In addition to his associations with holiday tradition, Dickens is known today for his colorful characters, sharp wit, and focus on the ills of the Industrial Revolution and the plight of the poor, especially children. A talented and prolific author, active social reformer, and all-around respected public icon, Dickens also enjoyed phenomenal success in his own lifetime, earning him fame, fortune, and fans around the globe.
But “The Inimitable,” as he was nicknamed, was also a very adept self-marketer who carefully managed his public image as the ideal Victorian gentleman, and his contemporaries were largely unaware of how his personal experiences shaped his worldview, his writing, and drove him so passionately to improve both his own lot and that of the nation’s poor.
Did you know that the spectacularly successful Charles Dickens...
- was born into poverty on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England?
- received very little formal education due to his family’s uncertain finances, was briefly homeschooled by his mother, and otherwise educated himself by voraciously reading books at the British Museum’s libraries?
- was sent to work in a warehouse pasting labels on bottles of shoe-polish at the age of 12?
- had to support himself in a tenement for several months that same year when the rest of his family moved to be with his father, who’d been sent to debtor’s prison?
- angered American readers when he published an unflattering memoir of his first trip to America?
- was the father of ten children, two of whom died before he did?
- published an indignant, remonstrative letter to the public to quell gossip when he and Catherine Hogarth, his wife of twenty-two years, separated by mutual agreement in 1858?
- set up a house down the street for his mistress, a young actress named Ellen Ternan, and her mother, an affair successfully hidden from the public until decades after his death?
- burned twenty years’ worth of personal correspondence in a backyard bonfire in 1860?
- was, along with his mistress and her mother, a survivor of the 1865 Staplehurst rail disaster which killed 10 people and left him with symptoms of post-traumatic stress?
- discreetly saw his companions to safety and then returned to the scene of the accident, where he spent hours tending to the injured and dying and retrieved his unfinished manuscript for “Our Mutual Friend” from a precariously perched train car?
- ignored doctor’s orders and continued his demanding schedule of public performances and readings of his works even as his health was failing?
- died June 9, 1870, in Kent, England, at the age of 58 following a stroke, leaving behind the unfinished manuscript of his last novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood?”
- was, by public demand, buried in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey rather than in the small local graveyard that was his preference?
To learn more about this complex literary icon’s life and his continued influence on society and culture, check out these and other resources from The Library’s collection.
Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomlin (biography)
Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens by Robert Gottlieb (biography)
Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor by Ruth Richardson (book)
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Arthur Rackham (book)
"Charles (John Huffman) Dickens"* (biographical article)
"The Original Scrooge"* by Michael Timko (article)
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