Charles Dickens (1812-1836)
Charles Dickens, the son of John Dickens and Elizabeth Dickens, was born at 13 Mile End Terrace (now 393 Old Commercial Road), Landport, just outside the old town of Portsmouth, on 7th February 1812.
John Dickens was the son of William Dickens and Elizabeth Ball Dickens. His parents were servants in the household of John Crewe, a large landowner in Cheshire with a house in Mayfair. William Dickens, recently promoted to the post of butler, died just before his son was born. His mother continued to work as a servant at Crewe Hall.
John Crewe was the member of the House of Commons for Cheshire. His wife, Frances Crewe was a leading supporter of the Whig Party and regular visitors to Crewe Hall included leading politicians such as, Charles James Fox, Augustus FitzRoy and Edmund Burke. They also hosted artists and writers such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Charles Burney, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sarah Burney and Hester Thrale. During this period Frances became the mistress of Sheridan, the country's leading playwright. He had dedicated his most famous play, The School for Scandal, to her in 1777.
John Dickens was treated very well by the Crewe family. He was allowed to use the family library and in April 1805 was appointed to the Navy Pay Office in London. The Treasurer of the Navy at this time was George Canning, a close friend of the Crewe family. The job came to Dickens through Canning's patronage, on which all such appointments depended. Claire Tomalin, the author of Dickens: A Life (2011) has pointed out: "John Dickens may have been the son of the elderly butler, but it is also possible that he had a different father - perhaps John Crewe, exercising his droit de seigneur, cheering himself up for his wife's infidelities, or another of the gentlemen who were regular guests at the Crewe residences. Or he may have believed that he was. His silence about his first twenty years, his habit of spending and borrowing and enjoying good things as though he were somehow entitled to do so, all suggest something of the kind, and harks back to the sort of behaviour he would have observed with dazzled eyes at Crewe Hall and in Mayfair."
Charles Dickens's mother was the daughter of Charles Barrow, who worked as Chief Conductor of Monies at Somerset House in London. According to her friends she was a slim, energetic young woman who loved dancing. She had received a good education and appreciated music and books. Elizabeth had several brothers. John Barrow was a published novelist and poet, whereas Edward Barrow was a journalist who married an artist. A third brother, Thomas Barrow, worked in the Navy Pay Office, where he met fellow worker, John Dickens. Elizabeth married Dickens at St Mary-le-Strand in June, 1809. The following year her father, Charles Barrow, was forced to leave the country, when it was discovered that he had been defrauding the government. A daughter, Fanny Dickens, was born was born in August 1810.
Charles Dickens later argued that his mother was an amazing woman: "She possessed an extraordinary sense of the ludicrous, and her power of imitation was something quite astonishing. On entering a room she almost unconsciously took an inventory of its contents and if anything happened to strike her as out of place or ridiculous, she would afterwards describe it in the quaintest possible manner." R. Shelton MacKenzie, the author of Life of Charles Dickens (1870) commented: "Elizabeth Dickens... was tall and thin, with a wasp's waist, of which she was very vain... She was a good wife, very fond of her husband and devoted to her children... She has been described to me as having much resembled Mrs. Nickleby... in the charming inaccuracy of her memory and the curious insecutiveness of her conversation."
John Dickens continued to make progress at the Navy Pay Office. In 1809 he was promoted and given a salary of £110 a year. He almost certainly got this post because Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Treasurer of the Navy, had been a supporter of his career. It has been speculated that Sheridan, the country's leading playwright, could have been Dickens's father.
Dickens was transferred to London and the family found lodgings in Cleveland Street. Dickens was now earning £200 a year. However, he always had trouble managing money. He liked to dress well, enjoyed entertaining friends and bought expensive books. Dickens was soon in debt and had to ask for loans from family and friends.
In April 1816, a fourth child, Letitia, was born. Seven months later John Dickens was sent by the Navy Pay Office to work at Chatham Dockyard. Dickens rented a house at 11 Ordnance Terrace. Charles Dickens remembers his father taking him aboard the old Navy yacht Chatham and sailing up the Medway to Sheerness, where he had to distribute wages to the workers. It has been claimed that "this landscape and the sludge-coloured tidal rivers haunted him and became part of the fabric of his late novels".
The salary of John Dickens continued to grow and by 1818 he was earning over £350 a year. He still could not manage and in 1819 he borrowed £200 from his brother-in-law, Thomas Barrow. When he did not pay the money back, Thomas told him that he would not have him in his house again. The family finances were not helped by the birth of two more children, Harriet (1819) and Frederick (1819). John Dickens did earn a small amount of money from journalism. This included an article in The Times about a big fire that had taken place in Chatham.
While living in Chatham Charles and his sister Fanny Dickens attended a school for girls and boys in Rome Lane. In 1821 he went to a school run by the twenty-three William Giles, the son of a Baptist and himself a Dissenter. His friend, John Forster, has commented: "He (Charles Dickens) was a very little and a very sickly boy. He was subject to attacks of violent spasm which disabled him for any active exertion. He was never a good little cricket-player; he was never a first-rate hand at marbles, or peg-top, or prisoner's base; but he had great pleasure in watching the other boys, officers' sons for the most part, at these games, reading while they played; and he had always the belief that this early sickness had brought to himself one inestimable advantage, in the circumstance of his weak health having strongly inclined him to reading."
Dickens was given access to his father's collection of books: "My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs to which I had access (for it adjoined my own), and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas and Robinson Crusoe came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time - they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii - and did me no harm; for, whatever harm was in some of them, was not there for me."
In 1822 John Dickens returned to work at Somerset House in London and the family moved to Camden Town. Here he met and became friendly with a fellow worker, Charles Dilke. The following year, Fanny Dickens was awarded a place at the Royal Academy of Music in Hanover Square. She was to study the piano with Ignaz Moscheles, a former pupil of Ludwig van Beethoven. The fees were thirty-eight guineas a year, an expense that they family could not really afford.
Claire Tomalin has argued: "Dickens maintained that he never felt any jealousy of what was done for her, he could not help but be aware of the contrast between his position and hers, and of their parents' readiness to pay handsome fees for her education, and nothing for his. It is such a reversal of the usual family situation, where only the education of the boys is taken seriously, that the Dickens parents at least deserve some credit for making sure Fanny had a professional training, although none for their neglect of her brother." Dickens's friend, John Forster, commented: "What a stab to his heart it was, thinking of his own disregarded condition, to see her go away to begin her education, amid the tearful good wishes of everyone in the house."
Elizabeth Dickens thought that she could educate the rest of the children by starting her own school. She took a lease on a large house in Gower Street North. Charles helped his mother distribute circulars advertising the school. He later recalled: "I left, at a great many other doors, a great many circulars calling attention to the merits of the establishment. Yet nobody ever came to school, nor do I recollect that anybody ever proposed to come, or that the least preparation was made to receive anybody. But I know that we got on very badly with the butcher and baker; that very often we had not too much for dinner."
In February 1824, John Dickens was arrested for debt and sent to the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. It has been estimated that over 30,000 people a year were arrested for debt during this period. The insolvent debtor was classed as a quasi-criminal and kept in prison until he could pay or could claim release under the Insolvent Debtors' Act.
Charles was used by his father as a messenger to carry his requests for help to family and friends. He already owed these people money and no one was willing to pay the money that would free him from captivity. He later told John Forster: "My father was waiting for me in the lodge, and we went up to his room (on the top story but one), and cried very much. And he told me, I remember, to take warning by the Marshalsea, and to observe that if a man had twenty pounds a year, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched. I see the fire we sat before now; with two bricks inside the rusted grate, one on each side, to prevent its burning too many coals."
Although only eleven years old, Charles was now considered the "man of the family" and was given the task of taking the books that he loved so much to a pawnbroker in the Hampstead Road. This was followed by items of furniture, until after a few weeks the house was almost empty. Peter Ackroyd has argued in Dickens (1990): "It was not so many years before that Dickens's maternal grandfather had absconded as an embezzler, and there were theories in this period concerning some inherited propensity towards crime as well as towards madness. It might have seemed to the young Dickens that this was indeed his true inheritance, which is perhaps why some critics have believed that Dickens's great contribution to the description of childhood lies in his depiction of infantile guilt."
A family friend, James Lamert, suggested to Elizabeth Dickens, that Charles should work in his uncle's blacking factory, that was based at a warehouse at 30 Hungerford Stairs. Warren's Blacking Factory, manufactured boot and shoe blacking. Lamert offered Charles the job of covering and labelling the pots of blacking. He would be paid six shillings a week and Lamert promised that he personally would give him lessons during his lunch hour to keep up his education. Charles was disappointed by his parents' reaction to the offer: "My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge."
On Monday, 9th February, 1824, just two days after his twelfth birthday, he walked the three miles from Camden Town to the Warren's Blacking Factory. Charles Dickens later recalled: "The blacking warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumbledown old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscotted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary's shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label; and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty downstairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin."
Charles Dickens took lodgings in Little College Street in Camden Town. Mrs Royance took in the children cheaply and treated them accordingly. He had to share a room with two other boys. On Sundays he collected Fanny Dickens from the Royal Academy of Music and they went together to the Marshalsea Prison to spend the day with their parents. He told his father how much he hated being separated from the family all week, with nothing to return to each evening. As a result he was moved to another lodging house in Lant Street that was close to the prison and he was able to spend time with his parents every evening after work. At this time Dickens believed that his father would remain incarcerated until his death.
Charles Dickens later told John Forster about this period in his life: "I know I do not exaggerate, unconsciously and unintentionally, the scantiness of my resources and the difficulties of my life. I know that if a shilling or so were given me by any one, I spent it in a dinner or a tea. I know that I worked, from morning to night, with common men and boys, a shabby child. I know that I tried, but ineffectually, not to anticipate my money, and to make it last the week through; by putting it away in a drawer I had in the counting-house, wrapped into six little parcels, each parcel containing the same amount, and labelled with a different day. I know that I have lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond... I suffered in secret, and that I suffered exquisitely, no one ever knew but I. How much I suffered, it is, as I have said already, utterly beyond my power to tell. No man's imagination can overstep the reality."
On 29th June 1824, Fanny Dickens performed at a public concert at which Princess Augusta, the sister of King George IV, presented the prizes. Charles Dickens later recalled: "I could not bear to think of myself - beyond the reach of all such honourable emulation and success. The tears ran down my face. I felt as if my heart were rent. I prayed, when I went to bed that night, to be lifted out of the humiliation and neglect in which I was. I had never suffered so much before." Dickens added unconvincingly, "There was no envy in this."
In April 1825, John Dickens's mother died. He inherited the sum of £450, and he was able to pay off his debts. This allowed him to petition for release from prison, and at the end of May he was discharged from Marshalsea Prison. The Naval Pay Office agreed to take Dickens back and although he was only 39 years old, he requested to be retired early with an invalid's pension because of "a chronic infection of the urinary organs". He was eventually granted a pension of £145.16s.8d. a year.
Despite the improvement in his financial circumstances, John Dickens expected his son to continue working at Warren's Blacking Factory. The business had moved to Chandos Street in Covent Garden where he worked by a window looking out on the street and where his humiliating drudgery was exposed to public view. One day, John Dickens walked past the window with Charles Dilke. The two men stopped to watch the boys at work. Dickens told Dilke that one of the boys was his son. Claire Tomalin explains: "Dilke, a sensitive and kindly man, went in and gave him half a crown, and received in return a very low bow. This scene, described by Dilke, not Dickens, does more to suggest the humiliation he felt in being put in such a position than anything else: pitied and tipped, while his father stood simpering by."
Charles Dickens health was still poor: "Bob Fagin was very good to me on the occasion of a bad attack of my old disorder. I suffered such excruciating pain that time, that they made a temporary bed of straw in my old recess in the counting-house, and I rolled about on the floor, and Bob filled empty blacking-bottles with hot water, and applied relays of them to my side, half the day. I got better, and quite easy towards evening; but Bob (who was much bigger and older than I) did not like the idea of my going home alone, and took me under his protection. I was too proud to let him know about the prison; and after making several efforts to get rid of him, to all of which Bob Fagin in his goodness was deaf, shook hands with him on the steps of a house near Southwark Bridge on the Surrey side, making believe that I lived there."
Dickens later wrote: "No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship of common men and boys." Peter Ackroyd has argued in Dickens (1990): "Here one senses some imitation of his father's own projection of a genteel persona (it is clear enough how John Dickens's fear, stemming from the fact that he was so perilously hovering between classes, was transmitted to the son). It also tells us much about his instinctive reaction to the labouring poor, although it is one that would have been widely shared in his lifetime; the working classes were in a very real sense a race apart, a substratum of society which bred in those above them a fear of disease, a horror of uncleanliness and of course the dread of some kind of social revolution."
John Dickens and George Lamert were often in dispute: "My father and the relative so often mentioned quarrelled; quarrelled by letter, for I took the letter from my father to him which caused the explosion, but quarrelled very fiercely. It was about me. It may have had some backward reference, in part, for anything I know, to my employment at the window. All I am certain of is that, soon after I had given him the letter, my cousin (he was a sort of cousin, by marriage) told me he was very much insulted about me; and that it was impossible to keep me, after that. I cried very much, partly because it was so sudden, and partly because in his anger he was violent about my father, though gentle to me. Thomas, the old soldier, comforted me, and said he was sure it was for the best. With a relief so strange that it was like oppression, I went home."
However, Elizabeth Dickens wanted Charles to continue at the blacking factory. "My mother set herself to accommodate the quarrel, and did so next day. She brought home a request for me to return next morning, and a high character of me, which I am very sure I deserved. My father said I should go back no more, and should go to school. I do not write resentfully or angrily: for I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am: but I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back. From that hour until this at which I write, no word of that part of my childhood which I have now gladly brought to a close, has passed my lips to any human being. I have no idea how long it lasted; whether for a year, or much more, or less. From that hour, until this, my father and my mother have been stricken dumb upon it. I have never heard the least allusion to it, however far off and remote, from either of them."
Long after his death, Mamie Dickens wrote about her father's life during this period: "His mother and the rest of the family, with the exception of his sister Fanny... lived in a poor part of London, too far away from the blacking warehouse for him to go and have his dinner with them; so he had to carry his food with him, or buy it at some cheap eating house, as he wandered about the streets, during the dinner hour. When Charles had enough money he would buy some coffee and a slice of bread and butter. When the poor little pocket was empty, he wandered about the streets again, gazing into shop windows."
Andrew Sanders, the author of Authors in Context: Charles Dickens (2003), has pointed out: "Dickens, like his parents, was to remain almost completely silent about this dark but formative period in his life. Only in the 1840s was he privately prepared to record the painful details and to show them to his wife and to his friend, John Forster. It was Forster who published most of his self-pitying autobiographical fragment after the novelist's death. For the most part, Dickens's boyhood misery was translated into fiction. The memory of his months in the blacking-factory became part of a habit of secrecy. It may also be integral to Dickens's awareness of the significance of leading a double life, a doubleness so frequently practised by his later characters."
On the insistence of his father, John Dickens was sent to Wellington House Academy on Granby Terrace adjoining Mornington Crescent. Dickens passionately disliked the man who owned the school: "The respected proprietor of which was by far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure to know, who was one of the worst-tempered men perhaps that ever lived, whose business it was to make as much out of us and to put as little into us as possible."
Owen P. Thomas was a fellow student at the school: "My recollection of Dickens whilst at school, is that of a healthy looking boy, small but well-built, with a more than usual flow of spirits, inducing to harmless fun, seldom or ever I think to mischief, to which so many lads at that age are prone.... He usually held his head more erect than lads ordinarily do, and there was a general smartness about him. His week-day dress of jacket and trousers, I can clearly remember, was what is called pepper-and-salt; and instead of the frill that most boys of his age wore then, he had a turn-down collar, so that he looked less youthful in consequence. He invented what we termed a lingo, produced by the addition of a few letters of the same sound to every word; and it was our ambition, walking and talking thus along the street, to be considered foreigners." Another boy pointed out: "He appeared always like a gentleman's son, rather aristocratic than otherwise."
At Wellington House Academy Dickens was taught traditional subjects such as Latin. Dickens did not distinguish himself as a scholar at the school. However, he did enjoy helping to produce the school newspaper. He also wrote and performed in plays. One boy at the school observed that "he was very fond of theatricals... and used to act little plays in the kitchen." He also spent a lot of time reading a sixteen-page weekly, The Terrific Register. He later recorded that the murder stories "frightened my very wits out of my head".
Dickens left the school in February 1827, when he was fifteen years of age. Once again John Dickens was deeply in debt. Fanny's fees at the Royal Academy of Music were so badly in arrears that she had to leave; but she showed such promise and determination that she was able to make an arrangement which allowed her to return and pay for her studies by taking on part-time teaching.
Elizabeth Dickens was able to arrange for her son to work as an office boy at the Ellis & Blackmore law firm in Gray's Inn. A fellow clerk, George Lear, described Dickens during this period: "His appearance was altogether prepossessing. He was a rather short but stout-built boy, and carried himself very upright - and the idea he gave me was that he must have been drilled by a military instructor... His complexion was a healthy pink - almost glowing - rather a round face, fine forehead, beautiful expressive eyes full of animation, a firmly-set mouth, a good-sized rather straight nose... His hair was a beautiful brown, and worn long, as was then the fashion."
Dickens was popular with the other clerks. Lear claimed that "Dickens could imitate, in a manner that I have never heard equalled, the low population of the streets of London in all their varieties, whether mere loafers or sellers of fruit, vegetables, or anything else.... He could also excel in mimicking the popular singers of the day, whether comic or patriotic; as to his acting he could give us Shakespeare by the ten minutes, and imitate all the leading actors of that time." According to Dickens: "I went to some theatre every night, with a very few exceptions, for at least three years: really studying the bills first, and going to see where there was the best acting... I practised immensely (even such things as walking in and out, and sitting down in a chair)."
In November 1828 Dickens went to work for another solicitor, Charles Molloy, in Chancery Lane, where he knew one of the clerks, Thomas Mitton. Dickens disliked legal work and he purchased a copy of Gurney's Brachgraphy and taught himself shorthand. Later he joined his father working for his brother-in-law, John Barrow, who had started up a newspaper, the Mirror of Parliament. Barrow's intention was to rival Hansard by offering a complete record of what went on at the House of Commons.
On reaching eighteen in 1830 he applied to the British Museum for a ticket to the Reading Room. He used to spend his mornings reading history books and the afternoons and evenings reporting on the events in parliament. This included recording the debates on issues such as parliamentary reform, the abolition of the slave trade and legislation to protect factory workers. Dickens considered most politicians to be "pompous" who seemed to spend most of the time speaking "sentences with no meaning in them". However, Dickens was impressed with some of the MPs who genuinely appeared to be interested in making Britain a better place to live.
Dickens met Maria Beadnell in May 1830. He was eighteen and she was two years older. According to Peter Ackroyd: "She was quite short... dark-haired, dark-eyed with the kind of slightly plump beauty which can so easily dissolve in later life; and from all the available evidence, she was something of a flirt if not quite a coquette." Dickens fell in love straight away but Maria's parents disapproved of the relationship. Her father was a senior clerk at the bank at Mansion House and considered himself well above the Dickens family financially. In 1832 the Beadnell's took action to end their daughter's flirtation by sending her to Paris. Dickens wrote a letter, telling her, "I never have loved and I never can love any human creature breathing but yourself."
Dickens did see Maria when she returned to London but it was clear that she did not return his feelings for her. Dickens wrote to her accepting defeat: "Our meetings of late have been little more than so many displays of heartless indifference on the other hand while on the other they have never failed to prove a fertile soil of wretchedness in a pursuit which has long since been worse than hopeless." He also returned her letters and a present she had given him in happier times. Dickens told John Forster that his love for Maria "excluded every other idea from my mind for four years... I have positively stood amazed at myself ever since! The maddest romances that ever got into any boy's head and stayed there". However, he added that Maria had inspired him "with a determination to overcome all the difficulties, which fairly lifted me up into" becoming a writer.
In 1832 Dickens began contributing articles to the radical newspaper, the True Sun. Unlike most radical newspapers such as the Poor Man's Guardian and The Gauntlet, it did pay the 4d. stamp duty. Despite having to charge the heavy tax imposed on newspapers, the newspaper sold 30,000 copies a day. In his articles, Dickens used his considerable knowledge of what went on in the House of Commons to help promote the cause of parliamentary reform. Charles Dickens was pleased when Parliament eventually agreed to pass the 1832 Reform Act, however, like most radicals, he thought it did not go far enough. The new reformed House of Commons passed a series of new measures including a reduction in newspaper tax from 4d. to 1d. As a result, the circulation of the newspaper increased to over 60,000.
In 1833 Dickens decided to write some stories. He had noticed that there was a very small circulation magazine, The Monthly, which had an office in Johnson's Court, off Fleet Street. He later admitted that he posted the story, A Dinner at Poplar Walk, "stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling, into a dark letter box in a dark office up a dark court" after they had closed. He wrote to his friend, Henry Kolle, "I am so dreadfully nervous, that my hand shakes to such an extent as to prevent my writing a word legibly."
Dickens was not paid for his story and it appeared anonymously. He bought a copy from a shop run by William Hall in the Strand and walked with it to Westminster Hall "and turned into it for half an hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen there". Dickens followed this up with several more stories. By August 1834, they were appearing under the name "Boz".
In the summer of 1834 Dickens reported on the new Poor Law that was going through the House of Commons. The act stated that: (a) no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse; (b) conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help; (c) workhouses were to be built in every parish or, if parishes were too small, in unions of parishes; (d) ratepayers in each parish or union had to elect a Board of Guardians to supervise the workhouse, to collect the Poor Rate and to send reports to the Central Poor Law Commission; (e) the three man Central Poor Law Commission would be appointed by the government and would be responsible for supervising the Amendment Act throughout the country.
Dickens was especially impressed by the speeches of William Cobbett who warned the legislators that "they were about to dissolve the bonds of society" and to pass the law would be "a violation of the contract upon which all the real property of the kingdom was held". Cobbett particularly objected to the separation of families, and to workhouse inmates being forced to wear badges or distinctive clothing. Thomas Attwood argued that workhouses would become "prisons from the purpose of terrifying applicants from seeking relief". Daniel O'Connell, said that as an Irishman, he would not say much, but he objected to the bill on the grounds that it "did away with personal feelings and connections."
In August 1834 Dickens was offered a permanent job by the Morning Chronicle on a salary of five guineas a week. John Black, the editor of the newspaper, was a supporter of social reform, and wanted Dickens to become a key member of the team taking on the more conservative, The Times. Dickens was one of twelve parliamentary reporters employed by Black. He later wrote about reporting on speeches made by politicians outside of London: "I have often transcribed for the printer from my shorthand reports, important public speeches in which the strictest accuracy was required... writing on the palm of my hand, by the light of a dark lantern, in a post chaise and four, galloping through a wild country, all through the dead of night."
Dickens had obtained a reputation for speed and accuracy in recording debates. In was a well-paid but exhausting job. Reporters were consigned to the back bench of the Strangers' Gallery, where it was hard to hear what was taking place on the floor of the chamber. A fellow reporter claimed: "It was dark: always so insufficiently lit that on the back benches no one could read a paper so ill-ventilated that few constitutions could long bear the unwholesome atmosphere." Charles Mackay, a colleague at the Morning Chronicle, wrote that Dickens "had the reputation of being the most rapid, the most accurate, and the most trustworthy reporter then engaged on the London press".
Dickens wrote to John Forster about his experiences working on the newspaper: "There never was anybody connected with newspapers, who, in the same space of time, had so much express and post-chaise experience as I. And what gentlemen they were to serve, in such things, at the old Morning Chronicle! Great or small, it did not matter. I have had to charge for half-a-dozen break-downs in half-a-dozen times as many miles. I have had to charge for the damage of a great-coat from the drippings of a blazing wax-candle, in writing through the smallest hours of the night in a swift-flying carriage and pair. I have had to charge for all sorts of breakages fifty times in a journey without question, such being the ordinary results of the pace which we went at. I have charged for broken hats, broken luggage, broken chaises, broken harness - everything but a broken head, which is the only thing they would have grumbled to pay for."
John Black, the editor of Morning Chronicle, agreed to publish Dickens' short stories. Over the next few months five of Dickens' stories appeared in the newspaper. Dickens called Black "my first hearty out-and-out appreciator". A friend of Black claimed that "I have often heard Black speak of him (Dickens), and predict his future fame." Another recalled that Black had "the highest opinion of his original genius."
With his increased income Dickens now decided to rent three rooms in Furnival's Inn for a yearly sum of £35. It was a good address but friends described it as gloomy. Dickens, who shared it with his younger brother, Frederick, agreed that it was not the best of homes but: "we have much more cause for cheerfulness than despondency after all; and as I for one am determined to see everything in as bright a light as possible."
In 1834 Dickens was approached by George Hogarth, a fellow journalist at the Morning Chronicle who had recently been appointed as editor of the sister newspaper, The Evening Chronicle. He commissioned Dickens to write a series of articles, Sketches of London, under the pseudonym "Boz". As a result Dickens' salary was increased to seven guineas a week.
Hogarth invited Dickens to visit him at his home in Kensington. The author of Dickens: A Life (2011) has pointed out: "Hogarth... had a large and still growing family, and when he (Dickens) made his first visit to their house on the Fulham Road, surrounded by gardens and orchards, he met their eldest daughter, nineteen-year-old Catherine. Her unaffectedness appealed to him at once, and her being different from the young woman he had known, not only in being Scottish but in coming from an educated family background with literary connections. The Hogarths, like the Beadnells, were a cut above the Dickens family, but they welcomed Dickens warmly as an equal, and George Hogarth's enthusiasm for his work was flattering."
Catherine Hogarth was also impressed by Dickens. In February 1835 she attended a party at Dickens's home. Catherine wrote to her cousin that: "It was in honour of his birthday. It was a bachelor’s party at his own chambers. His mother and sisters presided. One of them a very pretty girl who sings beautifully. It was a delightful party I enjoyed it very much - Mr Dickens improves very much on acquaintance he is very gentlemanly and pleasant."
One of the daughters, Georgina Hogarth, later recalled that Dickens enjoyed "some delightful musical evenings" where her father performed upon the violoncello. On one occasion, Dickens "dressed as a sailor jumped in at the window, danced a hornpipe, whistling the tune jumped out again, and a few minutes later Charles Dickens walked gravely in at the door, as if nothing had happened, shook hands all round, and then, at the sight of their puzzled faces, burst into a roar of laughter."
Andrew Sanders, the author of Authors in Context: Charles Dickens (2003), has argued: "Dickens's affection for her (Catherine), and his feeling of real mutual warmth, is evident enough in the letters that survive their courtship but the surviving correspondence suggests little of the adolescent passion that he seems to have felt for Maria Beadnell."
Dickens offer to marry Catherine Hogarth was immediately accepted. Claire Tomalin has commented: "He (Dickens) saw in her the affection, compliance and physical pleasure, and he believed he was in love with her. That was enough for him to ask her to be his wife.... She was not clever or accomplished like his sister Fanny and could never be his intellectual equal, which may have been part of her charm: foolish little women are more often presented as sexually desirable in his writing than clever, competent ones.... His decision to marry her was quickly made, and he never afterwards gave any account of what had led him to it, perhaps because he came to regard it as the worst mistake in his life."
In the summer of 1835 he took rooms close to the Hogarth house, to be near Catherine. In June he wrote to Catherine urging her to come round and make a late breakfast for him: "It's a childish wish my dear love; but I am anxious to hear and see you the moment I wake - will you indulge me by making breakfast for me... it will be excellent practice for you." On another occasion he wrote that he is "warmly and deeply attached" to her, but he would give her up if she showed him any "coldness".
During this period Dickens visited Newgate Prison. He was especially concerned about the plight of young women in prison: "The girl belonged to a class - unhappily but too extensive - the very existence of which should make men's hearts bleed. Barely past her childhood, it required but a glance to discover that she was one of those children, born and bred in neglect and vice, who have never known what childhood is: who have never been taught to love and court a parent's smile, or to dread a parent's frown. The thousand nameless endearments of childhood, its gaiety and its innocence, are alike unknown to them. They have entered at once upon the stern realities and miseries of life, and to their better nature it is almost hopeless to appeal in after-times, by any of the references which will awaken, if it be only for a moment, some good feeling in ordinary bosoms, however corrupt they may have become. Talk to them of parental solicitude, the happy days of childhood, and the merry games of infancy! Tell them of hunger and the streets, beggary and stripes, the gin-shop, the station-house, and the pawnbroker's, and they will understand you." This article later appeared in Sketches by Boz.
One of Dickens' new friends, William Harrison Ainsworth, introduced him to John Macrone. Although he was only a small publisher, he recently achieved considerable success by publishing Ainsworth's novel, Rookwood. Ainsworth introduced Macrone to Dickens, who suggested reprinting his stories and sketches that had appeared in the Morning Chronicle and The Evening Chronicle. Macrone offered Dickens £100 for the copyright of these stories. Dickens accepted the proposal as it would provide an extra income just before his marriage.
Macrone promised to persuade George Cruikshank to provide the illustrations for the book. Peter Ackroyd has argued that Cruikshank was not an easy man to work with: "It was something of a coup for Macrone to enlist the services of this illustrator, George Cruikshank, in the cause of a young author of only modest fame. To have his name on the title page was, if not a guarantee of success, at least a provident hedge against failure... He was already very well known as a caricaturist and illustrator of books - he was in some ways a difficult man, with powerful perceptions but equally powerful opinions. He could be truculent and assertive, even though this self-assertive manner often gave way, in his famous drinking bouts, to one of drunken clowning and gaiety."
Dickens later recalled: "These Sketches were written and published, one by one, when I was a very young man. They were collected and republished while I was still a very young man; and sent into the world with all their imperfections... They comprise my first attempts at authorship... I am conscious of their often being extremely crude and ill-considered, and bearing obvious marks of haste and inexperience."
In his introduction, to Sketches by Boz Dickens praised the drawings of George Cruikshank: "Entertaining no inconsiderable feeling of trepidation, at the idea of making so perilous a voyage in so frail a machine, alone and unaccompanied, the author was naturally desirous to secure the assistance and companionship of some well-known individual, who had frequently contributed to the success, though his well-known reputation rendered it impossible for him ever to have shared the hazard, of similar undertakings."
It was published on 8th February 1836, the day after his twenty-fourth birthday. The book was very well received by the critics. George Hogarth, in the Morning Chronicle, described Dickens as "a close and acute observer of character and manners". However, Dickens was hurt by the numerous references to Cruikshank's talented drawings. The reviewer in The Sunday Herald admitted that after reading the book he was unsure "whether we most admire the racy humour and irresistible wit of the sketches, or of the illustrations in George Cruikshank's very best style".
Cruikshank's biographer, Robert L. Patten, has pointed out: "As over the next year they worked together on two series of Sketches by Boz... the relationship warmed from wary professionalism to bibulous bonhomie, interrupted by an occasional outburst of temper, of which each collaborator had his share. These volumes were a great success, both on account of Dickens's rising popularity and because Cruikshank's plates introduced deft and spirited graphic commentaries on the text and the town." Dickens wrote to John Macrone saying he found Cruikshank difficult to work with and stated that "I have long believed Cruikshank to be mad."
John Easthope, the owner of the Morning Chronicle, who had made a fortune on the stock exchange, was a difficult employer, and became known as "Blast-hope". In February 1836, Charles Dickens led a short, successful strike against Easthope over the terms of employment of his journalists. He also came into conflict with John Black, the editor of the newspaper. According to Andrew Sanders, Dickens often clashed with Black over politics: "Dickens later claimed that he and Black had quarrelled many times about the effect of that cornerstone of Utilitarian legislation, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. But it was not simply the Poor Law that offended Dickens's sense of humanity, it was the whole tenor of philosophy, and by extension an economic system, which militated against the proper, and often spontaneous, practice of humane charity."
Robert Seymour was an illustrator who specialised in sporting scenes. In 1835 Chapman and Hall published a successful collection of his illustrations, Squib Annual of Poetry, Politics, and Personalities. The following year, Seymour suggested to William Hall, that he should publish in shilling monthly parts a record of the exploits of a group of Cockney sportsman. Hall approached Charles Whitehead to provide the words. He had just been appointed as editor of the Library of Fiction and was to busy to take up the offer. Whitehead suggested he should offer the job to Charles Dickens.
Hall offered Dickens £14 for each monthly episode and added that the fee might rise if the series did well. John R. Harvey, the author of Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators (1970), has argued: "Dickens, however, had no intention of writing up anyone else's pictures. When the Seymour plan was put to him, he insisted that he should write his own story and Seymour should illustrate that." Dickens already had an idea for a comic character, Samuel Pickwick, a rich, retired businessman with a taste for good food and a tendency to drink too much. He was based on Moses Pickwick, a coach proprietor from Bath, a man whose coaches he used while working as a journalist. The first number appeared in March 1836. It came in green wrappers, with 32 pages of print material and 4 engravings, and priced at one shilling. The publishers sold only 400 copies of the first part of the project.
(1) John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (1874)
He (Charles Dickens) was a very little and a very sickly boy. He was subject to attacks of violent spasm which disabled him for any active exertion. He was never a good little cricket-player; he was never a first-rate hand at marbles, or peg-top, or prisoner's base; but he had great pleasure in watching the other boys, officers' sons for the most part, at these games, reading while they played; and he had always the belief that this early sickness had brought to himself one inestimable advantage, in the circumstance of his weak health having strongly inclined him to reading.
(2) Mary Dickens, Charles Dickens by His Eldest Daughter (1894)
His mother and the rest of the family, with the exception of his sister Fanny ... lived in a poor part of London, too far away from the blacking warehouse for him to go and have his dinner with them; so he had to carry his food with him, or buy it at some cheap eating house, as he wandered about the streets, during the dinner hou. When Charles had enough money he would buy some coffee and a slice of bread and butter. When the poor little pocket was empty, he wandered about the streets again, gazing into shop windows.
(3) Charles Dickens, A Visit to Newgate, included in Sketches by Boz (1836)
Turning to the right, then, down the passage to which we just now adverted, omitting any mention of intervening gates - for if we noticed every gate that was unlocked for us to pass through, and locked again as soon as we had passed, we should require a gate at every comma - we came to a door composed of thick bars of wood, through which were discernible, passing to and fro in a narrow yard, some twenty women: the majority of whom, however, as soon as they were aware of the presence of strangers, retreated to their wards.
One side of this yard is railed off at a considerable distance, and formed into a kind of iron cage, about five feet ten inches in height, roofed at the top, and defended in front by iron bars, from which the friends of the female prisoners communicate with them. In one corner of this singular-looking den, was a yellow, haggard, decrepit old woman, in a tattered gown that had once been black, and the remains of an old straw bonnet, with faded ribbon of the same hue, in earnest conversation with a young girl - a prisoner, of course - of about two-and-twenty. It is impossible to imagine a more poverty-stricken object, or a creature so borne down in soul and body, by excess of misery and destitution, as the old woman. The girl was a good-looking, robust female, with a profusion of hair streaming about in the wind - for she had no bonnet on - and a man's silk pocket-handkerchief loosely thrown over a most ample pair of shoulders. The old woman was talking in that low, stifled tone of voice which tells so forcibly of mental anguish; and every now and then burst into an irrepressible sharp, abrupt cry of grief, the most distressing sound that cars can hear. The girl was perfectly unmoved. Hardened beyond all hope of redemption, she listened doggedly to her mother's entreaties, whatever they were: and, beyond inquiring after "Jem", and eagerly catching at the few halfpence her miserable parent had brought her, took no more apparent interest in the conversation than the most unconcerned spectators. Heaven knows there were enough of them, in the persons of the other prisoners in the yard, who were no more concerned by what was passing before their eyes, and within their hearing, than if they were blind and deaf. Why should they be? Inside the prison, and out, such scenes were too familiar to them, to excite even a passing thought, unless of ridicule or contempt for feelings which they had long since forgotten.
A little farther on, a squalid-looking woman in a slovenly, thick-bordered cap, with her arms muffled in a large red shawl, the fringed ends of which straggled nearly to the bottom of a dirty white apron, was communicating some instructions to her visitor - her daughter evidently. The girl was thinly clad, and shaking with the cold. Some ordinary word of recognition passed between her and her mother when she appeared at the grating, but neither hope, condolence, regret, nor affection was expressed on either side. The mother whispered her instructions, and the girl received them with her pinched-up, half-starved features twisted into an expression of careful cunning. It was some scheme for the woman's defence that she was disclosing, perhaps; and a sullen smile came over the girl's face for an instant, as if she were pleased: not so much at the probability of her mother's liberation, as at the chance of her "getting off' in spite of her prosecutors. The dialogue was soon concluded; and with the same careless indifference with which they had approached each other, the mother turned towards the inner end of the yard, and the girl to the gate at which she had entered.
The girl belonged to a class - unhappily but too extensive - the very existence of which should make men's hearts bleed. Barely past her childhood, it required but a glance to discover that she was one of those children, born and bred in neglect and vice, who have never known what childhood is: who have never been taught to love and court a parent's smile, or to dread a parent's frown. The thousand nameless endearments of childhood, its gaiety and its innocence, arc alike unknown to them. They have entered at once upon the stern realities and miseries of life, and to their better nature it is almost hopeless to appeal in after-times, by any of the references which will awaken, if it be only for a moment, some good feeling in ordinary bosoms, however corrupt they may have become. Talk to them of parental solicitude, the happy days of childhood, and the merry games of infancy! Tell them of hunger and the streets, beggary and stripes, the gin-shop, the station-house, and the pawnbroker's, and they will understand you.
Two or three women were standing at different parts of the grating, conversing with their friends, but a very large proportion of the prisoners appeared to have no friends at all, beyond such of their old companions as might happen to be within the walls.
(4) The Sunday Times, review of Sketches by Boz (21st February, 1836)
The majority of these very pleasant sketches have already appeared in the columns of the Evening Chronicle, and the interest which they excited has, it seems, induced the author to publish them in their present form, with appropriate graphic illustrations by George Cruikshank, whose genius, like the purse of Fortunatus, is inexhaustible.
(5) Lucinda Hawksley , Katey: The Life and Loves of Dickens's Artist Daughter (2006)
At the start of Victoria's reign, the young Charles Dickens was enjoying the early stages of fame. His first books, two series of Sketches by Boz (published in 1836), had led to widespread interest in this new writer whose real identity was unknown, but who wrote so humorously and observantly about London life. It was his very next book, Pickwick Papers, that was to reveal the identity of 'Boz' and make Charles Dickens a household name. The ludicrously funny tales of Mr Samuel Pickwick and his companions were printed in twenty monthly installments. The stories were highly addictive and immediately had literate London laughing over the characters' antics and extolling the phenomenon of this new author. At the time the public was enjoying the first chapter of Pickwick, its author was just twenty-four years old.
In the year of the young queen's coronation, Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, having been serialized in the periodical Bentley's Miscellany, was published to great acclaim and the first chapters of Nicholas Nickleby were printed in monthly installments. Both novels highlighted terrible social problems in modern Britain and started Victoria's subjects talking in earnest about what could be done to help the poor and the disenfranchised. Oliver Twist brought the shameful truth about workhouses and baby farms to the masses and Nicholas Nickleby caused investigative journalists to converge on Yorkshire to find out if what Mr Dickens had written about the 'Yorkshire Schools' was true. They discovered that these horrifying schools, to which unwanted children were sent, were a terrible reality. Dickens had brought the plight of these children, and the appalling way in which they had been treated by their parents, guardians and 'educators', into the public domain. The effect was tremendous. Within a few years of the publication of Nicholas Nickleby almost every one of the Yorkshire Schools had been closed down.