10 Surprising Facts About Charles Dickens!

Charles Dickens in Colour

10 Surprising Facts About Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is the most famous writer in English literature. His stories such as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, have continued to shape the way in which we understand the Victorian Era, how we celebrate Christmas, and even how we speak - there are a number of words and phrases which Dickens is credited with either inventing or popularising. 

And while Dickens has certainly come to define the era in which he lived, it is also true that his stories still speak to the modern reader almost two centuries after they began to appear. Dickens writes about the struggle of daily life, but also the idea that you can make a positive change in your own life. He uses his stories to call us to kindness, and though they have passed through the generations, they still speak to the heart today. This is reflected in the fact that Dickens has never been out of print. Almost every year a new TV or movie adaptation of his work is released, and Charles Dickens even appeared in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed, an honour not bestowed on many Victorian writers. 

Dickens also lived a remarkable life. Although most people think of him as an old man with a bushy beard, looking up soberly from a grainy, black-and-white photograph, the reality was very different. We've put together our ten favourite facts which just might surprise you!

1. Dickens went to work in a factory aged 12. 

Forget the idea that Dickens was always a rich, benevolent Victorian. He was born in 1812, the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. John was a clerk in the Royal Navy, and to give you an idea of what sort of job that was, in A Christmas Carol, the long suffering Bob Cratchit is a clerk. The family moved around a lot in Dickens's youth, from Portsmouth, to Kent, to London. John was getting deeper and deeper into debt, and the family were literally running away from their creditors. Finally, in 1824 their debts caught up with them, and John Dickens was imprisoned in Marshalsea Prison, along with his wife and most of his family. 

Charles Dickens, aged 12, was sent to live with a family friend, and to work at Warren's shoe polish factory. Dickens would later recall the grimness of life in the factory, and although he only worked at Warren's for about a year, his experience of living on the very edge of absolute poverty never left him. He would keep this period in his life a closely guarded secret, and it was only revealed to the public after his death in 1870.

2. He dreamt of being an actor. 

Like most people in their teens and early twenties, Dickens did not know what he wanted to do with his life. But, perhaps as a result of his impoverished youth, he did know that he wanted to be somebody. He wanted fame. Initially he decided to try his hand at acting. This was a realistic prospect, as he was a gifted actor, and he was able to gain an audition at the Covent Garden Theatre. He missed the audition when he came down with a heavy cold, but he gave up on acting as a career for a very different reason. 

Dickens had fallen in love with a woman called Maria Beadnell. Her family were middle class, and they disapproved of her association with an aspiring actor - actors being seen as of a low social status. To try and appease her family, and also to make ends meet, he got a steady job working in a law office. 

This never did win him the hand of Maria Beadnell, but it did open the door of opportunity for him. His gift for writing meant that he was able to take on additional work as a parliamentary reporter and journalist, which in turn led to his becoming a novelist. He may not have initially set out to become an author, but it sure worked out for him in the end! 

You can hear more about Dickens and Maria Beadnell through this Youtube video, with Miriam Margoyles. 

3. He wrote his first novel when he was only 24. 

While working as a parliamentary reporter, then as a journalist more widely, it became apparent that Dickens had a real flair for descriptions. He gained a reputation when he began to write short stories, based on his observations of life in the city of London, stories which were later collated under the title Sketches by Boz. In 1836 Dickens embarked on his first full novel, The Pickwick Papers, along with illustrator collaborators, Robert Seymour and later Hablot Knight Browne, or 'Phiz' as he was known. 

The Pickwick Papers were published in monthly instalments. They initially had a circulation of just over 400 copies a month, but by the end of the novel, they were selling over 40,000 copies per month. Dickens's literary career had begun, and he made enough money from the story to lease number 48 Doughty Street - where the museum is based today. 

4. He didn't grow a beard until he was in his fourties. 

As soon as you think of Charles Dickens, you probably imagine a black-and-white image of an older man with a great bushy beard. Indeed, people who have not read Dickens's novels often think of him as a dull, or very serious Victorian writer. 

This could not be further from the truth! As well as breathing huge amounts of hilarity into all of his novels, Dickens was a vivacious and gregarious person. He loved bright colours, and gaudy patterns. He dressed quite flamboyantly, and was a bit of a dandy. His cellar was always well stocked with wines and spirits, while Charles and Catherine loved to throw dinners and parties for their friends and family. Portraits of Dickens in his twenties and thirties show a young man who is clean shaven, with long locks of hair, and an ambitious twinkle in his eye. Quite the catch! 

5. A portrait of his wife was once mistaken for Charles Dickens in drag!

In 1847 the Dickenses commissioned their friend, Daniel Macliese to paint a portrait of Catherine Dickens. It still survives, and currently hangs in the Morning Room of the museum. It shows a beautiful, young woman, holding some embroidery and surrounded by flowers, and it is labelled as, "Mrs Charles Dickens."

In 1848 the portrait was put on display at the Royal Academy, but the accompanying catalogue dropped the 'S,' mistakenly referring to the portrait as "Mr Charles Dickens." This led one observer to remark that it was a portrait of Charles Dickens, dressed as a woman for a theatrical production! 

6. He founded his own charity. 

Dickens was a well known philanthropist, who committed himself to a number of good causes, particularly focusing on issues of child poverty and education. In 1847 he founded his own charity, in collaboration with Angela Burdett-Coutts, called Urania Cottage. 

Urania Cottage was a refuge for 'fallen women.' There has, historically, been a lot of ambiguity over this phrase. It was commonly used as a term for female sex workers, but was also applied to women who had sex outside of marriage, or who engaged in extra-marital affairs. These women were extremely vulnerable. They were often disowned from their families, forfeited any rights to parish relief, and very often ended up destitute, homeless, or even - in the case of sex workers - imprisoned. 

The purpose of Urania Cottage was to offer these women a refuge, where they could live comfortably and in peace, while they learnt useful skills, such as the ability to read and write. When ready, they would then move abroad, usually to America or Australia, where they could start a fresh life. This might sound extreme to the modern age, but in the Victorian period, moving abroad was the surest way you could make sure your past did not follow you into the future. 

Dickens personally interviewed the women before they were admitted to Urania Cottage, and he issued pamphlets to all new arrivals, insisting that they all "be treated with the greatest kindness."

7. He encouraged other writers - even women! 

In addition to authoring novels, Dickens was also the editor of the weekly magazines, Household Words and All The Year Round. Designed to champion the causes of the poor, they featured articles and short stories provided by a range of writers. Dickens serialised his own novels, such as Hard Times, through his magazines, but he also welcomed contributors from other writers such as Wilkie Collins and George Augustus Henry Sala. 

Dickens also welcomed contributions from female writers, including the first salaried female journalist, Eliza Lynn Linton, as well as writers Harriet Parr and Elizabeth Gaskell. One of the stories published in All The Year Round was called The Haunted House. It was co-written by six different authors, three of whom were female. 

8. His pet made a surprise appearance in his novels. 

The Dickens family loved their pets, and would go on to have a number of animals in their care. Dickens had a horse called Duke, a St Bernard dog called Linda, but most famously a pet raven called Grip. 

Dickens seems to have loved his raven (following Grip's death, he actually purchased another pet raven, called Grip II), so in 1840 when writing Barnaby Rudge, he decided to write his beloved bird into the novel. A dramatic work of historical fiction, set within the Gordon Riots of 1780, Barnaby Rudge is a simple character who gets swept up in the great events of the tale. He has with him a pet raven called... you've got it.. Grip! 

9. He wrote A Christmas Carol in just 6 weeks! 

Dickens is perhaps most famous for his novella, A Christmas Carol. Although it is a glorious story about the power of change and redemption, as well as a very warming tale of festive tradition, it was not at all what Dickens initially set out to write. 

In 1842, a parliamentary report was published, exploring the conditions of children who worked in mines. Dickens was horrified by what he read, and he initially wanted to write a public response to the report, to make more people aware of the terrible conditions of the working children. 

He quickly realised that not many people would read a reply to a parliamentary report, however, and so he allowed his creative genius to take over, and began to write a story which would be both very enjoyable, but which would call upon people to reflect on their actions, consider people around them, and to change their ways.

Dickens wrote the story rapidly, taking just 6 weeks from beginning to end. He was also forced to pay half the publication costs himself, since his publishers did not see the value of a Christmas story. A Christmas Carol has never been out of print since its publication in 1843 and is considered, by many, to be one of Dickens' greatest literary achievements. 

You can hear more about the creation of A Christmas Carol through this Youtube video, featuring Simon Callow. 

10. Dickens-mania was not a word used by the Victorians, but it was certainly a real thing!

It's really hard in the modern age to describe just how famous Charles Dickens was during his own lifetime. From 1837 to his death in 1870, he was one of the most famous people on the planet. His books were read around the world, and he was possibly the first global 'celebrity' in the modern sense of the word. 

During his first trip to the United States of America, Dickens was mobbed with crowds of fans wherever he went. He wrote that he didn't get a hair cut on the entire journey, for fear the barbers would sell his hair as souvenirs. Merchandise was created from his stories, and plays, musicals, songs and even plagiarized novels, were all mass produced throughout his life. 

When Dickens died in 1870, it sent shockwaves throughout the world. He was only 58, so it was not an expected event, and people could not believe that they would never again read a new novel by Dickens. The illustration entitled 'The Empty Chair,' which was an illustration of Dickens's writing desk and chair, became a popular image, conveying the shared sense of grief at the death of the great author. Although Dickens had requested a small, private funeral, it was decided to bury him in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. 

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