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- Charles Dickens Biography - A Life of Dickens
One of the pastimes that the young Charles delighted in during this idyllic period of his childhood was going on long strolls with his father and exploring the lush Kent countryside that surrounded Chatham.
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He was particularly fond of strolling through the grounds of Cobham Hall, just outside Rochester, where he became enamoured with a large house that sat atop a hillside looking down on the park. His father would often point the house out to him and encourage him with the words "If you were to be very persevering and were to work hard, you might some day come to live in it.
But the settled period of his childhood was brought to a sudden end when, in , John Dickens was transferred back to London and his income dropped dramatically. John had always lived well beyond his means and this sudden reduction in his earnings, coupled with his inability to curb his expenditure, plunged him heavily into debt and, as a result, the family finances teetered on the brink. His wife, Elizabeth, made an attempt to improve the family fortunes by opening a school for young ladies.
Charles Dickens: Life and Times
But this proved unsuccessful and, in , John Dickens was arrested for debt and was sent to the Marshalsea Debtors Prison, where he was joined by his wife and children with the exceptions of Charles and his older sister Fanny, who were found lodgings elsewhere. Dickens later told his primary biographer, John Forster, how his father had turned to him before being taken away and had tearfully told him that "the sun was set on him for ever.
That Charles was traumatised by this episode of his childhood is undeniable. Thinly disguised references to it crop up time and time again in his fiction and the image of the debtors prison looms over several of his novels. Indeed, he later recalled to John Forster how, when he first went to visit his father at the Marshalsea Prison, " And he told me, I remember, Charles was found work at Warren's Blacking Warehouse - on the site now occupied by Charing Cross Railway Station - and the sensitive 11 year old boy, who had genuinely believed he was destined to be a gentlemen, suffered the indignity of finding himself pasting labels onto pots of boot polish.
The trauma of his time at the blacking warehouse stayed with him for the rest of his life. His torment at his situation was made worse by the fact that his older sister, Fanny, was enrolled at the Royal College of Music and received the type of education that young Charles longed for. Instead, he found himself working with boys and men whom he considered to be very much his social inferiors and, with his family living in the Marshalsea Prison, a fact he kept hidden from his workmates, he found himself virtually abandoned.
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Left to his own devices, he began exploring all parts of London and, in so doing, he became acquainted with all the highs and the lows that the Victorian Metropolis had to offer. He couldn't have known it then, but this period of his life was to be his making as he gained an unrivalled knowledge of the City with which the majority of his fiction would later become indelibly linked. John Dickens had been in the Marshalsea Debtors Prison for 14 weeks when his mother died and left him a little money.
With this small inheritance he was able to secure his release, although he wasn't totally debt free. But he seems to have been genuinely concerned by the misery his actions had caused his son and, in , he took Charles away from the blacking factory, and despite vociferous objections from Elizabeth, who wanted their son to continue bringing in a useful weekly wage, John sent him to school at Wellington House Academy on Hampstead Road. By the then eighteen year old Dickens had met with and fallen head over heels in love with a City banker's daughter by the name of Maria Beadnell.
She was thirteen months older than him, capricious by nature and, for the next three years, she toyed with his feelings, even, there is evidence to suggest, agreeing to a clandestine engagement. He was also toying with the idea of becoming an actor and was granted an audition at the Covent Garden Theatre. However, on the appointed day, he was stricken with a " However, his love of the theatre and his wish to act stayed with him for the rest of his life and, in later life, he would enthusiastically perform and produce his amateur theatricals and, from these, evolved his public reading tours from which he had become famous throughout the world by the time of his death in Many of his books contain fictionalized autobiographical accounts of his own self, and of his experiences.
Born on February 7, , Dickens was the second of eight children. Their father, a minor clerk in the naval administration, struggled to make ends meet and wound up in debt. In those harsh days of the Victorian Era, the father and his entire family were imprisoned from nonpayment of debt and young Dickens found himself sharing a small cell with his family in the Marshalsea Prison. As harsh as these surroundings were, Dickens life was to soon get even worse. His family decided that young Charles Dickens, needed to help support himself and his hard luck family.
So at 9 years old they sent him to live and work on his own. Dickens worked in one of the many sweat shops that were common in Victorian Britain at the time.
His job was to glue labels to bottles of shoe polish. After very long days, Dickens would walk on his own back to an apartment where he lived completely alone and without supervision. There was no one to cook meals for him, to wash his clothes, or to provide any emotional warmth and guidance. Dickens only contact with his parents was on Sundays, when he would go to the prison to visit his mother and father. The idea that a 9 year old boy could be sent out to fend for himself in the hard crime infested neighborhoods of lower class London seems incredible to modern readers.
But in those days there were no social safety nets, and no laws or social norms to protect children from such abuses. In fact there were no laws setting a minimum age for child labourers and it was common place for little children to work 12 or more hours a day in dangerous industrial environments such as mines or factories. As an adult, Dickens was ashamed of his miserable childhood and he would never speak of these times openly but many of his novels deal sympathetically with the plight of street urchins, prostitutes and other people on the margins of society. In fact Dickens books would help change attitudes and bring about improvements in orphanages, poor houses and factories.
In these impoverished circumstances there was no time or money for school, and Dickens went completely uneducated.
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His only formal education had taken place before his family fell into financial trouble. A few later, his father was finally released from jail and his family once again took in Dickens who was by then 12 or He was once again enrolled in school where excelled and became an avid reader. But his family once again fell into poverty and they could not afford his tuition, so Dickens was withdrawn from school. His formal education ended when he was in his early teens, and all together Dickens only had a few years of schooling.
Once again his family had to figure out what to do with young Dickens as they could not afford to feed him. This time it was decided to send Dickens to a lawyer's office. This was not a great improvement over working in a sweat shop factory. Dickens and other young boys like him were employed as copyists, in circumstances reminiscent of medieval monks copying manuscripts. His epic stories, vivid characters and exhaustive depiction of contemporary life are unforgettable.
His own story is one of rags to riches. The good fortune of being sent to school at the age of nine was short-lived because his father, inspiration for the character of Mr Micawber in 'David Copperfield', was imprisoned for bad debt. The entire family, apart from Charles, were sent to Marshalsea along with their patriarch.
Charles Dickens Biography - A Life of Dickens
Charles was sent to work in Warren's blacking factory and endured appalling conditions as well as loneliness and despair. After three years he was returned to school, but the experience was never forgotten and became fictionalised in two of his better-known novels 'David Copperfield' and 'Great Expectations'.
Like many others, he began his literary career as a journalist. Then in he became parliamentary journalist for The Morning Chronicle.