From Oliver Twist to Great Expectations, Charles Dickens is one of Britain’s biggest literary legends and known the world over. Beloved for his unflinching view of London during the Industrial Revolution and simultaneously feared by anybody who’s ever had to do an English Literature exam, he remains a popular novelist and here’s a few interesting facts about him.
While many of Dickens’ novels feature London heavily, there’s one book that features an astounding number of London sites. It’s not Great Expectations or Oliver Twist, it’s actually Barnaby Rudge – one of Dickens’ early historical novels set against the backdrop of London’s anti-Catholic Gordon Riots.
The author was born to John and Elizabeth Dickens in 1812 out in Portsmouth and had several siblings. They were a poor family and after failing to pay his debts, Charles’ father was sent to prison for six months – forcing 12 year old Charles to work at a boot polish factory for three years and forming the backdrop for his characters’ experiences of child labour in Oliver Twist.
Before penning some of Britain’s greatest literary works, Dickens actually worked as a journalist for a number of years for the likes of The Mirror of Parliament and The True Sun. He even worked as a parliamentary reporter in 1833 for The Morning Chronicle before his writing career took off in 1836 with The Pickwick Papers. He later became a newspaper editor.
While Dickens moved around a bit, his former home 48 Doughty Street is still standing – and it’s been converted into the Charles Dickens Museum. The esteemed writer lived there for a few years in the 1830s and is said to have written three of his famous works there: Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby.
After over 22 years of marriage and ten children, Charles Dickens and his ex-wife Catherine Hogarth separated in 1858. (He once called her ‘fat and boring’.) A year before they divorced, he met Ellen Ternan – a young actress – and they fell in love.
Charles Dickens was something of an amateur magician and even performed professionally at places like Bonchurch and Rockingham Castle. His tricks had names such as ‘The Leaping Card Wonder’ and ‘The Loaf of Bread Wonder’ and his love of performance is apparent in his books, where he describes magicians and illusions in details in books such as Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. He also was a member of The Ghost Club.
Before James Bond ever graced our screens, Charles Dickens was living his best espionage life in his Kent home. He had a door installed that was designed to look just like a bookshelf and even chose the book titles himself, which showcased his trademark wit. They included a nine volume Cats Lives book set and Socrates on Wedlock.
After Dickens had a day long writing marathon working on his unfinished novel Edwin Drood, he suffered from a stroke and passed away in 1870. He was granted one of Britain’s highest honours and buried in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey alongside legends like Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.
Dickens had a vast vocabulary, but even the word ‘kangaroo’ was an unusual one for authors of his age. He used it exclusively in his novel David Copperfield, where he writes, ‘Shall I ever forget how, in a moment, he was the most sanguine of men, looking on to fortune; or how Mrs. Micawber presently discoursed about the habits of the kangaroo!’
During 1865, a terrible train accident called the Staplehurst Rail Crash took place and Charles Dickens was unfortunately caught up in it with his lover Ellen Ternan. While he didn’t face any life-threatening injuries and in fact even helped save many passengers, he was very shaken afterwards and was never quite well.