I posted the following article to US writing site Helium some years ago …
Charles Dickens is regarded as one of the greatest novel writers in history. His writings were deeply influenced by his own experiences and observations of poverty and injustice in nineteenth century Britain. He wrote about 20 novels and numerous short stories, all of which are still in print, as well as other works, and was regarded as a creative genius.
He was born in Portsmouth, England in 1812, the second of eight children, into a family that was reasonably well-off though not wealthy. A sensitive child, he regarded himself as “a very small and not over-particularly-taken-care-of boy”. He liked the outdoors and once became lost in London and saw all the misery in the backstreets, something that left an indelible mark on him. He also read a lot, especially picaresque novels.
His father became bankrupt when he overspent on entertainment and was sent to Marshalsea debtors’ prison. The family had to live there with him as they had no means of support. Charles was taken out of the private school he had been attending and was sent to work at Warren’s boot blacking factory to earn money to hopefully get his family out of goal. For six shillings a week, he worked in appalling conditions from 8am to 8pm pasting labels on jars of polish. His situation depressed him, made worse when his family’s position improved with an inheritance which got them out of jail but his mother left him in the workshop a while longer. He never forgave her. His memories, including his father’s fall from grace, haunted him for the rest of his life.
In his mid-teens he got work as a law clerk. He learnt a lot of law and how it seemed to be biased against the poor, and he saw an inefficient bureaucratic system. He developed a dislike for lawyers. Soon he became a court stenographer, and in his late teens fell in love with one Maria Beadnell but her family disapproved and ended the relationship by sending her to Paris. By 1834, he was a political journalist and travelled across the country.
His experiences and views so formed were reflected in his first published works in 1836: Sketches of Boz and his first novel The Pickwick Papers. He had a highly developed imagination and a photographic memory, helping him to develop his many characters. Soon he wrote prolifically. He was appalled by the living and working conditions of the poor, and the numerous social injustices, inefficiencies and hypocrisy in a place that was the world’s leading political and economic nation, and these issues were reflected in much of his writing. His feelings for the poor and contempt for the aristocracy came out constantly. He was harsh on the structure of society and its institutional settings. Many of Dickens’ novels were serialised and he had the ability to change the course of his novels based on comments by readers.
Dickens wanted his writings to bring the injustices of society before the public. He wanted to bring the truth to his readers rather than seeing things swept under the carpet in the usual way of much of the nineteenth century. His own experiences often come out in his writings, for example, the largely autobiographical David Copperfield, and Little Dorrit with its detailed description of life inside Marshalsea. But Dickens was ashamed of his past and didn’t let on that much of his work was based on personal experience. He didn’t reveal his childhood experiences until a few years before his death, all too aware that a dodgy past could affect his reputation and standing. He became a vigorous campaigner for social change and was involved in issues such as inequality, workhouses, sanitation, and jail conditions. On a visit to the US and Canada in 1842 he spoke out about slavery.
His private life was less successful. Although he married Catherine Hogarth in 1836 and they had 10 children, he didn’t find Catherine compatible and blamed her for their children. He seemed unhappy in marriage and appeared to be happier writing and travelling. In 1855 he revisited Maria Beadnell, and in 1857 formed a bond with Ellen Tiernan, an actress in one of his plays. He separated from his wife in 1858 and may have lived secretly with Tiernan until his death in 1870. They may have had a boy who died young. Dickens had a soft spot for animals, coming into contact with various dogs and cats. He grieved the death of his pet raven Grip.
In 1865 he was involved in a rail accident, but his carriage stayed on the tracks and he initially helped the badly injured before returning to his carriage to retrieve an unfinished manuscript. He didn’t go to the inquest as he’d been travelling with Tiernan and wanted to avoid a scandal. After the accident, Dickens wrote less, preferring public readings of his novels, and theatre tours. His readings were passionate, complete with different voices for the various characters. He made another tour of the US in 1867 where he said the people had changed for the better and wouldn’t denounce them again.
On his last readings tour of England, he became ill and returned home where he suffered a stroke and died in 1870, in Kent, aged just 58. His tomb 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”. Dickens didn’t want a memorial and only one decent statue was ever built, in 1891 in the US. His greatest happiness probably came in seeing the social change resulting largely from his writings and tours, change that continued after his death.
In one of the five star reviews of my historical novel A Weaver’s Web, the reviewer stated: “His writing style is of very high quality, not unlike a modern day Charles Dickens”. Maybe there is a likeness in some parts but I don’t put myself in the same class.