English Authors: Charles Dickens (1812-70)

Figure 1.--This is an illustration of one of Dickens' novels, but we are not sure just one. Nor do we know the name of the illustrator,.

Charles Dickens is regarded by many as the greatest novelist in the English language. He is especially notable for the wonderfully diverse chracters he created. Among them are some of the most famous boy characters in literary history. Oliver Twist was in fact the first boy character to be the main character of a novel. Dickens authored 15 major novels and numerous short stories and articles. Oliver David, and Pip are the best known, but many other boys and girls populate his novels. The most memorable are those wounded and in some cases destroyed by poverty, in pat because of his boyhood experiences. The epitat on his tombstone in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey reads: "He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world".


Charles parents came from families of parents. Charles' father was John Dickens. He grew up in the prpximity of his mother's employers. He looked on himself as a gentleman. He obtained a secure position at the Royal Navy Pay Office. He was personable, but not very responsible. His mother Elizabeth was cherrful and optimistic. She was also sensible and practical. Dickens' relationship with his mother was forever affected when after the family condition improved, she wanted him to stay at the boot blacking factory. When he told his father how much he hated it, hos father took him away.


Charles Dickens was born in 1812 at No. 1 Mile End Terrace, Landport, Portsmouth. Charles father was transferred In 1814 to Somerset House in and then in 1817 was transferred again to Chatham where he worked in the Royal Navy dockyard. The family lived in Chatham in the Medway Valley along the Thames River. (The Thames would appear again and again in his works as did tidal waters and things of the sea like barges, sailing ships, and prison barges.) They lived in a terrace house at Chatting and Rochester . Charles remembered his childhood in Chatham as idellic. (David Copperfield also ha an idellic childhood.) Charles saw himself as an actor and used to love to give recitations of poems, ballads, and other pieces from books he memorized. His family considered him a prodigy because of his ability to memorize and the emotion he put into his recitations. He had a little toy sword which he sometimes would brandish in those recitations. He loved to tell stories and gradually began to dream of being a writer. John Churchill was transferred back to the Royal Navy London office and again moved the family, this time to Camden Town in 1822. London was one of the largest cities in the world and begining to prosper as never before as the financial center of the of the Industrial Revolution as well as the political center of the British Empire. The young Charles was struck at the contrast between the well to do and the poor as well as the pace of life. London was a harsh place for those without money. There were trash heaps, sewage, smoke, and beggers. And rising out of the smoke was the dome of St. Pauls. It was such a contrast to the green fields in which he spent his early childhood. The oservations of the child stayed with Dickens throughout his life. In many of his works the contrast between country and city are graphically depicted.

Childhood Clothing

I have no information on the clothes Charles wore as a boy at this time. They would have been the styles of the 1820s and 20s. Presumably they would have been styles like skeleton suits and tunics.


Charles' mothr taught him to read. Charles in particular remembers Little Red Ridinghood. He attend a day school in Chatamam. By all accounts he was a quick witted boy. He was a veryobservnt boy and he as a writer he was later to turn back to the observations of his youth.

Child Labor

John Dickens was having trouble meeting his bills fter returning to London. As a result, Charles despite his academic abilities and interest in school, was taken out of school and had to work at a Warrens Boot Blacking factory. This was the end of his childhood. It was a particularly bitter experience for Charles because his sister had secured a place studying music in a prestiogious academy. The book blacking factory was located on the strand where Charing Cross Station is now located. Charles had to label bottles. He earned 6 shillings a week to help with the family finances. Charles said little at the time, but was mortified. He recalls wondring as a boy, "how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age". His parents do not seem to have understood the hurtand abandonment Charles felt. He had such high hopes for his future and now was set to work with uneducated street children. They called him the young gentleman. Some wanted to beat him up. He was protected by another boy who befriened him--Bob Fagin. Historians wonnder why then Fagin in was made into such a villan in Oliver Twist. It may be that this was such a hurtful time for Charles, that he could not remember how he was befriend by Bob Fagin. Charles' hands were soon stained with the blacking. One of the reasons Charles felt so abandoned was that he was forced to work at the blacking factory, his sister Fanny was accepted to study at the Royal Academy of Music. This experience was unknown to the English public during Dicken's lifetime, but has a central impact on his work. He felt abandoned and experienced real poverty when his father was arrested for his growing debts.

Debtor's Prison

John Dickens had a secure position with the Royal Navy. He was careful with his money, however, and lived beyond his means. Charles even as a boy was aware of his father's faults. Still he dored him (Mr. McCauber (His father emerges as Mr. Mcamber in David Copperfield. David recognized Mcawaber's faults, but still adored the boy.) As a result of his extravagances, John Dickens was imprisoned for debt at the Marshalsea debtor's prison in Southwark in 1824, only 2 years after returning to London. Charle walked his father to the prison gate. After this Charles at age 12 was own his own. He could have easily sunk into the London underworld. He was only a few steps from abject poverty and no one to taje him in. He found lodgings in a cheap, dingy boarding house financed with his meager earmings. He would visit his family in the prison. His family cried over what he had brought upon the family. (Miccawber has a similar scene in David Copperfiekd.) John was only freed from the debtor's prison by an unexpected famuly bequest. (A rather Dickensian turn of events.) Even after John was freed, Charle's mother wanted him to continue working at the blacking factory fot the 6 shillings. Charles never really forgave his mother or trusted her again. He eventually spoke with his father who took him away.

Youth Work

The young Charles because of his experiences had a huge appetite for success and fame. He found a job s a legal clerk. He leaned shorthand and became a parlimentary reporter. He thus was exposed to reports and debates on penal law, pverty, work houses, child labor and other social issues of the day.


Dickens more than any other author embodied the spirit of Victorian England. He understood the poor and disadvantaged more tham any other Victorian author.


Catherine had 10 children. Exhaustd, her sister Georgina took over the running of the household. Dickens created some of the great boy characters. He also created some of the most notorious villans in literature. His behavior toward Catherine would have qualified him personally for one of his villans. Dickens gradually began to tire of her. She was no longer young and attractive and having spent 22 years raising children. She was no longer the spritly companion he wanted. He had met banished a younger woman. Because of Catherine, he could not remarry. A divorce at the time would have ruined his career. He did banish Catherine from their home after 22 years of marriage. The children were allowed to visit her, but this was only possible occassionally. The sepearation from her husband and perhaps even more the separation from her children was very painful.


Dickens published most of his works as installments in Newspapers. He got paid by installment. Thus he tended to drag out his stories and they are a bit wordy. But of coyrse he weaves compelling stories and the public at the time could not wait for the next installment. Perhaps his greatest strength is the wonderful characters with which he populte his works. Dickens created an estimated 970 characters, some of the best known characters in history including some of the great boy characters. The most memorable are those wounded and in some cases destroyed by poverty. Certainly his own boyhood experiences gave him the insights needed to create these characters and describe their lives.

Great Works

Charles Dickens is regarded by many as the greatest novelist in the English language. He is especially notable for the wonderfully diverse chracters he created. Scholars estimate that Dickens created over 2,000 characters. There is a strange connection between Dickens and his characters. Literary historians debate that connection. Many see fragments of Dicken's personality and his family in many of the characters. Among Dickens' characters are some of the most famous boy characters in literary history. Oliver Twist was in fact the first boy character to be the main character of a novel. Dickens authored 15 major novels and numerous short stories and articles. Oliver David, and Pip are the best known, but many other boys and girls populate his novels.

Oliver Twist (1838)

Oliver Twist was in many ways a social document. The first chapters reall deal with the English poor laws. It may not be Dicken's best novel nor is his portarait of Oliver the most finely crafted of his boy characters. It is probably Oliver, however, that is the most widely recognized of all his characters. It was the first novel he wrote, coming after the success of Sketches by Boz Perhaps it is Oliver's truiumphs over all of life's obscalcles. Perhaps it is his plucky, most British spirit that makes Oliver such an engaging chracter to this day. Oliver was as popular in America as in England, and also popular in many European countries as well. Oliver Twist is one of Charles Dickens's early works and shows its Victorian origins when he sometimes strays into extended passages of gross sentimentality. But Dickens uncovered his fierce passion for defending the underdog in Oliver Twist and this theme was repeated in some way in all his subsequent work. His depiction of the cruelty of England's poor laws and the petty tyranny of the minor bureaucrats who sprung up as a result of those laws was so vivid that it stirred people to demand change. But what a cast of characters Oliver encounters. With the stock of fantastic characters in Oliver Twist it is a strange failing of Dickens that the eponymous hero is sometimes little more than a cipher. It is at times as if Oliver doesn't really exist, he's just a foil who brings out the worst or the best in those who come into contact with him. The strength of most of the other characterizations, however, makes up for this anomaly. Bill Sikes is such a suitably deplorable villain that his villainy becomes etched in your mind. Few villans are so starkly drawn as Bill Sikes in all of English literature. One almost fears that you might bump into him and his evil dog. Fagin, the Jewish pied piper, has a strange charm, although I'm sure Dickens didn't mean him to be taken as anything other than another arch villain (of the manipulative kind--a foil to Sikes's horribly violent nature). There are plenty of other vivid characters, but the great strengths of Oliver Twist are the passages describing London, and especially the miserably poor part of London, in the 1830s. Follow Sikes and Oliver on their trek across this metropolis and you'll get as clear and vivid a picture of Industrial Revolution London as ever was put into prose. No-one could write about dirt, squalor, or injustice quite like Dickens, and when you combine this facility with a real comic genius you have a winning formula.

Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39)

Nicholas Nickleby was serialized in 1938 and 39. Dickens in 1939 also resigned as editor of Bentley's Miscellany. Nicholas growsup in a loving family leading a comfortable. happy life until Nicholasís father dies. They are left inpoverished and forced to seek assistance from Uncle Ralph in London. Uncle Ralph seeks to break up the family. Nicholas is sent to Dotheboys Hall operated by a cruel and abusive headmaster Wackford Squeers and his swrewish wife. The decrepit school and vilinous headmaster are the worst depicted in English literature. The British public was horrified with the school and the tragic tale of the boy Smike who Nicholas befriends. The depressing fact is that such schools really existed. Before writing the book, Dickens actually visited the Wiiliam Shaws Acadmy. This was one of numerous shools established in part to as a dumping grounds for unwanted, inconvenient children. Many were dreadful institutions where the children were terribly abused, depending in part on how much the guardians payed. Academies like this were destroyed by Nicholas Nickleby, forced to close after the publication of the story.

Dombey & Son (1848-49)

Charles Dickens was reportedly influenced by a portrait as to how he portrayed the boy character Little Paul in his novel Dombey and Son. The portrait was "Painting of a Boy" by W.J. Orchardson RA. The portrate is of a boy named W.H. Keith. He was the son of James Keith who was an Edinburgh printseller. Illustrations we have found of Little Paul picture him in what looks to be a dress with a sash. Perhaps it is a kind of tunic outfit, a style that was popular in the early to mid-19th century. There is lace around the cuffs and there is also a fancy lace collar. He does not seem to be wearing stockings. His hair is unkempt and blond. He is wearing strap shoes. In another image, Little Paul is with his sister and wears a much plainer dress. It has a belt across the middle. He is wearing shoes without a strap. His hat is by his side. Paul looks sad as does his sister. The image is full of emotion and concern about how the boy is being cared for. This is a Dickens novel I have not read so I am not familiar with the story. The similarity in the two illustrations suggest that Paul's clothing are described in detail by Dickens.

David Copperfield (1849-50)

Charles Dickens published David Copperfield in 1849-50. David is the most autobiographicl of Dickens' works. More or less meaning that in most cases he does not use actual names, but makes up the scenery and names of the people. The events and general meaning, however, remain the same. To create such an atmosphere and still have it retain the same essential elements of a true autobiography is an act of shear genius. It is Dicken's fvorite of all his works. The book is divided into two basic parts: 1)David as a boy, and 2) David as a young man. David's father dies 6 months before he is born. David and his mother are very close until she marries Mr. Murdstone, who is a cold, mean man who dominates the relationship between David and his mother. Before any of that happens, David spends a few weeks with Peggoty at her brother Dan's house. David meets to kids, Little Em'ly and Ham. When David's mother dies in still childbirth, his step-father appretices him off to London to work where he meets Wilkins Micawber, who let's David stay with him. He turns out to be a fraud, but does so in such a weird way that it's hard not to like him. Micawber is in great financial trouble, and is always "expecting something to turn up". Micawber is later arrested and sent to debtors prison. David's last stop in his youth is Dover, where he lives with his fathers sister, Betswet Trotwood, who lives with crazy cousin Mr. Dick. David takes to Mr. Dick right off, and he is finally happy. He is sent to live with the Wickfield family, which includes old Mr. Wickfield who is a well off, but alcoholic, businessman; his daughter Agnes who is David's age, and the clerk, Uriah Heep. By the time David graduates from school, Agnes has fallen in love with David (although he doesn't know it yet). Mr. Wickfield has fallen under the influence of the evil Uriah Heep, and Heep has hired Mr. Micawber. David returns to London to become a writer where David meets up with Steerforth whom he once knew in school. The two soon become fast friends. Together, they attend an opera where David is introduced to Dora who will eventually become his bride. The rest of the book deals with David as a young man and how Uriah Heep is finally exposed.

Great Expectations (1860-61)

Philip Pirrip, better known as "Pip", is both the central character and narrarator of Dicken's masterpiece Great Expectations. No author has created more classic boy characters as Dickens. He nariates the book through the eyes of the adult Pip, even though Pip is a young boy at the beginning of the book. As a boy, Pip was strongly influenced by his guardians, Joe Gargery and his wife, Mrs. Joe. Joe instills a sense of honesty, industry, and friendliness in Pip, while Mrs. Joe does a great deal to contribute to his desires and ambitions through her constant emphasis on pomp and property. Pip is a good-natured and thoughtful, and very imaginative. His false values, which are bolstered by his love of the unapproachable Estella, decrease the respect that he has for Joe, who is uneducated and has none of the social graces. His alienation from Joe and Joe's values builds through the second part of the novel, as Pip who is educated as a gentleman becomes selfish, greedy, and foolish. During the period when his expectations are intact, his only morally positive act was to secretly help Herbert Pocket into a good position. Upon discovering that the frigtening Magwitch is his misterious benefactor, a new phase begins in Pip's moral evolution. At first, Pip no longer feels the same human compassion for Magwitch that he did the first time he saw him out on the marshes. Gradually, Pip changes his perception of Magwitch, unlearning what he has learned. Pip becomes concerned with the man, and not the expectations that he could provide. When Jaggers presents the thought that there may be a way for Pip to get his hands on Magwitch's property, the idea sounds hollow and utterly empty to Pip. Pip learns about Estella's parentage through Magwitch, and that his aspirations were falsely based. When Pip is arrested for his debts and becomes too ill to go to prison, Joe tends to him. Thus, the positive values which Joe had shown Pip as a child are reinforced. After the ruination of Pip's expectations, the only good he experiences comes directly from the only good he did for others while his expectations where intact. From the beginning to the end of the novel, Pip loses and then rediscovers the importance of human relationships and virtue over wealth and position.


Dickens' Christmas Carol is one of his most famous works. He wrote in very quickly, in part to repay debts. It proved to be one of his most influential. One historian tells us, the story "played a major role in transforming a celebration dating back to pre-Christian times, revitalizing forgotten customs and introducing new ones that now define the holiday." [Standford] The turkey as a centerpiece of the Christmas meal can be traced to Dickens. The Christmas Carol notably deals with Christmas as a secular holiday centered on the family. He provides a secular countrpoint to the religious holiday. Dickens' srory deals with charity, compassion, educational opportunity, humane working conditions, decent living conditions, and the family unit.


The epitat on his tombstone in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey reads: "He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world".


????. The Making of Charles Dickens.

Standiford, Leo. The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits (Crown, 2008), 241p.


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Created: October 27, 2003
Last updated: 12:29 AM 12/26/2008