Charles Dickens: the making of a great writer

This year is the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth. Biographies, reissues and TV and film adaptations have poured out showing he still has immense drawing power even 140 years after his death. Dickens was a towering figure who dominated English literature for nearly 40 years, from the early runaway success of The Pickwick Papers in 1836 to the cryptic murder story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, left incomplete at the author’s death in 1870.

In that time he completed 14 novels with hundreds of characters, five ‘Christmas books’, 50 short stories, six plays, two children’s books, two travel books and around 250 essays and articles on current affairs. He also edited and wrote for two national journals, Household Words, and All The Year Round. Dickens’s impact in Britain was huge, but he was also influential on European and American literature. In his diaries, Franz Kafka hailed his “immense prodigality”, and Dickens had a special impact on Russian writers such as Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, as well as later Soviet filmmakers including Sergei Eisenstein.

His legacy has been claimed by many. Bourgeois commentators stress his reforming zeal, claiming that he influenced a benevolent process of reform from above that, they say, characterised Victorian Britain. Even Prince Charles recently hailed Dickens’s “use of his creative genius… to campaign passionately for social justice”. (Daily Telegraph, 7 February 2012)

What they neglect to mention, of course, was his anger, even despair, at the callous indifference of ‘the great and the good’ to the plight of the poor, and official inaction against the abuses he exposed. Even the sale of pauper boys as chimney sweeps was not finally banned until 1875, five years after Dickens’s death, and nearly 40 years after his novel, Oliver Twist, denounced the practice.

On the other hand, radicals, reformers, and socialists, from the Chartists to Tony Benn, have used his grim depictions of the workhouse, child abuse, prisons, bureaucratic incompetence of the state, and the cold inhumanity of factory owners, to inform their struggle for a better society. Karl Marx said that the great Victorian novelists, Dickens, Thackeray, and the Brontes, “have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together”. (The English Middle Class, Marxist Internet Archive)

But Dickens, though a contemporary in London of Marx for near 20 years, never found his way to socialist ideas. His family were drawn from the layer of the middle class who hovered precariously just above the working class, putting up a constant and desperate battle to keep their place in society.

In his unpublished autobiography, My Early Times, he described that environment: “The area in which we were now living was as shabby, dingy, damp and mean a neighbourhood as one would desire not to see. Its poverty was not of the demonstrative order. It shut the street doors, pulled down the blinds, screened the parlour windows with the wretchedest plants in pots, and made a desperate attempt to keep up appearances. The genteeler part of the inhabitants, in answering knocks, got behind the door to keep out of sight and endeavoured to diffuse the fiction that a servant of some sort was the ghostly warder”.

John Dickens, Charles’s father – later immortalised as Mr Micawber in David Copperfield – was a navy clerk and the family followed as he worked in various ports. Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, then the family moved to Chatham, Kent, where he had a happy, stable childhood. John Dickens moved to London, sending for the ten-year-old Charles shortly after. Dickens remembered the stagecoach ride from Chatham, even down to the smell of the wet straw that covered him. He also remembered his first shattering impression of London, so different to the calm and peaceful life in Chatham.

London at that time was an incredible metropolis, the capital city of the world’s pre-eminent capitalist nation, and the centre of a huge, far-flung (and immensely profitable) empire. Extremes of wealth and poverty sat side by side. The most modern inventions coexisted with savage survivals of feudal England, such as public executions and whippings, and there was no safety net for those who failed, except the ramshackle institutions of private charity. In the slum of St Giles, 2,850 people lived in just 95 houses. Sewers drained straight into the river Thames from which drinking water, with a “strange taste and brownish in colour”, was taken. (Charles Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd) Burial grounds overflowed, the dead piled one on top of the other.

Dickens’s father, however, was not successful in London. Gradually, the family possessions were sold or pawned, including his father’s precious library of books which Charles had devoured in Chatham. The young Dickens heard the adults constantly talking about ‘the deed’, a prospective agreement with his father’s creditors, which may have influenced his later depiction of the law in Bleak House and Little Dorrit as an irrational and malevolent force outside the control of human beings.

The final straw came when his mother, Elizabeth, tried to set up a school room in the house to earn a living. She advertised all around the neighbourhood, yet not a single pupil enrolled. The family finances could take no more, and his father found himself imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea prison, later described in Little Dorrit. Charles was sent into lodgings alone and found employment in a factory labelling bottles of boot polish, while the remainder of the family moved into the Marshalsea with John.

In barely a year, Charles had gone from a stable, secure childhood, with every expectation of an education, to a solitary and lonely life of harsh and mindless work, with no prospect, as far as he knew, of ever escaping. He and his family had fallen from the would-be genteel, petit-bourgeoisie into the drudgery of the working class and poor.

In later years he spoke of this time only once, to his lifelong friend and later biographer John Forster. Forster describes how he casually said to Dickens that someone had mentioned seeing him long ago, in a boot-blacking factory near the Thames. Dickens fell silent and, some days later, told Forster of the whole saga. Forster recounted: “It was a time of which he could never lose the remembrance while he remembered anything, and the recollection of which at intervals haunted him and made him miserable even to that hour”. (The Life of Charles Dickens)

It is no exaggeration to say that Dickens’s experience of the hell of Victorian working-class life made him the writer he became. Although he had only worked at the factory for a period of months, the fact that he could have been condemned by no more than bad luck to a life of unremitting and mindless toil formed his view of society. It was not the work itself, but the loss of all hope for the future that appears to have marked him, deeply and irrevocably.

He realised that the society he was living in denied the possibility of full humanity to most of its members. In fact, in his books, it is not only the poor but also the rich who are distorted and stultified by their love of money, chasing after wealth and position – as seen in the emotional deadness of Dombey, in Dombey and Son, the unhappiness of Lady Dedlock, in Bleak House and, most memorably, the callous self-centredness of Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol.

Unlike William Dorrit, confined to the “living grave” of Marshalsea prison for 23 years, John Dickens was saved by a family legacy with which he could pay off the most pressing of his debts and he was released. This unexpected turn of events rescued Charles and he was returned to school. This may explain the tremendous importance of wills, legacies and unexpected turns of fortune in his later fiction. And when critics complain that his plot turns are abrupt and improbable, such things really did happen to Dickens.

At school, Dickens was noted as smart and punctual, but also of high spirits and with a gift for mimicry, especially of the turn of speech of the working people of London. Yet he could never tell his companions how it was he could imitate the cockney workers and slum dwellers so well – because he had been among them himself. We can see here the seed of his themes of hidden identities and secrets, from Oliver Twist’s mysterious origins to Pip’s denial of his background in Great Expectations.

From school he found work as a law clerk, although his focus was on attending the numerous London theatres. From theatre comes the vividness of his writing – once, strange noises were heard in his study and he was found to be acting out the leaps and movements of Quilp, the villainous character in The Old Curiosity Shop. He seems almost to have seen his characters before him as he wrote, like a stage production. The theatre had a further importance in that it was the entertainment of the ‘common people’. Dickens grew to know their tastes and manners, and in his later work he was able to appeal to a mass audience.

The life of a law clerk was not for him. Dickens could see before him the middle-aged salaried clerk, “who is always shabby and often drunk”, as a warning of what he could become. He was driven, perhaps with the fear of a return to poverty, to the difficult task of teaching himself shorthand.

He was able to secure a job as a reporter at Westminster. His experiences sitting up most of the night transcribing pompous and self-serving parliamentary speeches seems to have been the origin of his lifelong contempt for parliament and politicians, later satirised as Boodle and Coodle in Bleak House. “Night after night”, he writes in David Copperfield, “I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are meant only to mystify. I wallow in words”. He called parliament the “great dust heap”, which is even more insulting when we realise that Victorian dust heaps contained all household refuse – dust, ashes, waste food and sewage – and were dumped in huge mounds to be picked through by the poor to make a precarious living.

Dickens’s talents were soon noticed – he only missed one deadline in his life. He was picked out to be a general reporter for the Morning Chronicle, a reforming journal. He was sent all over Britain: to Wales, Scotland and Cornwall, to cover elections in the industrial Midlands and North, to dinners and public meetings. He excelled at the work. The pressure and speed suited him, and his articles began to attract attention. Dickens started to publish short pieces on the people and events he came across: in London’s streets, shops, civil authorities and slums and, most famously, the Visit to Newgate, which prefigures his later interest in prisons and punishment, and which concludes with a haunting description of the last night of a condemned man. The writings were collected together as the Sketches by Boz (Boz being a family nickname), and published as an illustrated book in 1836 to very favourable reviews.

He was approached by the publisher William Hall to write a series on the comic misadventures of a club of cockney sportsmen, at a rate of twelve guineas per issue. Dickens, however, knew that the subject of ‘cockney sportsmen’ had been done to death and, aware of his growing reputation, insisted that the planned series should cover a far wider range. The series became The Pickwick Papers, one of the most celebrated works of English literature. As Dickens found his voice and rhythm, the series grew in popularity. Chapman and Hall began by printing 400 copies of each issue. By the end, it was 40,000.

Dickens was able to incorporate all his gifts – for comic mimicry, observation, speed. He used the patterns of common speech and many contemporary references. For instance, in a case in The Pickwick Papers modelled on a contemporary divorce case, Sam Weller explains to the court that he could not see through a hotel room door, even if his eyes “Wos a pair o’patent double million magnifyin’ microscopes of hextra power”. Scholars have even found an advert for a “double million magnifying gas microscope” in a journal of that time.

Pickwick mania seized the country with reflections in fashion and street slang. Dickens was writing for the newly-literate and half-literate, for the masses, not the elite. One account describes a locksmith in Liverpool “… reading Pickwick to an audience of 20 persons, men women and children”, who laughed with Sam Weller and cried at the death of the poor debtor in prison. (Charles Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd) With such readings the book reached beyond just those who could read, and the pictures and ready popular references ensured that Pickwick reached its intended audience.

Charles Dickens had arrived. Before Pickwick was finished he had begun Oliver Twist, the first of the novels which held up a mirror to the Victorian bourgeoisie and showed the brutal realities of their system to the world.