With the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth next year, we expect you are going to be inundated with documentaries, adaptations and biographies for the whole year. So we thought we would get in first and enlighten you on a lesser known period of his life, which we think you might find very interesting. – Deskarati –
Charles Dickens was born at Landport, in Portsea, on February 7, 1812, the second of eight children, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay-office and was temporarily on duty in the neighbourhood. Very soon after the birth of Charles, however, the family moved for a short period to Norfolk Street, Bloomsbury, and then for a long period to Chatham, in Kent, which thus became the real childhood home, and for all serious purposes, the native place of Dickens. His early years seem to have been idyllic, although he thought himself a “very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy”. Charles spent time outdoors, but also read voraciously, especially the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. He spoke, later in life, of his poignant memories of childhood, and of his near-photographic memory of the people and events, which he used in his writing. His father’s brief period as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office afforded him a few years of private education at William Giles’s School, in Chatham.
This period came to an abrupt end when the Dickens family, because of financial difficulties, moved from Kent to Camden Town, in London in 1822. John Dickens continually lived beyond his means and was eventually imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison in Southwark, London in 1824. Shortly afterwards, the rest of his family joined him – except 12-year-old Charles, who was boarded with family friend Elizabeth Roylance in Camden Town. Mrs. Roylance was “a reduced [impoverished] old lady, long known to our family”, whom Dickens later immortalised, “with a few alterations and embellishments”, as “Mrs. Pipchin”, in Dombey and Son. Later, he lived in a “back-attic…at the house of an insolvent-court agent…in Lant Street in The Borough…he was a fat, good-natured, kind old gentleman, with a quiet old wife”; and he had a very innocent grown-up son; these three were the inspiration for the Garland family in The Old Curiosity Shop.
On Sundays, Dickens and his sister Frances (“Fanny”) were allowed out from the Royal Academy of Music and spent the day at the Marshalsea. (Dickens later used the prison as a setting in Little Dorrit). To pay for his board and to help his family, Dickens was forced to leave school and began working ten-hour days at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, on Hungerford Stairs, near the present Charing Cross railway station. He earned six shillings a week pasting labels on blacking. The strenuous – and often cruel – work conditions made a deep impression on Dickens, and later influenced his fiction and essays, forming the foundation of his interest in the reform of socio-economic and labour conditions, the rigors of which he believed were unfairly borne by the poor. He would later write that he wondered “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.” As told to John Forster (from The Life of Charles Dickens):
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.
A 1904 artist’s impression of Dickens in the blacking factory
After only a few months in Marshalsea, John Dickens’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Dickens, died and bequeathed him the sum of £450. On the expectation of this legacy, Dickens was granted release from prison. Under the Insolvent Debtors Act, Dickens arranged for payment of his creditors, and he and his family left Marshalsea for the home of Mrs. Roylance.
Although Charles eventually attended the Wellington House Academy in North London, his mother Elizabeth Dickens did not immediately remove him from the boot-blacking factory. The incident may have done much to confirm Dickens’s view that a father should rule the family, a mother find her proper sphere inside the home. “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” His mother’s failure to request his return was no doubt a factor in his dissatisfied attitude towards women.’
Righteous anger 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!” The Wellington House Academy was not 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.’ 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. Then, having learned Gurneys system of shorthand in his spare time, he left to become a freelance reporter. 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 informed 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 was 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”.
In 1830, Dickens met his first love, Maria Beadnell, thought to have been the model for the character Dora in David Copperfield. Maria’s parents disapproved of the courtship and effectively ended the relationship by sending her to school in Paris.
Edited from Charles Dickens