This Famous Person Game - May 2012
by Mike McLeod
In his 58 years of life, this famous person penned 32 novels, 29 short stories, four nonfiction books and one play—that we know of. There may have been more. Darlis Monroe of the Tallapoosa Georgia Visitor’s Center, David Faulkner of Waynesville, N.C., Charles O’Brien of Mesa, Az., and Ted Carlton from 30 miles east of Cedar City, Utah, correctly identified this famous author.
Born on Feb. 7, 1812, Charles John Huffam Dickens wrote his novels by hand (since typewriters were not commercially produced until about 1870, the year he died), and then he gave the original manuscript with all its cross-outs, changes and notes to the printer to decipher before he began to set the type.
Almost all of Dickens’ novels were first published in serial form in newspapers because most people at that time could not afford to buy books. “A full-length novel was out of the price range of most of his readers (a novel cost 31 shillings; in 1836, [the] average worker earned 6 to 20 shillings per week), but a monthly installment [in a newspaper], 32 pages with 2 illustrations and advertisements, could be sold for a shilling.”1 A shilling was one-twentieth of a pound.
Dickens often waited until he saw the reaction of his readers to the most-recently published chapter of a book before writing the next one. In its serialized form, Oliver Twist went on for two years, and as you can see from this list of some of his works and the years they were published, reading Dickens was an investment in time: Sketches by Boz, 1836; The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, 1836-1837; Oliver Twist, 1837-1839; Nicholas Nickleby, 1838-1839; The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840-1841; Barnaby Rudge, 1841; A Christmas Carol, 1843; The Chimes, 1844; The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845; The Battle of Life, 1846; The Haunted Man, 1848; David Copperfield, 1849; Bleak House, 1852-1853; Hard Times, 1854; Little Dorrit, 1855-1857; A Tale of Two Cities, 1859; Great Expectations, 1860-1861; and Our Mutual Friend, 1864-1865.
Many of Dickens’ characters and stories were borrowed from life. His father John Dickens was the pattern for the character of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield. William Dorrit, the father of the heroine in Little Dorrit, was incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, as was John Dickens for failing to pay a debt to a baker. (John Dickens often had financial difficulties during his life.) Dickens’ mother became the pattern for “…the absurd Mrs. Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, who prattles on with sublime inconsequentiality and to great comic effect. Dickens found it very droll that his mother asked him whether he ‘…really believed there ever was such a woman!’”2
When Charles was 12, his father, mother, and some of the younger children were all sent to Marshalsea. Charles was taken out of school and put to work in a boot-blacking factory to help pay off his father’s debt. This experience greatly influenced his outlook on life and the social commentary that is often found in his books.
The boot-black factory where Dickens worked was situated along the River Thames in a rundown building overrun with rats. Young Charles worked there ten to twelve hours a day, putting labels on pots of boot black. For this, he earned six shillings a week.
This experience is why children being forced to labor is often found in his stories.
After William Dickens received a modest inheritance, he paid his bills, and the family was released from Marshalsea. Yet, Elizabeth wanted Charles to continue working in the boot-blacking factory for the income it provided. This turned Charles against his mother.
"'I never afterwards forgot,' Dickens would write years later, in an autobiographical fragment that was not published until after his death, 'I never can forget, that my mother was warm for sending me back.'"3
When Dickens left the factory, he took the name of a fellow laborer with him for future use: Fagin. In Oliver Twist, Fagin is the old Jewish villain who shelters boys and trains them to be pickpockets. Dickens’ novels were read worldwide, and the disreputable Fagin being Jewish cast aspersions on the Jewish people. Dickens harbored no ill will against them and intended no slight, but at the admonition of Jewish acquaintances, he later edited out most of the references to Fagin being a Jew. This reflects the power and influence of Dickens’ writings around the world.
Dickens’ road to literary fame began with his teaching himself shorthand and landing jobs as a court reporter and then a journalist. This led to his writing and editing several newspapers. His “pilot balloon,” as he called it, was Sketches by Boz. Favorably received, it was followed by The Pickwick Papers, which were also very successful.
On April 2, 1836, the month after the serialization of Pickwick began, Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth, the daughter of a newspaper editor. During their marriage, they had ten children together, one dying in infancy.
Charles Dickens had two sisters and four brothers; two of which died very young. At one time or another, Dickens financially supported most of his siblings, and he also supported the wives of two brothers—one brother died early in marriage, and the other left his wife when she went blind. Dickens had a kind heart; he took into his home one of his brothers and a sister-in-law in their time of need.
In addition to writing, Dickens made great sums of money by giving readings of passages from his books. He toured England, Scotland, Ireland, and the United States, reading to enthralled crowds in hired halls.
In America, he was feted, going from one banquet in his honor to another. While here, he campaigned for international copyrights on literary materials, but this was not well received. Dickens lost huge amounts of money due to plagiarism by American publishers. Many of them received English newspapers, and they reprinted his work without permission and without paying him, and they often changed his stories according to their whims. This did not sit well with him, and he sometimes wrote disparagingly of America. However, on another visit to the United States, the adoration of his fans won him over, and he never wrote unkindly about America again.
Dickens miraculously avoided death in 1865 when several cars of a train he was riding on went off a railroad bridge. The first seven went over; Dickens’ first-class car somehow disengaged and remained on the tracks.
Throughout his life, Charles Dickens lived and worked at a feverish pace, often to the detriment of his health. In June of 1870, halfway through another series of scheduled readings, Dickens had a stroke. He died the next day on June 9th at home. He was also halfway through the serialization of another novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood when he passed away. The novel was published unfinished in 1870, but several people have authored endings for it over the years.
Honored as one of England’s greatest authors, Dickens’ is buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.
2 The New York Public Library webpage, http://www.nypl.org
and The New York Public Library.
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