Charles Dickens

Charles John Huffam Dickens, journalist, writer, social commentator, and philanthropist, created some of the world’s best known literary characters, and is possibly the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. Dickens’s literary success began with the 1836 serial publication of The Pickwick Papers. Dickens’ popularity was universal. His fame was assured with the publication of Oliver Twist in 1838, and with Nicholas Nickleby in 1839.  Within a few years he had become an international literary celebrity, famous for his humour, satire, and keen observation of character and society. His early novels first appeared in serialised form in monthly or weekly instalments in publications such as magazines and newspapers–forms that were readily available to the masses, and affordable for all the classes, including the working and lower classes, and even to the illiterate poor who chipped in together to have each new monthly episode read to them, and hence opening up and inspiring a new class of readers. It was this that pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, and became the dominant Victorian mode for novel publication.   The imaginative world of his novels, which possessed both a fairy-tale quality and the vividness of nightmare, helped to change contemporary attitudes.

Charles Dickens has long been regarded as a literary genius of the Victorian age.  Many famous writers, including Leo Tolstoy and George Orwell, praised Dickens work for its stark realism, comedy, satire, prose style, unique characterisations, and social criticism. Other famous writers though, including Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf, noted  a lack of psychological depth, and a vein of sugary-sweet sentimentalism in Dickens novels.   Dickens was also a literary colossus of the Victorian age.  Despite his relative early lack of formal education, Dickens edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote 15 novels, five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured extensively, and campaigned for social reforms. His works, which have never gone out of print and are still being published today, achieved unprecedented popularity in his time, and are still as popular now. His novels evoke strong images of the life and untenable conditions that the poor and the working class were forced to endure in Victorian England–Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, for example, evoke images of early Victorian London. Like many of his other novels, these two latter mentioned works are produced not only in book form but also in other artistic genres such as film for cinema and small screen, and as stage plays.

When we were in Portsmouth last year, Bob and I went looking for the house where Dickens had been born, at 1 Mile End, and couldn’t locate it anywhere. Unknown to us at first, 1 Mile End is now 393 Commercial Road and that is exactly where we finally found it–an almost  insignificant attached little house that nevertheless looked to be rather middle-class. The house is now a museum, and was not open on the day or at the time of our visit. This did not bother me in the slightest. In fact, I was glad it wasn’t open because if it had been, then I might not have had an excuse not to go in and have a look. Somehow, houses in which a famous literary figure once lived seem to me to lose something in the translation, something of their appeal, when they are made over into museums–for myself, I simply cannot stand in a museum created from someone’s house and absorb the atmosphere of the real–I would much rather experience the genuine article no matter how shabby or tumbledown.  To my mind, genuine articles and dwellings exude atmosphere, something that one can connect to in some way.




Charles Dickens was born 7 February 1812, the second child and only son of John and Elizabeth Dickens, at 1 Mile End in Portsmouth. His father, John Dickens, was a clerk in the Royal Navy Pay Office and was temporarily stationed in the district. In January 1815 John Dickens was recalled by the Royal Navy Pay Office headquarters at Somerset House, and the family then moved to Fitzrovia, a district in central London between Bloomsbury and Marylebone. When Charles was four, they relocated again, first to Sheerness, in North Kent, a town on the mouth  of the River Medway where there is a Royal Navy Dockyard, and then to Chatham, another town located with the Medway unitary authority,  in North Kent, England, and where the Chatham Royal Dockyard was then still in operation.  The family stayed in Chatham until Charles Dickens was eleven years of age.  During this time, his father’s brief years of work as a clerk in the Royal Navy Pay Office afforded Charles a few years of private education, first at a dame school, and then at a school in Chatham. During this time also, Dickens was free to indulge his great love of reading, and would pore over books for hours on end. Compared to what he had to endure later in his childhood, his early life seems to have been idyllic, though he once confided to his friend and biographer, John Forster, that he thought himself a “very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy” (Forster (1872–1874), 2006, 13).

In June 1822, Charles Dickens father was once again called to the Royal Navy Pay Office headquarters at Somerset House. The family, with the exception of  Charles who stayed behind to finish his final term of work at the school in Chatham school, relocated to London. Despite his work as a pay clerk in the Royal Navy offices, John Dickens did not have a good head for finances. He freely spent every shilling he earned, and lived beyond his means. By the time the family left Kent they were in heavily increasing debt. On their arrival in London they were forced to seek cheap dwellings, and settled in Camden Town, a poor neighbourhood in London.

In 1824, when Charles Dickens was twelve years of age, his father was sent to Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison in Southwark, in London. As soon as John Dickens was cast into prison, Charles Dickens’s mother gave the house up and moved, taking with her all the children with the exception of Charles, and, as was the custom of the time, took lodgings close to the prison to be near his father. Separated suddenly from his family, Charles found himself removed from what was essentially a reasonably genteel middle-class home and upbringing, and left to live alone and fend for himself. At first, for a very brief time, Charles Dickens boarded with Elizabeth Roylance, a family friend, at 112 College Place, Camden Town. Later, he moved  to Southwark where he lived in the back attic of a house belonging to Archibald Russell, a kindly old agent  for the Insolvent Court (Forster (1872–1874), 2006, 27).

Forced out to work to pay for his board and to help his family, Dickens was sent to  work ten-hour days at Warren’s Shoe Blacking Factory and Warehouse, which was situated  on Hungerford Stairs, near the present Charing Cross railway station.  There, he worked in a rough atmosphere with lower- and working-class men and boys, and earned six shillings a week. These experience of loneliness and hardship were the most significant and psychologically damaging events of his life. Many writers argue that Charles Dickens possessed an excellent memory of people and events which he later used in his writing, and say that he retained vivid memories of his damaging childhood, and that these traumatic childhood experiences coloured his view of the world, and were later described in most of his novels.

The strenuous and often harsh working conditions made a lasting impression on Dickens and later influenced his fiction and essays, becoming the foundation of his interest in the reform of socio-economic and labour conditions, the rigours of which he believed were unfairly borne by the poor. He later wrote that he wondered “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age” (Forster (1872–1874), 2006, 24). (  accessed 4 Jul. 2016)

Dickens once told his friend and biographer John Forster:

“The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.”  (Forster (1872–1874), 2006, 27).

When the warehouse was moved to Chandos Street in the smart, busy district of Covent Garden the boys worked in a room in which the window gave onto the street and little audiences gathered and watched them at work—in Dickens biographer Simon Callow’s estimation, the public display was “a new refinement added to his misery.”  (  accessed 4 Jul. 2016)

Righteous indignation stemming from his own situation and the conditions under which working-class people lived became major themes of his works, and it was this unhappy period in his youth to which he alluded in his favourite, and most autobiographical, novel, David Copperfield: “I had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone, that I can call to mind, as I hope to go to Heaven!”  (  accessed 4 Jul. 2016)

A few months after he was imprisoned, John Dickens’s mother died and left him what was then a fairly substantial amount of money.  On the expectation of this legacy, John Dickens was released from prison. Under the Insolvent Debtors Act, Dickens arranged for payment of his creditors, and he and his family left Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison, for the home of Mrs Roylance. It is not altogether clear if Charles was reunited with his family or not, if he joined them at the home of Mrs Roylance. Whatever the case was, Charles Dickens’s mother, Elizabeth, demanded that he be forced to remain at work, at Warren’s Shoe Blacking Factory and Warehouse, to continue helping out the family. Many writers argue that is probably this factor that influenced Dickens’s view that a father should be the head of the family, and that a mother’s proper place was inside the home: Dickens once told Forster, “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back”.

Charles’s mother was, and remained, strongly insistent that he should be sent back to continue working at the factory to bring in money for the family. Charles’s father stood firm. John Dickens took charge; he refused to have Charles returned to work at the Warren’s Shoe Blacking Factory and Warehouse, and sent him to school, to the Wellington House Academy in Camden Town where he remained until March 1827.  Dickens did not consider the Wellington House Academy in Camden Town to be a good school: “Much of the haphazard, desultory teaching, poor discipline punctuated by the headmaster’s sadistic brutality, the seedy ushers and general run-down atmosphere, are embodied in Mr. Creakle’s Establishment in David Copperfield.”  (  accessed 4 Jul. 2016)

In 1827 when he turned fifteen, Dickens was again forced to leave school. He began work as an office boy. Dickens worked at the law office of Ellis and Blackmore, attorneys, of Holborn Court, Gray’s Inn, as a junior clerk from May 1827 to November 1828. During this period, Dickens took it upon himself to learn the Gurney’s system of shorthand, working at his studies of an evening in his spare time. In late 1928, Dickens left his job as a junior clerk at the law office of Ellis and Blackmore to become a freelance reporter and stenographer, using his shorthand to transcribe documents, at the law courts of London.

In 1829 Dickens became a free-lance reporter at Doctor’s Commons Courts–a distant relative, Thomas Charlton, was a freelance reporter at Doctors’ Commons, and Dickens was able to share his box there to report the legal proceedings for nearly four years. This education was to inform works such as Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, and especially Bleak House—whose vivid portrayal of the machinations and bureaucracy of the legal system did much to enlighten the general public and served as a vehicle for dissemination of Dickens’s own views regarding, particularly, the heavy burden on the poor who were forced by circumstances to “go to law”.(  accessed 4 Jul. 2016).

In an article titled simply as “Dickens, Charles (1812-1870)”, published in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 4, (MUP), 1972 , Coral Landsbury writes:

During the time he was apprenticed to the law, Dickens began writing unpaid pieces for popular journals. Sketches by ‘Boz’, Dickens’s pseudonym, were published in two volumes in 1836 and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in 1837. By 1832 he had become a reporter for two London newspapers and, in the following year, began to contribute a series of impressions and sketches to other newspapers and magazines, signing some of them “Boz.” These scenes of London life went far to establish his reputation and were published in 1836 as Sketches by Boz, his first book. (A Short Biography of Charles Dickens;; Selected Bibliography)

George P. Lanslow, in his Victorian Web article, “Orphans, Abandonment, Self-Pity, and Fairy-Tale Plotting,” writes that “for more than a half century, students of Dickens have emphasized the crucial importance of the traumatic period in” Charles Dickens’s childhood, and the influence it had on his work, and he says:

As Walter Allen points out, this experience had crucial influence on (1) the writer’s emphasis upon orphans and abandoned children, (2) the self-pity that permeates many of his works, and (3) their fairy-tale plots:

The blacking factory episode does not account for Dickens’s genius, but it does, I believe, explain some of the forms his genius took, and it throws light on much that is otherwise baffling both in his art and his life. It explains why we so often find at the centre of his novels the figure of the lost, persecuted, or helpless child: Oliver Twist, Little Nell, David, Paul Dombey, Pip, and their near relations, Smirke and Jo, in Bleak House. It explains, too, why their rescue, when there is a rescue, so often has the appearance of a fairy-story ending, the result of what is sometimes called wishful thinking, just as the deaths of Little Nell, Paul Dombey, and Jo are dramatizations of his own self-pity. And it explains the dominant mood in which his world is created. It was not at all one of good- humoured acceptance of things, but a mood of nightmare compounded of lurid melodrama and savage comedy, relieved from time to time by unreflecting joy in the absurd and the comic for their own sakes’.” [Allen, 166]

Lanslow then notes that Alexander Welsh similarly argues:

The secret memory of the blacking warehouse explains a great deal in Dickens’s life and fiction. It partially explains why, in the midst of his success with Pickwick, he should begin a fairy tale of the workhouse child, Oliver Twist. It explains the vein of self-pity that crops up again and again in the novels, and particularly the childlike sentiment that if he had died or turned bad, it would have served the grown-ups right. [4]

Talking about the connection between Dickens traumatic childhood experiences of working in Warren’s  Shoe-Blacking Factory and the dark side of Dickens’s works, Lanslow again refers to Welsh:

Drawing upon the insights of psychoanalysis, Welsh further explains that this episode also illuminates the darker side of Dickens’s novels, including his use of the Doppelgänger figure: According to Freud, “suffering calls forth aggression in the subject, which in turn induces guilt,” and in the autobiographical fragment, Dickens reveals his aggressive feelings towards his parents by denying them:

“I do not write resentfully or angrily: for I know all these things have worked together to make me what I am: but I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” … the guilt of harboring so much indignation becomes a kind of tertiary result of the episode. Aggression and guilt, usually unconscious, fuel the so-called dark side of Dickens’s fiction. [4-5]

Lanslow then asks “Why did Dickens write about the Warrens episode when he did?”

The psychoanalytic critic Albert D. Hutter makes the crucial point that we should not take the blacking-warehouse episode in isolation but place it within the developmental framework of the writer’s life and career. In other words, it is not the traumatic events by themselves that count; it is what Dickens the writer did with them. Following Hutter, Welsh therefore asks the crucial questions

Why did Dickens choose to reveal events that he considered simultaneously shaming and traumatic; Why he did he do so when he did do.

“As it turns out,” says Lanslow, “Dickens wrote his account of abandonment when he was working on Dombey and Son and David Copperfield, and Welsh argues convincingly,”

At this time of life, Dickens wanted someone to know about the blacking warehouse, because from his current point of view the episode did him some credit. . . . There was almost a boast in Dickens’s complaint that, “but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for all the care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.” I am not and never have been a vagabond, he is saying, but that is to my credit and no one else’s. [6]

Lanslow provides the following list of suggested reading:

Allen, Walter. The English Novel. First Published . Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, .

Horsman, Alan. “Introduction.” Dombey and Son. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1974.

Hutter, Albert D. “Psychoanalysis and Biography: Dickens Experience at Warren’s Blacking.” Hartford Studies in literature 8 (1976): 23-37.

Patten, Robert L. ” Autobiography into Autobiography: The Evolution of David Copperfield.” Approaches to Victorian Autobiography. Ed. George P. Landow. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1979. 269-291

Pratt, Branwen Bailey. “Dickens and Father: Notes and Family Romance.” Hartford Studies in literature 8 (1976): 4-22.

Welsh, Alexander. From Copyright to Copperfield: The Identity of Dickens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Works Cited:

*Forster, John (1872–1874). Life of Charles Dickens. London: Diderot Publishing, 2006.

*A Short Biography of Charles Dickens:

Selected Bibliography: Lansbury, Coral. ‘Charles Dickens and his Australia’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 52, part 2, June 1966. 115-28

*The Blacking Factory and Dickens’s Imaginative World

Lanslow, George P. Professor of English and the History of Art, Brown U, USA. “Orphans, Abandonment, Self-Pity, and Fairy-Tale Plotting.” (Last modified 14 October 2002)

* Charles Dickens – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia last modified on 3 July 2016, accessed 4 Jul. 2016

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