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Charles Dickens


People in Victorian Clothes as part of annual Dickens Festival Parade
Dickens Festival Parade

Charles Dickens is perhaps the most popular English novelist of all time. Although his short stories and classic tales are set in the Victorian era, they have actually never once been out of print. The stories capture many of the experiences and characters which Dickens met in his own wide-ranging life.

Black and White print of portrait of Charles Dickens
Portrait of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire in 1812. His father was a clerk in the naval pay office but although he was well paid he had a propensity for financial troubles and debt.

In 1814 the Dickens family moved to London. In Chatham the young Charles received some private education. The special attention from the schoolmaster gave him a good grounding for his later life.

At the age of 12, Charles Dickens was obliged to find work as his father was in debtor's prison. He boarded at the home of a family friend, Elizabeth Roylance, in Camden Town.

Charles worked in a boot-blacking factory near Charing Cross where his experiences included meeting one Bob Fagin, a character he later used in "Oliver Twist".

Dickens continued his studies at Wellington House Academy from 1824-27 and at Mr. Dawson's school. He then became a law office clerk, and after learning shorthand he worked as a reporter. His reader's ticket to the British Museum allowed him access to the works of Shakespeare and other classics where he read with fervour.

Dickens wrote for several newspapers including the "Morning Chronicle". His career in fiction began when his first sketch "A dinner at Poplar Walk" was published in Monthly Magazine in 1833.

He married Catherine Hogart, daughter of the editor of the "Evening Chronicle" in 1836 and they had ten children before finally separating in 1858. They lived in Doughty Street in London, along with various other family members. It seems Charles Dickens had many other loves during his marriage.

Charles Dickens' first stories appeared as installments and included the "Pickwick Papers" and "Oliver Twist". His own experiences of life in the blacking factory come into their own in "David Copperfield", where the fictitious Copperfield pursues a career as a journalist and then as a novelist.

In the 1840s, Dickens traveled widely, using his writings to campaign against social injustice, including the abolition of slavery. From 1844-45 he lived in Italy, Switzerland and Paris but by 1860 had settled with his daughters in Gadshill Place near Rochester. He also owned Windsor Lodge in Peckham where his mistress Ellen Tiernan lived for a time.

Terraced brick-built house in Portsmouth which is Charles Dickens' Birthplace
Dickens' Birthplace

In later life, Dickens gave lecturing tours and readings of his works, both in Britain and America from 1858-1868. His diet had reduced to an unhealthy mix of champagne and eggs beaten with sherry. He was known to have visited opium dens, basing his character of Opium Sal in his mystery novel "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" on his experiences there.

His collapse in 1869 in Preston brought his stressful public lectures to a close. A year later, Dickens suffered a stroke at Gadshill and died suddenly.

His request was to be buried in an "inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner". However, he was fittingly laid to rest in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. He was remembered as a philanthropist, a sympathiser of the poor and one of England's greatest writers. The only life-size statue of him is in Clark Park, Philadelphia.

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