autobiographical work David Copperfield, in which the book's central character works at a bottling warehouse with "decaying floors and staircase; the squeaking and scuffling of the old grey rats down in the cellars".

John Dickens was finally released from Marshalsea after an inheritance cleared his debts. He removed his son from the factory against his mother’s wishes that he should continue there – something Dickens never fully forgave her for.“It was during this period, however, that the young Charles started to form a relationship with London,” says Werner. “Living alone in lodgings gave Dickens freedom to roam the city, observing its hustle and bustle and providing him with a backdrop for his later writings.”

Dickens eventually returned to education and from there began work as a legal clerk, teaching himself shorthand and becoming a parliamentary reporter, before kick-starting his literary career as a journalist on The Mirror of Parliament and The True Sun. "Dickens became bored with his jobs very quickly," says Werner, "but writing was always his passion and he would frequently pace the streets at night for hours at a time, working on the plots and characters of his novels."

Dickens's first romantic love was Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a prosperous banker who did not approve of the match, considering the young reporter to be lacking in prospects. The nature of Maria's feelings for Dickens have never been known but the relationship appears to have ended in 1833, although it is believed Maria later inspired the character of Dora in David Copperfield. A year later Dickens met his future wife, Catherine Hogarth, through her father, George, a newspaper editor for the Morning Chronicle. The pair married in 1836.

Dickens continued to write prolifically during this period. The publishing success of the Pickwick Papers in 1836 saw his literary career take off, and Dickens slowly began to create the respectable life he had so desired as a child. But although, outwardly, Dickens was starting to become a huge literary success, his home life was far from perfect and by the 1850s he was becoming increasingly frustrated with his marriage. In 1857 Dickens formed a relationship with the 18-year-old actress Ellen Ternan, separating from his wife the following year.

Dickens never stopped writing, though, and on his death in 1870, left numerous major novels, a huge number of essays, plays, articles, and short stories, together with more than 15,000 letters, as his legacy.

“Dickens successfully turned his experiences, both good and bad, into engaging novels and articles that still entertain us today,” says Werner. “He probably knew London better than anyone else and drew on his own experiences of the city to become one of Britain’s most famous authors. He also raised awareness of some of the big social issues of the day, such as child labour and poverty, through his writing.”

Where history happened: 9 places associated with Charles Dickens


Rochester (Kent)

Where Dickens spent many happy times as a child

Prior to his family's move to London in 1822, Dickens spent much of his time in the north Kent area and was a frequent visitor to Rochester, a town that later featured in works such as the Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations. Rochester held happy memories for the young Dickens and he used many of the town's buildings as inspiration for his writing. Restoration House, so called because King Charles II stayed there after his return to England in 1660, is said to have been the inspiration for the fictional Satis House, the home of Miss Haversham in Great Expectations, "with its seared red brick walls, blocked windows, and strong green ivy clasping even the stacks of chimneys with its twigs and tendons, as if with sinewy old arms…"

Rochester also formed the backdrop for Dickens's last and unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which its main character thinks that he sees Rochester's cathedral towers through the dim haze of a London opium den. Dickens finally achieved his dream of buying a house in the area when he purchased Gad's Hill Place in Higham near Rochester in 1856, a house he had fallen in love with as a nine-year-old.

Dickens remained devoted to Rochester to the end and wished to be buried in the precincts of the city’s cathedral. He was, however, eventually interred in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Go to www.visitmedway.org


Ordnance Terrace (Chatham, Kent)

Where Dickens lived as a boy

The Dickens family lived at the three-storey 11 Ordnance Terrace (then number 2) between 1817 and 1821 while John Dickens was employed at Chatham's dockyard, but the family was forced to move from the property in 1821 after John Dickens was posted to London. It was here that the young Dickens, aged eight or nine, wrote what is thought to be his first work, a tragedy entitled Misnar the Sultan of India. Number 11 Ordnance Terrace is still a residential property but a plaque on its exterior notes its former occupant.


Marshalsea debtors’ prison (Southwark, London)

Where John Dickens was imprisoned for debt

Debtors' prisons were a common way of dealing with unpaid debt during the 19th century. In 1824 John Dickens was arrested for arrears of £40 and placed in the Marshalsea, one of four specialist debtors’ prisons in London. Such institutions were often home to whole families who lived in just one room until their creditors were paid off and they were allowed to leave.

Dickens was just 12 when his father was incarcerated in Marshalsea, and although he never lived there, he was haunted by his father’s imprisonment for most of his life, a fact reflected in much of his later writing.

Prisons were a major theme in Dickens's writing, in particular Little Dorrit, which sees John Dorrit and his family held inside Marshalsea. Dickens's detailed descriptions of the prison are most likely based on his own experiences of visiting his father as a child: "It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top."

So profound was the effect of his father's imprisonment on Dickens that it was some years before he was able to revisit the site, which by then had been demolished. Tellingly he wrote the following in his preface to the 1857 edition of Little Dorrit: "Whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place… will find his feet on the very paving stones of the extinct Marshalsea Jail. He will see its narrow yard to the right, and… will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; and will stand among crowding ghosts of so many miserable years."

The prison was closed in 1842 and much of it demolished in the 1870s. Today, just a wall and plaque remain to mark its site.

Go to www.southwark.gov.uk


St James’ church (Cooling, Kent)

Where ‘Pip’s Graves’ can be seen

It is widely accepted that the graveyard of St James' church, Cooling, was the inspiration for the opening chapter of Great Expectations in which the orphan Pip meets the sinister convict Magwitch, "a fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg".

The church sits in the somewhat bleak area of Kent that Dickens described as "marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea" and would have been sparsely inhabited during his time. The graves he writes of –"five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their [parents'] grave" – belong to a row of 13 graves that are known locally as 'Pip's Graves'.

The church dates from the 13th century and, although no longer used for worship, is still open to visitors.

Visit www.coolingchurch.org.uk


Nancy’s Steps (Southwark Street, London)

Where a Dickens character made a fatal rendezvous

London Bridge features heavily in Dickens’s novels and was key to his early experiences of London. The bridge, which was replaced with the current model in 1973, was commonly known as ‘Rennie’s Bridge’ after its designer, John Rennie. It was officially opened in August 1831 after it became apparent that the old London Bridge could no longer cope with the amount of traffic flowing over, and under it.

The bridge was one of London’s landmarks. Dickens as a child would have known Old London Bridge and would have observed the construction of the new bridge. It was a route that Dickens took often as a child to visit his father in the Marshalsea prison across the river from his lodgings, forming some of his earliest experiences of the city. “Dickens loved looking down on the ships and barges,” says Werner, “and must have watched passengers arriving and departing on the steamboats.”

The bridge also became the scene of Nancy's undoing in Oliver Twist when, in an attempt to save Oliver from a life of crime, Nancy meets Rose and Mr Brownlow on the steps that lead up to Rennie's Bridge, an incident that results in her brutal murder at the hands of the notorious Bill Sykes.

Some of the steps described by Dickens in the novel still stand but are the only part of the original Rennie's Bridge that survives: "These stairs are a part of the bridge; they consist of three flights. Just below the end of the second, going down, the stone wall on the left terminates in an ornamental pilaster facing towards the Thames."

Visit www.southwark.gov.uk


Charles Dickens Museum (Camden, London)

Where Dickens tried to create a respectable family home

Number 48 Doughty Street was home to Dickens and his family between 1837 and 1839 and it was here that he penned some of the works that launched his writing career, such as Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. Dickens and his wife, Catherine, moved into Doughty Street the year after their wedding, and two of their ten children were born in the house. Says Werner: "For Dickens, the move to the Georgian terraced house in Doughty Street was symbolic of his rise up the social ladder. It was located in a respectable area of the city and Dickens took care to decorate it in the fashions of the day. The family also employed servants, another indication of its rise up the social ranks."

The building is now home to the Charles Dickens Museum where visitors can see original paintings, manuscripts and furniture that once belonged to the great author.

Visit www.dickensmuseum.com


Monument, Monument Street (Square Mile, London)

Where Martin Chuzzlewit once gazed over London’s rooftops

Built between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire of London and to celebrate the rebuilding of the city, the 61 metre-high Monument would have been a focal point in Dickens's London, towering above the surrounding buildings. Dickens mentions the Monument in at least three of his works, but it features most prominently in the Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, serialised in 1843–44, in which Dickens describes the view of the landmark across the rooftops of London.

"If the day were bright, you observed upon the house-tops, stretching far away, a long dark path; the shadow of the Monument; and turning round, the tall original was close beside you, with every hair erect upon his golden head, as if the doings of the city frightened him. Then there were steeples, towers, belfries, shining vanes, and masts of ships; a very forest. Gables, housetops, garret-windows, wilderness upon wilderness."

Todger's lodging house, where Pecksniff and his daughters stay when they visit London in Martin Chuzzlewit, was located close to the Monument, and visitors today can still ascend the 311 steps to the top of the memorial to look out over the rooftops of London.

Visit www.themonument.info


Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Serle Street (Holborn, London)

Where Dickens experienced London’s legal world

Lincoln's Inn Fields is synonymous with the legal side of London and was somewhere that Dickens, as a legal clerk and parliamentary reporter, would have been very familiar with. Some of the buildings date from the 17th century and the area has changed little since Dickens’s day.

Lincoln's Inn Fields was pivotal to Bleak House, the author's ninth novel, published in instalments between 1852 and 1853: one of the book's central characters, Mr Tulkinghorn, lives in a house in Lincoln's Inn Fields that is said to have been inspired by the residence of Dickens's official biographer, John Forster, who lived at number 58. "The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane… into Lincoln's Inn Fields. Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr Tulkinghorn".

John Forster was a journalist, biographer, historian and, most notably, Dickens's best friend. It was to Forster that Dickens was able to confide the previously unknown traumas of his childhood, and these were finally related in Forster's work The Life of Charles Dickens, published after the author's death in 1870.

Visit www.lincolnsinn.org.uk


Charles Dickens Coffee House (Covent Garden, London)

Where Dickens indulged his passion for the theatre

Following his legal separation from Catherine in 1858, Dickens took apartments above his editorial offices in Wellington Street near Covent Garden. Here, he would work on editing his weekly magazine, All the Year Round, and in the evening visit the nearby theatres for entertainment.

“Dickens always said that if he hadn’t been an author, he’d have been an actor,” says Werner. “He was an avid theatregoer his whole life, and although his own forays into playwriting were somewhat unsuccessful, the theatre remained his great love.”

Even as a child Dickens put on amateur productions for his friends and family and, as an adult, he converted a room in one of his London houses into a mini theatre. He even put on a special performance of The Frozen Deep in London for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Such was the success of the play that it toured to Manchester where Dickens befriended one of the young actresses that he had hired – Ellen Ternan.

The Wellington Street building that once housed Dickens’s offices is now the site of the Charles Dickens Coffee House.

Visit www.coventgardenlondonuk.com

Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Alex Werner, head of history collections at the Museum of London.


This article was first published in the Christmas 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine


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