Monday, July 22, 2013

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

1. Childhood and youth (1812-1827)
Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, near Portsmouth, England. From ages 4 to 10 he enjoyed a pleasant childhood in Chatham, Kent (on the eastern coast of England). He especially enjoyed reading novels, like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, with characters who were poor but survived humorous misadventures by being charming and clever.

In 1822 he moved with his family to a poor neighborhood in London. In 1824 his father was imprisoned for being in debt. His mother and youngest sibling joined him there. He would visit them on Sundays. The rest of the week, to support himself and help get his father out of prison, he worked 10 hours a day at a factory pasting labels on bottles of shoe polish. He never forgot the poor pay, hard work, and painful conditions he was made to endure when only 12 years old.

After his father had been in prison for several months, a relative died and his father inherited enough money to pay his debts and buy his freedom. Charles’ mother, however, had him continue working at the factory. He never forgot that. Eventually he got to leave work but only to attend a decaying school with bad teachers handing out brutal physical punishment. He later described this period of time in his novel David Copperfield.

2. Journalist and novelist (1827-1846)
In 1827 he had to stop school and start running errands at a law office. In 1828, having taught himself shorthand, he became a freelance journalist reporting on court cases for four years. He later used the detailed knowledge he gained of legal proceedings in several of his novels.

In 1832 he started reporting for two morning newspapers on parliamentary debates in London and election campaigns across England. He also wrote essays and short stories based on his experiences and saw many of these published in various newspapers and magazines. In 1836, 56 of these essays and short stories were published together in a book entitled Sketches by Boz.

Impressed by his Sketches, a London publisher hired Charles to write the stories that would eventually become The Pickwick Papers. They were originally published in monthly installments between March 1836 and October 1837. In April 1836 Charles also married Catherine Hogarth. The success of The Pickwick Papers enabled Charles to make a financially successful transition from journalist to novelist.

Charles’ next novel, Oliver Twist, was published in installments between February 1837 and April 1839. The novel uniquely featured a child as its leading character and plunged readers into the painful Olympian world of child exploitation. It also allowed Charles to criticize the hypocrisy that allowed such a world to exist. After Oliver Twist, Charles published (in installments) Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), and Barnaby Rudge (1841).

By 1842, the popularity of Charles as a novelist had grown enough that he and his wife Catherine could enjoy a successful tour of the United States and Canada. Catherine’s sister Georgiana stayed at their home in England to care for their children. She would continue to do so until Charles’ death.

Back in England, Charles published his American Notes for General Circulation in 1843. In them he condemned America’s continuation of slavery, pervasive greed, and general lack of culture. He continued his criticism of America in Martin Chuzzlewit.

That same year, Charles also published his first Christmas story, A Christmas Carol. In it he describes the pinched life of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man devoted to Pluto god of money, and the resulting misery he causes in the lives of others. More poignantly, Charles describes the gradual immiseration of Ebenezer’s own life as society so painfully punishes his early poverty and so lavishly rewards the development of his penny-pinching Olympian personality. This book did much to revive the celebration of Christmas in England and to define how we understand it still.

3. Titanic activity(1846-1858)
In 1846 a millionaire named Angela Coutts contacted Charles about starting a halfway house for women from prisons, workhouses, and the streets. At first reluctant, he later accepted the idea and then immersed himself completely in the work.

He found and purchased a house, called Urania Cottage, in farmland outside of London. He interviewed and chose the women who would live there and the staff who would work there, dealt with problems of discipline as well as maintenance and repair of the property, arranged for the emigration of the residents who were ready to move to Australia, South Africa, or Canada, and sent written reports of all his activities to Angela several times a week.

His idea and practice, in stark contrast to other places for homeless, destitute, or desperate women at the time, was to provide these young women with a safe, stable, encouraging place to live and the education and practice they needed to emigrate, marry, and enjoy a more positive life. In this he largely succeeded. His work with the house, and its existence, ended in 1857 with an intense yet enduring change in his personal life.

While dedicating so many hours to so many details each week at Urania Cottage, Charles continued to write. He published Dombey and Son (1846-1848), The Life of Our Lord (1846-1849), David Copperfield (1849-1850), Bleak House (1852-1853), A Child’s History of England (1853), Hard Times (1854), and Little Dorrit (1855-1857). He also wrote scores of articles and editorials for the magazine, Household Words, which he edited between 1850 and 1859.

While doing so much else, he also raised much-needed money for the Great Ormond Street Hospital during the 1850s. It was the first hospital in England dedicated solely to treating children.

In 1856 he purchased Gads Hill Place in Higham, Kent. As a child living in nearby Chatham, he had seen the house and always dreamed of owning it. He and his wife, ten children, and sister-in-law Georgiana used it as their country home beginning in 1857. Literary guests entertained at Gads Hill included Hans Andersen from Denmark and Henry Longfellow from America.

4. Love, truth, and trauma (1858-1870)
In 1857, the 45-year-old Charles met and fell deeply in love with an 18-year-old named Ellen Ternan. The two enjoyed a beautiful if secret relationship for the rest of his life. In 1858 his wife Catherine separated from Charles, left Gads Hill with her first-born, Charles Jr., and never saw her husband again. Georgiana, her sister, chose to stay at Gads Hill and continue caring for the family. Charles provided Ellen with a house of her own and a steady income.

In April 1858 Charles started his immensely popular reading tours. His first, through England, Scotland, and Ireland, lasted for 10 months.

In 1859 he published A Tale of Two Cities in installments. The two cities are London and Paris. In the book Charles vividly portrays the shocking indifference of French aristocrats toward marginal people before the Revolution, the shocking brutality of previously marginal people toward aristocrats during the Revolution, and the possibilities of personal and societal redemption through it all.

In 1861 Charles published Great Expectations. He also started another reading tour of Britannia that would continue, with some breaks, for six years.

In 1863 Charles received a letter from Eliza Davis, a Jewish friend, explaining to him why his portrayal of the criminal Fagin in Oliver Twist served as a destructive stereotype and remained harmful to all Jews. In subsequent readings and republications, Charles did much to eliminate stereotypical language such as referring to Fagin simply as “the Jew.” In May 1864 he started publishing Our Mutual Friend in installments. The mutual friend of the title is a particularly virtuous Jew.

In June 1865, while still publishing Our Mutual Friend in installments, Charles, his true love Ellen, and her mother were returning to London by train when it crashed and killed many onboard. While Charles and his companions weren’t hurt, the experience was for him traumatic. He finished Our Mutual Friend in November 1865 but didn’t start another novel until 1869.

In November 1867, Charles sailed again to America. He gave 76 public readings from his books in Boston and New York between his arrival in December and departure the following April. He enjoyed meeting American authors, was impressed by the improvements he saw in the country, and made a fortune.

In October 1868 he began what he considered to be a farewell tour of readings in England, Scotland, and Ireland. It started well but he became too ill to continue in April 1869. While recovering at home, he started writing Edwin Drood.

On June 8, 1870, he suffered a stroke at home after finishing his day’s work on Edwin Drood. He died the next day—the fifth anniversary of his traumatic rail crash. He was buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.