Charles "David Copperfield" Dickens (1812 - 1870)

Charles John Huffam1 Dickens was born 7 February 1812, second child of John and Elizabeth Dickens. The family would eventually number seven children, plus a son who died in infancy, and since neither parent seemed able to economize, things were generally very hard financially for the family. Charles attended school for a time in Kent, where the happiest days of his childhood were spent, but when the family moved to London in 1822, Charles was simply never re-enrolled in school, and was left to wander London largely unattended2. When the oldest child, Fanny, was sent to the Royal Academy of Music for training as a pianist, Charles, then 12, was deemed old enough to work to help pay the family expenses. So, for six months, he worked in a factory pasting labels onto containers of shoe polish. While there, John Dickens was thrown into debtor's prison, and released a few months later under the Insolvency Act3.

It was a feud between John Dickens and the factory owner that eventually got Charles out of the factory and back in school, though Elizabeth tried her best to make him go back, which Charles never quite forgave her for. The factory experience will show up again and again in Charles' novels, and it also left him with something of a phobia about being dirty. In 1827, Charles left school again, more voluntarily this time, and took work as a law clerk, and then a parliamentary reporter. Though he also toyed with the idea of taking the stage (he loved amateur theatricals all his life), he eventually starts writing sketches for two of the London newspapers4, publishing them under the name 'Boz'.

In 1835, now quite well-established in his sketch-writing, Charles proposed to Catherine Hogarth, daughter of George Hogarth, who had been advisor to Sir Walter Scott. They married in April of 18365, and the sweet-tempered Catherine generally allowed Charles to take charge of everything, including even the eventual naming of their children. That same year, Charles's began writing The Pickwick Papers, and suddenly he was famous. Imitations of Pickwick appeared everywhere.

The now firmly upper-middle-class Charles still has many family problems, however. His father is still in debt more often than not, even going so far as to try to borrow money using his son's name, and Charles ends up paying most of John's debts. Charles himself would have four children after four years of marriage6, and continually disciplines himself to work like a madman to avoid debt of his own. With A Christmas Carol in 1843, Charles created his own literary sub-genre, the Christmas story. He would write one for almost every Christmas for the rest of his life.

In 1851, his next to last child, Dora7, died, not yet a year old. It was about this time that his dissatisfaction with his marriage became clear. By 1856, when Charles was working on a play he had written that was about to hit the public stage, he hired professional actresses to play the parts that his daughters and sister-in-law, Georgina, had been playing. He hired Frances Ternan and two of her daughters, Maria and Ellen. This was when the trouble really started. It was not long before Charles was completely in love with Ellen Ternan8, though Charles worked exceptionally hard to keep their relationship quiet. By 1858, he and Catherine were officially separated.

Rumor had it that Charles was having an affair with Catherine's sister Georgina, which would have been considered incestuous9. But she had been helping care for the family for the last sixteen years, and brooked the rumors and her family's displeasure to remain there. Charles gave 'incompatibility' and Catherine's 'incompetence in managing a household' as the official reasons for the separation, and would deal quite harshly with any friends who he felt were taking Catherine's side10.

Charles was generally rather worried about his children and their prospects. His younger daughter, Katie, married Charles Collins, brother of novelist Wilkie Collins, though Charles suspected that was more because she wanted to leave the house than because she loved him. His second son, Walter, died while in the Army in India, leaving fairly large debts behind for his father to pay. Charles Jr., after once filing for bankruptcy, began working with his father on a journal that the elder Charles had started called All the Year Round, and did fairly well; while second youngest son Henry excelled as a scholar, but the other five children seemed more inclined to debt than prosperity.

Though Charles' health was poor11, he continued, almost until his death, to do series after series of readings from his work, which earned him a great deal of money while at the same time satisfying his longtime urge to perform onstage. His last reading was on 15 March 1870, and Charles died, probably from a severe stroke, on 9 June 1870. According the the wishes laid out in his will, made just the month before, Charles was buried in an extremely private ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Aside from his doctor and his lawyer, the only attendees were eight members of his family (Catherine was noticeably absent) Wilkie Collins; and John Forster, Charles' oldest friend and fellow literary man. Ellen Ternan, as usual, was nowhere to be seen at this family gathering.

By the terms of his will, Ellen Ternan received £100012 outright, while the bulk of his estate was divided evenly among all his surviving children, probably amounting to £6000 to £8000 each13. Left unfinished (in fact, exactly half done) at the time of his death, was the infamous Mystery of Edwin Drood, leaving Dickensian scholars with a nice, though difficult puzzle to wrestle with. Still, Charles was one of only a relatively few authors who received the praise and adulation of their contemporaries14.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1988.

  1. The first of many reasons Charles never liked his parents.

  2. Another reason or two there. Charles actually wandered alone in an area of London known as Seven Dials. If you're not familiar with that, imagine the Whitechapel slums that you may have seen in movies on Jack the Ripper. Now imagine something ten times worse, and you have Seven Dials. It was the most dangerous London slum.

  3. A form of bankruptcy that was actually rather harsh. All of the family's possessions, including the childrens' clothing and other personal items, were officially valued and were not allowed to exceed £20.

  4. Newspapers in those days were just as full of things like gossip and sketches (what we would call short stories today) as they were of news.

  5. As was fairly common in those days, one of Charles' younger brothers and one of Catherine's younger sisters came to live with them. This custom becomes important later on.

  6. He would eventually have nine children who survived past infancy. For some reason that I have not been able to fathom, he blamed Catherine for this proliferation of children.

  7. He had named her after the Dora in David Copperfield15, a character whom he had always intended should die. But then, Charles had strange ideas about suitable names for his children, such as: Walter Savage Landor Dickens, Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson Dickens, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton Dickens.

  8. She was 27 years his junior, and apparently just as fond of him as he was of her. They stayed together, though extremely secretly, until his death.

  9. When William Thackeray heard this rumor, he wrote in a letter, thinking to be helpful, "No says I no such thing--its with an actress." Charles was not amused.

  10. Charles' publisher, Frederick Evans, lost Charles as a client for the crime of finding Catherine a house near his own.

  11. He probably had a several minor strokes during the last year of his life, though he was too stubborn to admit to anything of the kind.

  12. Which she likely didn't even need. Charles had already purchased a large house for her as a rental property, so she probably had a good income from that already.

  13. Roughly speaking, the equivalent of between $500,000 and $700,000 in modern U.S. currency. So you see, Charles' hard work paid off, at least for his children.

  14. This was carried to an odd extreme in the form of a farewell dinner for Charles on the eve of his departure for a reading tour in the U.S. Originally suggested as a vague idea by Charles Kent, a young man full of hero-worship, Charles pounced on the idea ("Yes! A dinner for me would be a great idea! You do that!"), and was really the one responsible for the rather opulent dinner that resulted.

  15. This whole work was extremely autobiographical, on purpose. I think it was Charles' way of working out his frustrations about his marriage, since the aforementioned Dora, David's first and extraordinarily unhelpful wife, was basically an unflattering portrait of his own wife.

A Partial List of Dickens' Works:

	Sketches by Boz            1833-1836
	Pickwick Papers            1836-1837
	Oliver Twist               1837-1838
	Nicholas Nickleby          1838-1839
	The Old Curiosity Shop     1840-1841
	Barnaby Rudge              1841
	American Notes             1842
	A Christmas Carol          1843
	Martin Chuzzlewit          1843-1844
	Pictures from Italy        1846
	Dombey and Son             1846-1878
	David Copperfield          1849-1850
	Bleak House                1852-1853
	Hard Times                 1854
	Little Dorrit              1855-1857
	A Tale of Two Cities       1859
	Great Expectations         1860-1861
	Our Mutual Friend          1864-1865
	The Mystery of Edwin Drood 1870-

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