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Charles Dickens Re-visited

Report of the lecture given by Jane Tapley
on January 25th 2012

We enjoyed a most interesting talk by Jane Tapley revisiting the story of Dickens to celebrate the bicentenary of his birth. Jane started by drawing our attention to the lasting popularity of his writing. In a list of 100 best-selling books over the last ten years, only two classical authors featured out of a hundred. JK Rowling topped the list with sales of 30 million books, Shakespeare came 45th and Dickens came 78th with sales of three million. Dickens's writings can be seen very much as a fantasized biography, his main characters showing parts of his own personality and experiences. He was a prolific writer becoming a celebrity in his field at an early age. By the age of 25 he had written Pickwick Papers and by that time was known all over Europe and the USA. He was conscious of that development, describing himself as "an amazing man", and in a letter to a friend he said "You know, I was a great writer at eight years old". He needed this awareness and confidence as he suffered some serious set-backs in his early life.

He was born in Portsmouth on 8 February 1812. His mother devoted much time to reading stories to the children which left him with a great love of reading. His parents moved around a lot, largely to escape his father's creditors. They moved to London and then to Chatham until Charles was ten. He went to school there and grew to love the open fields and countryside. He also became quite an accomplished stage performer at an early age and was very interested in amateur dramatics for the rest of his life. One of his greatest regrets was not being able to run a London theatre.

He suffered a real setback when the family moved back to London, known at the time as "the great stink". He was not sent to school, but his parents sent him on many errands which gave him a vivid picture of the geography and prevailing conditions. His father continued living beyond his means, which lead to a spell for the whole family in the Marshallsea Debtors Prison. Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory sticking labels on blacking bottles. He described it as the most awful period of his life but it gave him the experience to write Little Dorrit. Sadly even when the debts were repaid through a legacy to Charles's mother, she insisted that he remain at the blacking factory. However, it was good experience for Charles as it exposed him to many characters he would not otherwise have met, such as street urchins and petty thieves. From that experience, of course, we get the character of Fagin. Charles uses his father's characteristics when depicting Mr Micawber, an affable character but hopelessly out of control of his expenses. The innocent child also became an important part of his novels, like Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit and Pip.

When Charles was 14, his father decided to give him another chance and sent him to Wellington College for two years. After this his first job was as a clerk in a lawyer's office and he drew on this experience for characters such as Mr Guppy and Uriah Heap. After his release from prison, Charles's father worked for a newspaper and this occupation also appealed to Charles. He made himself very proficient at shorthand and became a reporter on Parliamentary proceedings, his salary jumping from 15 shillings a week to 15 guineas. This career exposed him even more to the deprivation that existed in society and he had a very low opinion of politicians, describing Parliament as "the great dust heap of Westminster".

At the age of 19 he fell in love with a friend of his sister but after about four years she rejected him. This badly affected him and he attributed to this his inability to show affection to anyone but his children when they were young. Out of this rejection came the character of Estella in Great Expectations - Pip was of course Charles Dickens.

In his late twenties he started to write short stories for publication on a freelance basis. At this time Boz started illustrating his work. Then too he created Pickwick to be serialised on a monthly basis. The early instalments had a circulation of about 400 but when they ceased 18 months later the circulation was 40,000 a month. The real increase came with the introduction of the cockney, Sam Weller, who was also popular in America and even Russia. This serialisation of his books at one penny an instalment made them readily accessible to the public and very popular, aided by Boz's illustrations.

Shortly afterwards he developed a relationship and married Elizabeth Hogarth. Within a year they had their first son, Charles, and moved to their home in Doughty Street, now the Charles Dickens museum. They were joined by Elizabeth's younger sister, Mary, and Charles's younger brother. Hence Charles was already taking on dependants from his wider family. Mary died soon afterwards at the age of sixteen. Charles was very upset and wore her ring for the rest of his life. She was the inspiration for Little Nell.

After Pickwick, the next novel to be published in serial form was Oliver Twist and at the end it was published as a complete novel. The next one was Nicholas Nickleby which was the result of a journalistic trip to Yorkshire to report on news that there were schools there treating their pupils appallingly. Wackford Squeers was Dickens's creation to mirror the real headmaster he found.

Dickens always returned to London for inspiration even when he moved his family away seeking cheaper places to live and escape from family hangers-on. He suffered from insomnia and would spend time at night just walking the streets. He was a heavy drinker and carried brandy in his back pocket, drawing on it repeatedly during the day. Later in life he would drink half a bottle of sherry before doing a reading. This habit led to him suffering from gout and also from arterial disease.

After 21 years of married life, he turned against his now middle-aged wife who had borne him ten children. He described her as "the skeleton in his domestic cupboard". He eventually moved her out of his household into separate accommodation with her eldest son agreeing to look after her. The other children stayed with Charles and he banned them from seeing their mother. Georgina, Elizabeth's sister, also stayed with him to run his household.

Not only did he write sixteen novels, but he remained a journalist all his life, even owning his own paper. During the last ten years of his life he enjoyed producing plays of his own works and took these plays to America.

In his 58th year, while writing Edwin Drood, he died in his "writing lodge" in his garden.

Brian Pistorius

Jane Tapley with one of our members