Charles Dickens in the decade ending 2010 was 78th in volume of books sold. He enjoyed coining new names for himself such as ‘The Sparkler of Albion’, ‘Revolver’ and the ‘Inimitable’.
Dickens books first came out in serial form which was common at the time and his covers were a blue-green colour, as Thackeray’s were canary yellow to aid identification at a distance. Gad’s Hill Place in Kent was the only place he ever owned and was his home for his last thirteen years.
The birth of quill pen author, thrice married, Charles Huffam Dickens took place today in 1812.
Much influenced by the 18thc writer Fielding his first six novels are in the picaresque genre after which Martin Chuzzlewit 1844 saw the transfer to a mature seriousness.
Dickens was inspired by the Arabian Nights and as Steerforth says to David Copperfield who had a fund of stories: ‘you shall tell ’em to me’…We’ll make some regular Arabian Nights of it’.
Writing 2,000 words a day on small pieces of paper, be became one of the most celebrated and prolific of 19th century authors, driven by the need for money and security, he ‘burnt out’ at 58 and died in 1870.
He was one of the first subscribing members of the London Library in 1842; Carlyle picking him a mass of books on the French Revolution for his ‘Tale of two Cities’dedicated to Lord John Russell: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….’There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face on the throne of France’.
Though he lampooned the law in his writings ‘If the law says that it is an ass’, he was always the first to resort to the law in a series of bitter disputes with his many publishers. Dickens fought a High Court battle with publishers Bradbury and Evans when they refused to publish a statement denying rumours that the author was having an affair.
The case became a real life Jarndyce v Jarndyce he had written about in Bleak House a few years before. Later Dickens’s problem was that he committed himself to too many books concurrently and with an early publisher John Macrone, not being able to meet his commitments, Dickens simply tore up the contract.(1)
Dickens was a great campaigner against Victorian hypocrisy and abuse many of his novels and characters were taken from his personal acquaintance; the workhouse system in Oliver Twist personified in the beadle Bumble; the abuse of children in private schools personified in Wackford Squeers the owner of Dotheboys Hall School in Nicholas Nickleby and illegitimacy the scandal in Bleak House.
Miserly employers in Christmas Carol’s with Scrooge in the Christmas Carol and only when he remembers reading ‘Ali Baba’ does Scrooge’s frozen heart thaw. This along with Pickwick Papers (1836) thus set the traditional Christmas we know today.(2)
Micawber found in the largely autobiographical David Copperfield is the perennial optimist ‘hopeful of something turning up’, based on his spendthrift father who was later employed as office manager when Dickens was the short-lived editor of the Daily News, and also features the unctuous Uriah Heep.
Other characters are the hypocritical Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewich; Gradgrind the harsh industrialist in Hard Times and the supercilious Podsnap who was concerned to ignore anything low or debasing. The Coketon was based on Preston then a place of industrial hardship.
Dickens was much travelled, in Britain with his public readings and Europe, whilst his unfavourable 1842 America visit, was used in Martin Chuzzlewit and saw the birth and destruction exacted by the railways, recounted in Dombey and Son.
Dickens was himself involved in an early dreadful railway crash over a viaduct in Kent, going back to the overhanging carriage to retrieve that month’s manuscript of Our Mutual Friend.
Many of the iniquities Dickens’ railed against were reformed with the 1870 Education Act, the 1873 Judicature Act and other legislation.
Matthew Arnold’s ‘Culture and Anarchy’ (1869) came out at the time when Dickens Eliot and Trollope were selling to a growing and literate middle-class, a class which Arnold described as ‘Philistine and saw a need for an elitist culture which would lead the benighted masses towards ‘sweetness and light’. Dickens was kept off the English syllabus at Oxford for decades as critics thought him a superficial populist.
Ref: Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster 1872-4. The Unfinished Dickens Dream by R.W.Buss.
A blue plaque, erected in 1903 at Doughty Street, near Covent Garden, one of his many London homes, over the years.
Dickens’ early love Maria Beadnell inspired Dora in David Copperfield and the later more more fleshly Maria as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit.
(1) Jarndyce noted for an interminable court case.
(2) Dickens put Sudbury in Suffolk on the map as Eatenswill in Pickwick Papers.