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Friday, 23 November 2012


                     The Bicentenary Of Charles Dickens

                      by Madalyn Morgan

                  Charles John Huffam Dickens,
                  February 7, 1812-June 9, 1870
“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

"Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D. December, 1843”
A Christmas Carol was the first of Dickens’ Christmas books. The Chimes and The Haunted Man followed, but A Christmas Carol remains the most popular.  It has never been out of print and, like the classic novels, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (which Dickens was writing when he died).  A Christmas Carol has been adapted for film, stage, opera, and other media, many times.  In all professions, but especially in the arts, being in the right place at the right time can mean the difference between fame and obscurity.  In the mid nineteenth century, Charles Dickens was in the right place at the right time, and took full advantage of it.  There was a revival of the old nostalgic Christmas traditions, which the puritans in the 17th C. had tried (with some success) to abolish, as well as new customs, like the Christmas tree and greeting cards.  A Christmas Carol, published in time for Christmas 1843 was an instant success and received great critical acclaim.  

 The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.

 Dickens' source material for the story came from the humiliation he suffered as a child working in the blacking factory (the ghost of Christmas past).  He was insecure, because he had been abandoned by his father (the ghost of Christmas present).  And he feared what the future would bring (the ghost of yet to come).  As well as sympathy for the poor, and many Christmas stories and fairy tales.

Charles was the second of eight children.  His father, John, was a naval clerk; his mother, Elizabeth, aspired to be a teacher and school director.  The family were poor, but they appeared to be happy in the early days.  In 1816, they moved to Chatham, in Kent, where Charles and his siblings played in open fields and explored the ruins of the old Rochester castle.  But in 1822, they moved to a poor neighbourhood in Camden Town, London.

As a child, Dickens would walk with his father by Gad's Hill Place, a large impressive mansion outside Rochester.  His father told him that with perseverance and hard work he could live in such a house.  Thirty-six years later, in 1856, Dickens bought it.

Charles’ father had always lived beyond his means.  He borrowed money, spent it recklessly, and in 1824 was sent to Marshalsea prison for debt.  His wife and the younger children lived with him there, but Charles, aged twelve, was made to work in Warren’s Blacking Factory where he labelled bottles of shoe polish, and had to find his own lodgings.  Sometime later, his father inherited enough money to pay off his debts.  He left Marshalsea, but he wouldn’t let Charles leave the factory.  Charles hated the dirty and demeaning work and never forgave his father for abandoning him.  The harrowing experience scarred Charles so badly that he wasn't able to pass the former site of the factory, in the Strand, without crying.
     In 1825, Charles was allowed to go back to school.  John Dickens was a socially ambitious man, and a son working in a blacking factory would not have looked well in the kind of society he aspired to.  In 1827, Charles became a lawyer’s clerk.  An experience he uses in many of his novels.

Dickens, The Entertainer

Dickens wanted to be an actor.  He was obsessed with drama.  He joined the Garrick Club at the age of 25 and had many theatrical friends, including the actor William Macready to whom he dedicated Nicholas Nickleby.  Not only was he an avid theatregoer, he loved circuses and melodrama houses.  His periodical writings covered vents and "grimacers," waxworks, freak shows, clowns and gaslight fairies – actors wearing grotesque heads made of papier-mâché.                   Joseph Grimaldi, Panto clown

Dickens was a talented mimic and used to ‘act out’ scenes from his novels before writing them down.  He once paid a theatre manager to let him do a comic turn on stage.  Rather him than me.  The audiences in those days were rough.  They didn’t only mock and heckle, they threw things – orange peel was a favourite for some reason.

  Dickens, Lover and Husband

“A man is lucky if he is the first love of a woman.  A woman is lucky if she is the last love of a man.” 
  Charles’ first love was, Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a banker.  Her parents disapproved and forbade her to see him.  He wrote her passionate letters and stood outside her house every night (which would be considered as stalking today), but his love was unrequited.  He called her the love of his life, until he met her again in middle age.  He said, he was cruelly disappointed, and could not see what it was that had so fascinated him.

He married Catherine Thomson "Kate" Hogan (19 May 1815 – 22 November 1879) after she moved to London from Edinburgh with her family in 1834.  Catherine’s father was a music critic for the Morning Chronicle where Dickens was a young journalist.  They were married at St. Luke’s Church in Chelsea, on April 2nd 1836, honeymooned in Chalk, near Chatham in Kent, and set up home in Bloomsbury. 

As the years went by, Dickens found Catherine an increasingly incompetent mother and housekeeper and blamed her for the birth of their ten children.  

"They separated in 1858 after rumours of Dickens' unfaithfulness were publicised, which he publicly denied."  
Dickens, The Adulterer

Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan

Ellen Lawless Ternan (3 March 1839 – 25 April 1914), also known as Nelly, was an English actress more famous for being Charles Dickens mistress than for her stage performances.
Unlike other literary men of the time, Thackeray or Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins, who flouted Victorian conventions and had mistresses, Dickens went to great lengths to keep Nelly a secret.  It wasn’t until after his death that details of their affair became known. 

Dickens met Ellen Ternan in 1857 when he was forty-five, and she was eighteen.  As his mistress, Nelly unlocked the pain of his childhood and put an end to his feelings of sexual and social inadequacy.  As his muse, she inspired him to write his finest novel, Great Expectations.  However, the sorrows and complications of their relationship coloured his final novels: Our Mutual Friend, with its many themes of characters living a lie and pretending to be other than they truly are.  And, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, in which a murder story, based on a tormented love tangle, is set in Nelly's home town of Rochester. 

Catherine, The Loyal Wife 

When Catherine Dickens found out about her husband’s infidelity in 1860, Ellen retired from the stage and lived quietly in a house that Dickens bought for her.  There were rumours that she bore him a son who died in infancy.  But, as Dickens burned many of his personal papers before he died, no one will ever know. 
     Dickens and Catherine had little correspondence after their marriage break up.  Catherine moved to live in London with her oldest son, and Charles to Gad's Hill in Kent.  On her deathbed in 1879, Catherine gave her daughter Kate, a collection of letters that her estranged husband had sent to her, instructing her to "Give these to the British Museum, that the world may know he loved me once." 

"It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and orrow, there is nothing so irresistibly contagious as laughter."   This year we celebrated the 200th birthday of literary hero, Charles Dickens.  I say hero because we all know Dickens wrote about poverty, crime and social injustice.  But there are some things we don't know about the author of A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, and many, many other classics.

Here are some lesser known facts.Dickens saved the lives of many people when the train he was travelling on derailed.  All but the carriage he was in plummet into a river.  He first found the key to the door and after helping his friends to safety, climbed down to help people in the carriages below to escape, giving water and brandy to whoever needed it.  And, if that wasn’t enough, he climbed back into the dangling carriage and retrieved the manuscript of, Our Mutual Friend, which he was taking to his publishers.  You’d have to be a writer to understand that!  His bravery was never publicly acknowledged.  Because he was travelling secretly with his mistress, he denied helping anyone. 
He also helped “fallen women.”  In a world where single or widowed women had few options to support themselves and their families, prostitution was a common crime – and one that was severely punished.  Dickens, along with an heiress called Angela Coutts, created “Urania House” where former prostitutes could learn to read and write, and keep house.  Dickens searched prisons and workhouses for potential candidates and interviewed them personally.  He even established the house rules.  Approximately a hundred women's lives changed after their stay at Urania House.
And, when he was young, Dickens was offered a prestigious audition in Covent Garden.  Thank goodness he was ill and couldn’t attend, or the literary world would have lost a great writer – and every generation since would have been poorer for not being able to read his books.  He wrote, produced and acted in plays with his amateur company.  He did many readings of his work, especially as he got older.  He even performed for Queen Victoria.
A Christmas Carol Ends
Ebenezer Scrooge, “had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”


  1. Wow, I think this is your best piece yet Maddie, although I may be a little biased as Dickens is one of my heroes. He features in both my own books. I loved the way you structured the article around A Christmas Carol. Also, you told me lots about Dickens that I wasn't aware of. Shamefully, I have never read The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but I'm about to! Very well done.

    1. Thank you Pauline. Your words are encouraging and, because you're an experienced writer, give me confidence. I need to get the deadline wrong again. Clearly only having a 24 hours works. I jest. I spent a week reading about the amazing man. My Christmas reading will be, David Copperfield, or Great Expectations.

  2. The Haunted Man! That's the one I never remember. See, we all learn things from this article.

    1. That's a first. Not very often you learn something from me. It's usually the other way around. Thank you for reading the article Roger. x

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks Vikki. I'm really pleased you like the article. I aspire to be as good a blogger as you. Thank you for your a message.