CHARLES DICKENS, the most popular novelist of the century, and one of the greatest humourists that England has produced, was born at Landport in Portsea on Friday, the seventh of February, 1812.
His father, John Dickens, a clerk in the navy-pay office, was at this time stationed in the Portsmouth dockyard. He had made acquaintance with the lady, Elizabeth Barrow, who became afterwards his wife, through her elder brother, Thomas Barrow, also engaged on the establishment at Somerset-house; and she bore him in all a family of eight children, of whom two died in infancy. The eldest, Fanny (born 1810), was followed by Charles (entered in the baptismal register of Portsea as Charles John Huffham, though on the very rare occasions when he subscribed that name he wrote Huffam) ; by another son, named Alfred, who died in childhood; by Letitia (born 1816); by another daughter, Harriet, who died also in childhood; by Frederick (born 1820); by Alfred Lamert (born 1822); and by Augustus (born 1827); of all of whom only the second daughter now survives.
Walter Scott tells us, in his fragment of autobiography, speaking of the strange remedies applied to his lameness, that he remembered lying on the floor in the parlour of his grandfather's farmhouse, swathed up in a sheepskin warm from the body of the sheep, being then not three years old. David Copperfield's memory goes beyond this. He represents himself seeing so far back into the blank of his infancy, as to discern therein his mother and her servant, dwarfed to his sight by stooping down or kneeling on the floor, and himself going unsteadily from the one to the other. He admits this may be fancy, though he believes the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy, and thinks that the recollection of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose. But what he adds is certainly not fancy. "If it should appear from anything I may set down in this narrative that I was a child of close observation, or that as a man I have a strong memory of my childhood, I undoubtedly lay claim to both of these characteristics." Applicable as it might be to David Copperfield this was unaffectedly true of Charles Dickens.
He has often told me that he remembered the small front garden to the house at Portsea, from which he was taken away when he was two years old, and where, watched by a nurse through a low kitchen-window almost level with the gravel-walk, he trotted about with something to eat, and his little elder sister with him. He was carried from the garden one day to see the soldiers exercise; and I perfectly recollect, that, on our being at Portsmouth together while he was writing Nickleby, he recognized the exact shape of the military parade seen by him as a very infant, on the same spot, a quarter of a century before.
When his father was again brought up by his duties to London from Portsmouth, they went into lodgings in Norfolk-street, Middlesex-hospital; and it lived also in the child's memory that they had come away from Portsea in the snow. Their home, shortly after, was again changed, on the elder Dickens being placed upon duty in Chatham dockyard; and the house where he lived in Chatham, which had a plain-looking whitewashed plaster-front and a small garden before and behind, was in St. Mary's-place, otherwise called the Brook, and next door to a Baptist meeting-house called Providence-chapel of which a Mr. Giles to be presently mentioned was minister. Charles at this time was between four and five years old, and here he stayed till he was nine. Here the most durable of his early impressions were received; and the associations that were around him when he died, were those which at the outset of his life had affected him most strongly.
The house called Gadshill-place stands on the strip of highest ground in the main road between Rochester and Gravesend. Very often had we travelled past it together, many years before it became his home; and never without some allusion to what he told me when first I saw it in his company, that amid the recollections connected with his childhood it held always a prominent place, for, upon first seeing it as he came from Chatham with his father, and looking up at it with much admiration, he had been promised that he might himself live in it or in some such house when he came to be a man, if he would only work hard enough. Which for a long time was his ambition. The story is a pleasant one, and receives authentication at the opening of one of his essays on travelling abroad, 0 when as he passes along the road to Canterbury there crosses it a vision of his former self.
The incidents to be told now would probably never have been known to me, or indeed any of the occurrences of his childhood and youth, but for the accident of a question which I put to him one day in the March or April of 1847.
I asked if he remembered ever having seen in his boyhood our friend the elder Mr. Dilke, his father's acquaintance and contemporary, who had been a clerk in the same office in Somersethouse to which Mr. John Dickens belonged. Yes, he said, he recollected seeing him at a house in Gerrard-street, where his uncle Barrow lodged during an illness, and Mr. Dilke had visited him. Never at any other time. Upon which I told him that some one else had been intended in the mention made to me, for that the reference implied not merely his being met accidentally, but his having had some juvenile employment in a warehouse near the Strand; at which place Mr. Dilke, being with the elder Dickens one day, had noticed him, and received, in return for the gift of a half-crown, a very low bow. He was silent for several minutes; I felt that I had unintentionally touched a painful place in his memory; and to Mr. Dilke I never spoke of the subject again. It was not however then, but some weeks later, that Dickens made further allusion to my thus having struck unconsciously upon a time of which he never could lose the remembrance while he remembered anything, and the recollection of which, at intervals, haunted him and made him miserable, even to that hour.
Very shortly afterwards, I learnt in all their detail the incidents that had been so painful to him, and what then was said to me or written respecting them revealed the story of his boyhood. The idea of David Copperfield, which was to take all the world into his confidence, had not at this time occurred to him; but what it had so startled me to know, his readers were afterwards told with only such change or addition as for the time might sufficiently disguise himself under cover of his hero. For, the poor little lad, with good ability and a most sensitive nature, turned at the age of ten into a "labouring hind" in the service of "Murdstone and Grinby," and conscious already of what made it seem very strange to him that he could so easily have been thrown away at such an age, was indeed himself. His was the secret agony of soul at finding himself "companion to Mick Walker and Mealy Potatoes," and his the tears that mingled with the water in which he and they rinsed and washed out bottles. It had all been written, as fact, before he thought of any other use for it; and it was not until several months later, when the fancy of David Copperfield, itself suggested by what he had so written of his early troubles, began to take shape in his mind, that he abandoned his first intention of writing his own life. Those warehouse experiences fell then so aptly into the subject he had chosen, that he could not resist the temptation of immediately using them; and the manuscript recording them, which was but the first portion of what he had designed to write, was embodied in the substance of the eleventh and earlier chapters of his novel. What already had been sent to me, however, and proof-sheets of the novel interlined at the time, enable me now to separate the fact from the fiction; and to supply to the story of the author's childhood those passages, omitted from the book, which, apart from their illustration of the growth of his character, present to us a picture of tragical suffering, and of tender as well as humorous fancy, unsurpassed in even the wonders of his published writings.
Dickens was nineteen years old when at last he entered the gallery. His father, with whom he still lived in Bentinck-street, had already, as we have seen, joined the gallery as a reporter for one of the morning papers, and was now in the more comfortable circumstances derived from the addition to his official pension which this praiseworthy labour ensured; but his own engagement on the Chronicle dates somewhat later. His first parliamentary service was given to the True Sun, a journal which had on its editorial staff some dear friends of mine, through whom I became myself a contributor to it, and afterwards, in common with all concerned, whether in its writing, reporting, printing, or publishing, a sharer in its difficulties. The most formidable of these arrived one day in a general strike of the reporters; and I well remember noticing at this dread time, on the staircase of the magnificent mansion we were lodged in, a young man of my own age whose keen animation of look would have arrested attention anywhere, and whose name, upon enquiry, I then for the first time heard. It was coupled with the fact which gave it interest even then, that "young Dickens" had been spokesman for the recalcitrant reporters, and conducted their case triumphantly. He was afterwards during two sessions engaged for the Mirror of Parliament, which one of his uncles by the mother's side originated and conducted; and finally, in his twenty-third year, he became a reporter for the Morning Chronicle.
The first letter I had from him was at the close of 1836 from Furnival's-inn, when he sent me the book of his opera of the Village Coquettes, which had been published by Mr. Bentley; and this was followed, two months later, by his collected Sketches, both first and second series; which he desired me to receive "as a very small testimony of the donor's regard and obligations, as well as of his desire to cultivate and avail himself of a friendship which has been so pleasantly thrown in his way. . . . In short, if you will receive them for my sake and not for their own, you will very greatly oblige me." I had met him in the interval at the house of our common friend Mr. Ainsworth, and I remember vividly the impression then made upon me.
Very different was his face in those days from that which photography has made familiar to the present generation. A look of youthfulness first attracted you, and then a candour and openness of expression which made you sure of the qualities within. The features were very good. He had a capital forehead, a firm nose with full wide nostril, eyes wonderfully beaming with intellect and running over with humour and cheerfulness, and a rather prominent mouth strongly marked with sensibility. The head was altogether well-formed and symmetrical, and the air and carriage of it were extremely spirited. The hair so scant and grizzled in later days was then of a rich brown and most luxuriant abundance, and the bearded face of his last two decades had hardly a vestige of hair or whisker; but there was that in the face as I first recollect it which no time could change, and which remained implanted on it unalterably to the last. This was the quickness, keenness, and practical power, the eager, restless, energetic outlook on each several feature, that seemed to tell so little of a student or writer of books, and so much of a man of action and business in the world. Light and motion flashed from every part of it. It was as if made of steel, was said of it, four or five years after the time to which I am referring, by a most original and delicate observer, the late Mrs. Carlyle. "What a face is his to meet in a drawing-room!" wrote Leigh Hunt to me, the morning after I made them known to each other. "It has the life and soul in it of fifty human beings." In such sayings are expressed not alone the restless and resistless vivacity and force of which I have spoken, but that also which lay beneath them of steadiness and hard endurance.
Several unsuccessful efforts were made by each to get the other to his house before the door of either was opened at last. A son had been born to him on twelfth-day (6 January, 1837), and before the close of the following month he and his wife were in the lodgings at Chalk they had occupied after their marriage. Early in March there is a letter from him accounting for the failure of a promise to call on me because of "a crew of house agents and attornies," through whom he had nearly missed his conveyance to Chalk, and been made "more than half wild besides." This was his last letter from Furnival's-inn. In that same month he went to 48, Doughty-street ; and in his first letter to me from that address, dated at the close of the month, there is this passage: "We only called upon you a second time in the hope of getting you to dine with us, and were much disappointed not to find you. I have delayed writing a reply to your note, meaning to call upon you. I have been so much engaged, however, in the pleasant occupation of 'moving' that I have not had time; and I am obliged at last to write and say that I have been long engaged to the Pickwick publishers to a dinner in honour of that hero which comes off to-morrow. I am consequently unable to accept your kind invite, which I frankly own I should have liked much better."
That Saturday's celebration of his twelfth number, the anniversary of the birth of Pickwick, preceded by but a few weeks a personal sorrow which profoundly moved him. His wife's next youngest sister, Mary, who lived with them, and by sweetness of nature even more than by graces of person had made herself the ideal of his life, died with a terrible suddenness that for the time completely bore him down. His grief and suffering were intense, and affected him, as will be seen, through many after years. The publication of Pickwick was interrupted for two months, the effort of writing it not being possible to him. He moved for change of scene to Hampstead, and here, at the close of May, I visited him, and became first his guest. More than ordinarily susceptible at the moment to all kindliest impressions, his heart opened itself to mine. I left him as much his friend, and as entirely in his confidence, as if I had known him for years. Nor had many weeks passed before he addressed to me from Doughty-street words which it is my sorrowful pride to remember have had literal fulfilment. "I look back with unmingled pleasure to every link which each ensuing week has added to the chain of our attachment. It shall go hard, I hope, ere anything but Death impairs the toughness of a bond now so firmly riveted." It remained unweakened till death came.
The notion of America was in his mind, as we have seen, when he first projected the Clock, and a very hearty letter from Washington Irving about little Nell and the Curiosity Shop, expressing the delight with his writings and the yearnings for himself which had indeed been pouring in upon him for some time from every part of the States, had very strongly revived it. He answered Irving with more than his own warmth: unable to thank him enough for his cordial and generous praise, or to tell him what lasting gratification it had given. "I wish I could find in your welcome letter," he added," some hint of an intention to visit England. I should love to go with you, as I have gone, God knows how often, into Little-britain, and East-cheap, and Green-arbour-court, and Westminster-abbey. . . . It would gladden my heart to compare notes with you about all those delightful places and people that I used to walk about and dream of in the day time, when a very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy." After interchange of these letters the subject was frequently revived; upon his return from Scotland it began to take shape as a thing that somehow or other, at no very distant date, must be; and at last, near the end of a letter filled with many unimportant things, the announcement, doubly underlined, came to me.
The decision once taken, he was in his usual fever until its difficulties were disposed of. The objections to separation from the children led at first to the notion of taking them, but this was as quickly abandoned; and what remained to be overcome yielded readily to the kind offices of Macready, the offer of whose home to the little ones during the time of absence, though not accepted to the full extent, gave yet the assurance needed to quiet natural apprehensions. All this, including an arrangement for publication of such notes as might occur to him on the journey, took but a few days; and I was reading in my chambers a letter he had written the previous day from Broadstairs, when a note from him reached me, written that morning in London, to tell me he was on his way to take share of my breakfast. He had come overland by Canterbury after posting his first letter; had seen Macready the previous night; and had completed some part of the arrangements. This mode of rapid procedure was characteristic of him at all similar times, and will appear in the few following extracts from his letters.
"Now" (19 September) "to astonish you. After balancing, considering, and weighing the matter in every point of view, I HAVE MADE UP MY MIND (WITH GOD'S LEAVE) TO GO TO AMERICA -- AND TO START AS SOON AFTER CHRISTMAS AS IT WILL BE SAFE TO GO." Further information was promised immediately; and a request followed, characteristic as any he could have added to his design of travelling so far away, that we should visit once more together the scenes of his boyhood. "On 9 October we leave here. It's a Saturday. If it should be fine dry weather, or anything like it, will you meet us at Rochester, and stop there two or three days to see all the lions in the surrounding country? Think of this. . . . If you'll arrange to come, I'll have the carriage down, and Topping; and, supposing news from Glasgow don't interfere with us, which I fervently hope it will not, I will ensure that we have much enjoyment."
Three days later than that which announced his resolve, the subject was resumed. "I wrote to Chapman and Hall, asking them what they thought of it, and saying I meant to keep a notebook, and publish it for half a guinea or thereabouts, on my return. They instantly sent the warmest possible reply, and said they had taken it for granted I would go, and had been speaking of it only the day before. I have begged them to make every enquiry about the fares, cabins, berths, and times of sailing; and I shall make a great effort to take Kate and the children. In that case I shall try to let the house furnished, for six months (for I shall remain that time in America); and if I succeed, the rent will nearly pay the expenses out, and home. I have heard of family cabins at Ј100; and I think one of these is large enough to hold us all. A single fare, I think, is forty guineas. I fear I could not be happy if we had the Atlantic between us; but leaving them in New York while I ran off a thousand miles or so, would be quite another thing. If I can arrange all my plans before publishing the Clock address, I shall state therein that I am going: which will be no unimportant consideration, as affording the best possible reason for a long delay. How I am to get on without you for seven or eight months, I cannot, upon my soul, conceive. I dread to think of breaking up all our old happy habits, for so long a time. The advantages of going, however, appear by steady looking-at so great, that I have come to persuade myself it is a matter of imperative necessity. Kate weeps whenever it is spoken of. Washington Irving has got a nasty low fever. I heard from him a day or two ago."
His next letter was the unexpected arrival which came by hand from Devonshire-terrace, when I thought him still by the sea. "This is to give you notice that I am coming to breakfast with you this morning on my way to Broadstairs. I repeat it, sir, -- on my way to Broadstairs. For, directly I got Macready's note yesterday, I went to Canterbury, and came on by day-coach for the express purpose of talking with him; which I did between eleven and twelve last night in Clarence Terrace. The American preliminaries are necessarily startling, and, to a gentleman of my temperament, destroy rest, sleep, appetite, and work, unless definitely arranged. Macready has quite decided me in respect of time and so forth. The instant I have wrung a reluctant consent from Kate, I shall take our joint passage in the mailpacket for next January. I never loved my friends so well as now." We had all discountenanced his first thought of taking the children; and, upon this and other points, the experience of our friend, who had himself travelled over the States, was very valuable. His next letter, two days later from Broadstairs, informed me of the result of the Macready conference." Only a word. Kate is quite reconciled. Anne" (her maid) "goes, and is amazingly cheerful and light of heart upon it. And I think, at present, that it's a greater trial to me than anybody. The 4th of January is the day. Macready's note to Kate was received and acted upon with a perfect response. She talks about it quite gaily, and is satisfied to have nobody in the house but Fred, of whom, as you know, they are all fond. He has got his promotion, and they give him the increased salary from the day on which the minute was made by Baring. I feel so amiable, so meek, so fond of people, so full of gratitudes and reliances, that I am like a sick man. And I am already counting the days between this and coming home again."
He was soon, alas! to be what he compared himself to. I met him at Rochester at the end of September, as arranged; we passed a day and night there; a day and night in Cobham and its neighbourhood, sleeping at the Leather-bottle; and a day and night at Gravesend. But we were hardly returned when some slight symptoms of bodily trouble took suddenly graver form, and an illness followed involving the necessity of surgical attendance. This, which, with mention of the helpful courage displayed oy him, has before been alluded to, put off necessarily the Glasgow dinner; and he had scarcely left his bedroom when a trouble arose near home which touched him to the depths of the greatest sorrow of his life, and, in the need of exerting himself for others, what remained of his own illness seemed to pass away.
Dickens's next letter was begun in the "United-states-hotel, Philadelphia," and bore date "Sunday, sixth March, 1842." It treated of much dealt with afterwards at greater length in the Notes, but the freshness and vivacity of the first impressions in it have surprised me. I do not however print any passage here which has not its own interest independently of anything contained in that book. The rule will be continued, as in the portions of letters already given, of not transcribing anything before printed, or anything having even but a near resemblance to descriptions that appear in the Notes.
". . . As this is likely to be the only quiet day I shall have for a long time, I devote it to writing to you. We have heard nothing from you yet, and only have for our consolation the reflection that the Columbia is now on her way out. No news had been heard of the Caledonia yesterday afternoon, when we left New York. We were to have quitted that place last Tuesday, but have been detained there all the week by Kate having so bad a sore throat that she was obliged to keep her bed. We left yesterday afternoon at five o'clock, and arrived here at eleven last night. Let me say, by the way, that this is a very trying climate.
"I have often asked Americans in London which were the better railroads -- ours or theirs? They have taken time for reflection, and generally replied, on mature consideration, that they rather thought we excelled; in respect of the punctuality with which we arrived at our stations, and the smoothness of our travelling. I wish you could see what an American railroad is, in some parts where I now have seen them. I won't say I wish you could feel what it is, because that would be an unchristian and savage aspiration. It is never inclosed, or warded off. You walk down the main street of a large town: and, slap-dash, headlong, pell-mell, down the middle of the street; with pigs burrowing, and boys flying kites and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and children crawling, close to the very rails; there comes tearing along a mad locomotive with its train of cars, scattering a red-hot shower of sparks (from its wood fire) in all directions; screeching, hissing, yelling, and painting; and nobody one atom more concerned than if it were a hundred miles away. You cross a turnpike-road; and there is no gate, no policeman, no signal -- nothing to keep the wayfarer or quiet traveller out of the way, but a wooden arch on which is written in great letters 'Look out for the locomotive.' And if any man, woman, or child, don't look out, why it's his or her fault, and there's an end of it.
Charles Dickens was an English novelist and one of the most popular writers in the history of literature. In his enormous body of works, Dickens combined masterly storytelling, humour, pathos, and irony with sharp social criticism and acute observation of people and places, both real and imagined.
Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth and spent most of his childhood in London and Kent, both of which appear frequently in his novels. He started school at the age of nine, but his education was interrupted when his father was imprisoned for debt in 1824. The boy was then forced to support himself by working in a shoe-polish factory. From 1824 to 1826, Dickens again attended school. For the most part, however, he was self-educated. Among his favourite books were those by such great 18th-century novelists as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, and their influence can be discerned in Dickens's own novels. In 1827 Dickens took a job as a legal clerk.
In December 1833 Dickens published the first of a series of original descriptive sketches of daily life in London, using the pseudonym Boz. The success of this first novel The Pickwick Papers made Dickens famous.
Dickens subsequently maintained his fame with a constant stream of novels. A man of enormous energy and wide talents, he also engaged in many other activities. He edited the weekly periodicals Household Words (1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1870), composed the travel books American Notes (1842) and Pictures from Italy (1846), administered charitable organisations, and pressed for many social reforms. In 1843 he published A Christmas Carol, an ever-popular children's story.
Incompatibility and Dickens's relations with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, led to his separation from his wife in 1858, after the marriage had produced ten children. He suffered a fatal stroke on June 9, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey five days later.
He made a valuable contribution to world literature, he wrote “The Pickwick Papers”, “Bleak House”, “Oliver Twist”, “Dombey and Son” and other novels and stories.