Dickens life spanned the reign of four English monarchs.
When he was born, in 1812, the King of England was George 3rd. By the time of his death in 1870, Queen Victoria had reigned for 40 years and the 19th century had lodged in most peoples minds and memories as the "Victorian age."
It was during her reign that Dickens rose from his humble beginnings and crested the heights of fame and fortune, so much so that, by the time of his death, he had become, and in many ways still remains, the second most famous Victorian, after the Queen herself.
His life was, most certainly, an eventful one that equaled many of his own storylines in its highs and lows, its dramas and its tragedies.
To this day he remains one of those few historical figures whose surname is sufficient as a means of identification, so much so that mere mention of the name "Dickens" will draw enthusiastic nods of acknowledgment no matter where in the World it is spoken.
Not bad for a man whose start in life was far from ideal.
Charles Dickens was born in the Landport suburb of Portsmouth on Friday 7th February 1812. The house he was born in, 13 Mile End Terrace, is now the Dickens Birthplace Museum and is today furnished, more or less as it would have been at the time of his birth.
Dickens was christened on 4th March 1812 at St Mary's church and was named Charles, after his maternal grandfather, Charles Barrow; John, after his father, John Dickens; and Huffham, after Christopher Huffam (the parish clerk misspelt the surname),who was a London friend of his father.
John Dickens was employed as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office and his job meant that the family would have to move as, and where his employers saw fit to send him. As a result Charles's first five years were marked by a series of moves as his father was shuttled between various jobs with the Naval Pay Office.
Dickens first came to London in January 1815 when John was transferred to The Navy Pay Office then located at Somerset House on Strand. As the three year old boy absorbed the sights, smells and sounds of the City, and his family settled into life in the Capital, no one could have known that, in later life, the name of Charles Dickens would become synonymous with London, and that he was destined to become the undisputed chronicler of its streets, buildings and people.
On this occasion the family spent two years in London before another transfer saw John Dickens transferred to Chatham in Kent and, with this new move, Charles embarked upon what, by his own later admission, were to be the happiest years of his childhood. Not only did his mother teach him the basics of reading but he was also enrolled at a local school where he was taught by a kindly local clergyman and schoolmaster by the name of William Giles.
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. 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." This fondness for the house, which was Gad's Hill Place, remained with him into adulthood and Dickens did indeed purchase the house in 1856 and, from 1860 until his death in 1870, it became his principle residence.
But the settled period of his childhood was brought to a sudden end when, in 1822, 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. But this proved unsuccessful and, in 1824, 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." "I really believed at the time," Dickens informed Forster, "that these words had broken my heart."
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, "...he was waiting for me in the lodge.. and [we] cried very much... And he told me, I remember, ...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..." This same advice is given by Mr Micawber, a character based upon John Dickens, to the protagonist of Dickens's most autobiographical novel - David Copperfield.
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. 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 1825, 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.
Dickens spent approximately two years at the Wellington House Academy, before his father found himself in debt once more, and the young Charles was found employment as a clerk working for Ellis and Blackmore, a firm of solicitors in Gray London’s Gray’s Inn.
This period would mark a turning point in his life for, whilst working for Ellis and Blackmore, he began to teach himself shorthand and, after 18 months, he felt sufficiently competent to set himself up as a shorthand recorder at Doctors’ Commons, which used to stand close to St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London.
By 1830 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.
In 1832 Dickens started work as a reporter on his uncle Thomas Barrow's newspaper The Mirror of Parliament. 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 "... a terrible bad cold and inflammation of the face..." and so was unable to attend his audition. "See how near I may have been to another sort of life," he later told John Forster. 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 1870.
Maria Beadnell's family were beginning to disapprove of their daughter's involvement with the young and impoverished reporter and, to get her way the from him, they sent her to finishing school in France.
When she returned her enthusiasm for Dickens had cooled considerably and Dickens was devastated when, in May 1833, she ended their relationship.
Spurred on by Maria Beadnell's rejection, Dickens threw himself into his writing and, in the autumn of 1833, his first story A Dinner at Poplar Walk was published.
By 1834 Dickens had settled into lodgings at Furnival's Inn, Holborn. He had also found employment with the Morning Chronicle newspaper and had become friends with its music critic George Hogarth.
When, in 1835, George Hogarth became editor of the Evening Chronicle, he asked Dickens to contribute sketches to the paper. These would eventually appear in print as Sketches by ‘Boz’.
Dickens also fell in love with Hogarth’s daughter, Catherine, and, on 2nd April, 1836, the two were married at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea. After a brief honeymoon in Kent, Charles and Catherine Dickens settled into his chambers at Furnival's Inns where they were joined by Catherine's 17-year-old sister, Mary Hogarth.
By this time the first instalment of Pickwick Papers had appeared. There was an early setback when its originator and illustrator, Robert Seymour, committed suicide. But Dickens managed to continue writing the work and Hablot Browne, who for the next 20 years remained Dickens’s chief illustrator, replaced Seymour as illustrator.
Shortly after Seymour's death Dickens introduced the character of Sam Weller and, as a result, Pickwick Papers became a publishing phenomenon and the young Dickens, writing under the pseudonym of Boz, was soon rocketing towards super star status.
It was around this time that Dickens met with the man who would become his most trusted confidante, both business wise and personally John Forster.
When they met, in December 1836, Forster was the literary and drama editor of The Examiner, and despite the fact Forster had written a somewhat lukewarm review of one of Dickens early pieces, the two became firm friends and Forster worked strenuously on Dickens behalf for the rest of his life and, when Dickens died in 1870, Forster became his primary biographer.
In January 1837, Catherine gave birth to their first child who they named Charles. By April 1837, the financial success of Pickwick Papers, coupled with the needs of his growing family, caused Dickens to look for larger and grander premises for their family home and he took a lease on a house in Doughty Street (the building that is now the The Charles Dickens Museum) where they were joined by Catherine's younger sister Mary Hogarth. Dickens developed an intense platonic relationship with his young sister-in-law and, for a time, his domestic situation was truly idyllic.
But the happiness of the Dickens household was shattered when, in the early hours of the 7th May, 1837, Mary Hogarth collapsed in her room and died that afternoon in Dickens arms. "Thank God she died in my arms," he said, shortly after her death, "and the very last words she whispered were of me." Dickens took a ring from Mary's lifeless finger, placed it on his own finger where it remained until the day he died. Such was the effect of Mary's death on him that, for the first and only time in his life, he found himself unable to write and the next instalments of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist failed to appear.
Rumour was rife that "Boz" had gone made, or that he had died, or even that he had been imprisoned for debt.
In fact Dickens and his wife, Catherine, had retreated to the wilds of rural Hampstead and were coming to terms with Mary's loss at a lovely little white weatherboard cottage which still exists today and which was known as Collins's Farm. They remained there for several weeks until Dickens felt strong enough to return to the rigour of his writing schedule.
Once back in Doughty Street, Dickens threw himself into his writing and established his reputation as one of the most gifted and popular writers of the age by finishing Oliver Twist, writing Nicholas Nickleby, and starting work on Barnaby Rudge.
At the same time the size of his family increased with the birth of two daughters, Mary in 1838 and Kate in 1839.
With the increased wealth that he was now enjoying he was able to take the lease on a much grander property at 1 Devonshire Terrace, Marylebone, and here his and Catherine's fourth child, Walter, was born in 1841.
In 1842 Charles and Catherine set sail for their first visit to America. Such was his reputation that Dickens found himself mobbed on several occasions.
Back in London he wrote Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44) and, a year later, what is perhaps one of his best known works, A Christmas Carol (1843).
By 1855, with his family swollen to ten children, one of whom, Dora, had died in infancy, Dickens was becoming restless.
In February, he received a letter from Maria Beadnell, now Mrs Winter. He replied enthusiastically, and refused to believe her warning that she was now toothless, fat and middle aged. ‘You are always the same in my remembrance’ he wrote.
They made plans to meet at his house when his wife was ‘not at home.’ But, when the two came face to face, Dickens was horrified to discover that Maria was just as she had described herself and his ardour for her cooled. Rather cruelly, he then went on to depict her in Little Dorritt (1855-57) as Flora Finching, a character who was "once pretty and enchanting, but now fat, diffuse and silly."
In 1856, Dickens purchased Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, the property he had admired from afar during those childhood walks with his father.
In January 1857 he directed and acted in Wilkie Collins’s play The Frozen Deep and as he researched professional actresses to play the female parts, he met the young actress Ellen Lawless Ternan who became his intimate friend and probably his lover.
The following year Dickens formally separated from his wife, and viciously attacked her in an article published in several newspapers. His daughter Kate later recalled, ‘My father was like a madman… He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our house.’
His younger sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, became his housekeeper, and rumours began to circulate that it was his affair with her that had caused his marital breakdown.
In August 1858, Dickens began the first of a series of reading tours that would, over the next 12 years, prove extremely profitable.
By 1860 Gad’s Hill had become his principle residence and, over the next ten years, as he and Ellen Ternan became more involved with each other, his personal life became more and more enigmatic. It is possible that he took a house in France for Ellen and her mother, where he visited them frequently. There have also been suggestions that he had a child with her but it died in infancy.
Dickens’s clandestine life came close to exposure in 1865 when he, Ellen and her mother were travelling back from France and their train was involved in a serious accident at Staplehurst in Kent. Although Dickens tended to the injured and dying he refused to attend the subsequent inquest, probably for fear it would make public the fact he was travelling with Ellen Ternan.
Over the next few years, Dickens undertook several reading tours in England and America. But his health was failing and by 1870 he looked considerably older than his 58 years.
Then on the 8th June, 1870, having spent the day working on what was to be his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he collapsed at the dinner table and died the next evening.