Charles Dickens is one of the most important authors of the 19th century. Through his life, he wrote volumes- within much of his writing was often held aloft a deeper message- how to treat the impoverished, life from the perspective of the mistreated, the proverbial ‘view from below’. Charles had a difficult, albeit short, childhood, in a world where pain and heartache was the norm, it was entirely average to be defiled as refuse, a place where a human life meant cheap labor, a person was forced to become a simple automaton, living upon meager subsistence wages, a place, where, the tears of a child were simply used as lubrication for the massive, smoke-belching, industrial machine. It is this world that Dickens spoke of. It is by no means a nice world to reside within, yet, for so many people this world was reality, and there was absolutely positively nothing anybody could do about it.
Dickens shed light upon this dark, filthy world.
"Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who sport on the earth in the night season, and melt away with the first beam of the sun which lights grim care and stern reality on their daily pilgrimage through the world."
- Charles Dickens
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born Friday February 7, 1812 in Portsmouth, England. His parents were Elizabeth and John Dickens.
“Charles’s mother, who was twenty-three when he was born, was named Elizabeth, and she came from a family of musical instrument makers. He said that she often sent his sisters and him “into uncontrollable fits of laughter by her funny sayings and inimitable mimicry”-or, as we would say now, doing impressions of other people. But there was a scandal in her family; not long before Charles was born, Elizabeth’s father stole some money from the Navy Pay Office, and when he was found out, he ran away to the Isle of Man.” (Rosen 13)
His father, John, was a clerk at the Navy Pay Office, and unfortunately, quite indebted.
“He dressed like a gentleman and spoke in an upper-class voice. Perhaps he was imitating his parents, who had been servants in upper-class people’s houses. He was always, always, always, short of money, and always either spending it or borrowing it.” (Rosen 13) His father made a mere £80 annually, which made caring for his family difficult, to say the least, and a problem compounded by his spending habits, and seven children besides Charles.
Young Charles took note of his fathers financial situation, which evidently affected his works, most notably so in David Copperfield.
Soon after the birth of his other siblings, they had to move to an apartment in London’s West End, soon moving yet again to Sheerness, on the east coast, and finally Chatham, which, to young Charles, was a source of much inspiration. He referred to it as a “dream of chalk, and drawbridges, and mastless ships, in a muddy river”- just the kind of place that influenced his writings in later years.
“I faintly remember her teaching me the alphabet” said Charles Dickens about his mother, who was his very first teacher. He also remembered how she would sometimes hit him with a stick, later referring to her as one who “ruled the world with the birch”.
On occasion, his relatives would bring him to the theater in London, a rare privilege! It is by these that Dickens learned about the very vibrancy of the performing arts, in all the joy and the pain, trials and tribulation, and influenced not only his style of writing, and how he put together chains of event in his books, and quite likely the realism, the very “true-to-life-ism” and sheer emotion that makes his books timeless.
At one point in his childhood, when his family was rather short on money, John, his father, had young Charles leave school, despite his having sent Fanny, Charles older sister, to the Royal Academy of Music in 1823, leaving poor Charles feeling rather hurt, tossed by the side of the road, and stolen from, cheated out of a learning experience he enjoyed.
As the slippery slope of his family’s financial situation steadily grew steeper, Charles sat back and watched as various possessions were taken to the pawnbroker, pieces of furniture, cutlery, clothing, books, and many things that would once adorn his home slowly disappeared from view.
Though things seemed as if they couldn’t get any worse, they could, and they did. Shortly after turning twelve, young Charles was sent to Warren’s Blacking, a factory where black boot polish was made. It was “a crazy, tumble-down old house”, complete with “rotten floors, and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down the stairs at all times.”
His job here was working with labels, where he would take a pot full of “blacking”, or polish, and label it appropriately, for ten and a half hours. Daily, he trod six miles, three to get to Warren’s, and another three to return home. The only pause he received from his work was a twelve PM lunch break, and a short stop for tea in the late afternoon.
Shortly after beginning this terrible labor, his father was pitched into debtors prison, and for young Charles to visit him on Sunday, his only day off, and poor little Charles had to descend into the dank, bleak, dark prison, where lost souls, weary, and their empty wallets took up residence for a while.
After his father was released from debtors prison, he went back to his job, and would walk each day to work with little Charles,
Though the world all around him was crashing, not everything was taken from him; his mother would sometimes come to visit him at the factory, and he would be able to keep some of his own money that he earned, and be able to spend it in restaurants for his lunch break.
In 1825, young Charles was allowed an opportunity to learn once again. His father sent him to the Wellington House Academy, a single roomed school that would hold two-hundred pupils, all in rows, with elder students sometimes teaching the younger. In later years, Dickens wrote of most schoolteachers as tormentors, rather than teachers, as underscored in the books David Copperfield, and also Hard Times. Yet, it is also at schools that he and his friends formed a sort of arts club, where they “put on plays, recited poems and songs, wrote stories, put them into scrapbooks, and produced a magazine called Our Newspaper.”(Rosen 28)
Late teen years to early adulthood
At the age of fifteen, Charles once again had to leave school, this time, however, to work for a lawyer, and not at the blacking factory. His primary job was to copy important documents, and carry files from office to office. Though the work was a tad boring, he often got to meet with people of all sorts, but sometimes, he had to go to places that could be potentially hazardous, and it was experiences like these that led gave him the strength to write as he did, and something to draw from, and base his writings upon.
At the age of 18, Charles had the ability to write in shorthand, and took up a job initially in a court, and later in Parliament.
In 1883, at the age of twenty-one, Dickens published his first story, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk”, and it was published in Monthly Magazine, and was quite successful. He wrote eight more stories, none of which he profited from. Soon, he moved up to the Morning Chronicle, in which he was paid for several things, including theater review, reporter on elections and their campaigns, etc. He progressed quickly into other genres, comic included, under the pen name “Boz”. In 1836, he became the editor of Bentley's Miscellany, and married his first wife, Catherine Hogarth, and the two had nine children.
In the same year, his articles and sketches were published in his first book, Sketches by Boz. George Cruikshank, a famous illustrator of the day, made pictures for the book.
Dickens progressed to publishing stories serially, month-by-month, in a book known as The Pickwick Papers, and in 1837 started serializing Oliver Twist, along with Nicholas Nickleby, and after completing the two, started publishing The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge weekly.
Dickens and Social Issues
"A day wasted on others is not wasted on one's self."
- Charles Dickens
All throughout his life, Dickens was painfully aware of the poverty that plagued mankind. He made these evident in his works, and in his 1846 (entirely published in 1848) novel Dombey and Son, about Paul Dombey, a man who dreamed of having a son as a successor to his extremely successful shipping business. Yet, after his son is born, his wife died. Worse yet, his son doesn’t socialize normally, and, while well behaved, has many ‘quirks’. Despite this, he was described as very precocious as evidenced in the book:
“At no time did he fall into it so surely, as when, his little chair being carried down into his father's room, he sat there with him after dinner, by the fire. They were the strangest pair at such a time that ever firelight shone upon. Mr. Dombey so erect and solemn, gazing at the blare; his little image, with an old, old face, peering into the red perspective with the fixed and rapt attention of a sage. Mr. Dombey entertaining complicated worldly schemes and plans; the little image entertaining Heaven knows what wild fancies, half-formed thoughts, and wandering speculations. Mr. Dombey stiff with starch and arrogance; the little image by inheritance, and in unconscious imitation. The two so very much alike, and yet so monstrously contrasted.
On one of these occasions, when they had both been perfectly quiet for a long time, and Mr. Dombey only knew that the child was awake by occasionally glancing at his eye, where the bright fire was sparkling like a jewel, little Paul broke silence thus:
'Papa! what's money?'
The abrupt question had such immediate reference to the subject of Mr. Dombey's thoughts, that Mr. Dombey was quite disconcerted.
'What is money, Paul?' he answered. 'Money?'
'Yes,' said the child, laying his hands upon the elbows of his little chair, and turning the old face up towards Mr. Dombey's; 'what is money?'
Mr. Dombey was in a difficulty. He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency', paper, bullion, rates of exchange, value of precious metals in the market, and so forth; but looking down at the little chair, and seeing what a long way down it was, he answered: 'Gold, and silver, and copper. Guineas, shillings, half-pence. You know what they are?'
'Oh yes, I know what they are,' said Paul. 'I don't mean that, Papa. I mean what's money after all?'
Heaven and Earth, how old his face was as he turned it up again towards his father's!
'What is money after all!' said Mr. Dombey, backing his chair a little, that he might the better gaze in sheer amazement at the presumptuous atom that propounded such an inquiry.
'I mean, Papa, what can it do?' returned Paul, folding his arms (they were hardly long enough to fold), and looking at the fire, and up at him, and at the fire, and up at him again.
Mr. Dombey drew his chair back to its former place, and patted him on the head. 'You'll know better by-and-by, my man,' he said. 'Money, Paul, can do anything.' He took hold of the little hand, and beat it softly against one of his own, as he said so.
But Paul got his hand free as soon as he could; and rubbing it gently to and fro on the elbow of his chair, as if his wit were in the palm, and he were sharpening it - and looking at the fire again, as though the fire had been his adviser and prompter - repeated, after a short pause:
'Yes. Anything - almost,' said Mr. Dombey.
'Anything means everything, don't it, Papa?' asked his son: not observing, or possibly not understanding, the qualification.
'It includes it: yes,' said Mr. Dombey.
'Why didn't money save me my Mama?' returned the child. 'It isn't cruel, is it?'
'Cruel!' said Mr. Dombey, settling his neckcloth, and seeming to resent the idea. 'No. A good thing can't be cruel.'
'If it's a good thing, and can do anything,' said the little fellow, thoughtfully, as he looked back at the fire, 'I wonder why it didn't save me my Mama.'”- Dombey and Son, Chapter Eight
This excerpt as makes it evident that Dickens understood the value of money- he realized it was useful as a tool for obtaining things, but evidently not much else, and by the end of the book, Dombey realizes money will never bring him happiness.
Dickens and Industrialism in Hard Times
“In Hard Times there is no mistaking Dickens violent hostility to industrial capitalism and its entire scheme of life. Here he is proclaiming a doctrine not of individual but of social sin, unveiling what he now sees as the real state of modern society… The change that reaches its climax in Hard Times, however is not only in revolutionary thought, it is in method as well. And this disturbs still another group of Dickens’s readers, grown used to a profusion of commix episode and a tremendous crowded canvas thronged with characters almost as numerous as life itself, all painted in vivid contrasting scenes of light and dark with a brilliant external realism… the method of Dombey and Bleak House, those complicated and elaborate literary structures like some enormous medieval building whose bays and wings and niches are filled with subordinate figures and with bright genre groups of all kinds clustering in a hundred patterns ranging from grotesque fancy to portraits from nature.
Had Dickens been following this method in hard Times, he would have had scenes among the clerks in Bounderby’s bank like those in Mr. Dombey’s countinghouse and scenes among the hands in Bounderby’s factories like those of pasting on the labels in Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse… Every packed detail of this entire setting is surcharged with significant emotional and intellectual comment, and every character among the small unified group, symbolic and stylized, who act out their drama in the gritty industrial world, serves to deepen and intensify the meaning. Josiah Bounderby, banker and manufacturer, is its blatant greed and callous inhumanity in action. Thomas Gradgrind, retired wholesale hardware dealer, man of facts and figures, is the embodiment of utilitarian economic figures and its endeavor to dry up life into statistical averages. Young Thomas Gradgrind, devoted first and only to his own advantage, is the mean product of the paternal theories – “that not unprecedented triumph of calculation which is usually at work on number one.””(Johnson 131-133)
Evidently, the industrial world and its injustices played a major role in Dickens literature, in the way it affected his characters, the factories belching smoke being cold and heartless, thus, the people in charge of such are just as terrible. However, in this pit of despair, this industrial abyss of doom, this which is known as the creative mind of Charles Dickens, a glimmer of hope shines through. In Hard Times, that glimmer was known as Cecilia “Sissy” Jupe, Girl No. Twenty, incapable of defining a horse in utilitarian terms. This girl came from a background that, according to Gradgrindian philosophy, shouldn’t even exist, let alone be the place where a child spends most of his or her waking hours. Despite it, Cecilia’s father, according to Gradgrind, ‘recognized the value of a good education’, and he took her in, much the same way as a man swallowing half-cooked pork: he knows that something is wrong, yet doesn’t understand how much of his life could be changed as a result of a seemingly insignificant action. Girl number twenty entered the life of Thomas Gradgrind and changed him for the better- yet her effects weren’t seen for quite some while. The worms in a mans stomach hatch after being released by the powerful acids- Cecilia was released into the Gradgrind household. The worms work their magic by making their way to the intestine- young Miss Jupe went to the heart of her kind host, and softened the stone.
Sissy doesn’t just serve as a character in a well written book, one you pop off the shelf, read, and haphazardly shut- rather, she is the very incarnate of hope and all humanity. Sissy, after a Gradgrind style education, was perhaps the only successful product in that she was balanced- she wasn’t a cold, hard, pale Bitzer, sort of like a diamond lacking color, it may be ‘absolutely perfect’, and ‘rock solid’ in conviction, yet, it’s a diamond, just a whole bunch of carbon in a unique formation and not much more. Sissy could have become a lost, wandering Louisa, with a head full of facts without use- neither was she a like Tom, a kind, loving (and occasionally misanthropical) person, lost like Louisa, but unlike Louisa, he is looking for a path in every opportunity that comes by him. These opportunities include the (potentially offensive!) comic blackmoor, bank robber, and perhaps the saddest of all, what we in modern terms would call a ‘mooch’, reliant on his poor sister for his livelihood.
“Fir Sissy’s loving humanity, though, this bleak factuality is quite impossible…Of a town of a million inhabitants of whom there are only twenty-five starved to death in the course of a year. What does she think of that proportion? “I thought it must be just as hard on those who were starved whether the others were a million or a million million.” So “low down” is Sissy in “the elements of Political Economy” after eight weeks of study, that she has to be “set right by a prattler three feet high, for returning to the question, ‘What is the first principle of this science?’ the absurd answer, ‘To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me’””(Johnson 158)
Yet, despite all this, Sissy turned out regular. She took in all the facts, but her emotion, her fancy, and her sheer wonderment could not be removed. She was a hybrid, a beautiful, well developed thing, and like electricity to Tesla, she used fact and fancy together, thus forming a proper and balanced view of the world and excellent methods of solving problems.
Dickens used her as an engine to express the fact that with England in his day and age, it was all or nothing, yet, a little bit of something at the same time, always a little loophole that allowed for a major oppression. Cecilia Jupe, despite her calm demeanor in the book, was a revolutionary character, achieving a something through her actions. It was a thought that she implanted in the minds and hearts of readers. It was the knowledge that there is a middle ground, one that has been hidden from the world for so long. This middle ground of reason- neither living in extreme asceticism, wearing yourself thin, or a life of laze, without the vitality to accomplish anything. These two extremes were unfortunately the most common in Dickens’s day, and this is what evidently moved him to act.
Dickens used his writing as a medium by which to reach people. Motivated by the pain he suffered as a child at the brutal hands of industrial England, he put the knowledge right into the laps of everyone- made available to the wealthy and the impoverished in one way or another. And Dickens work was not in vain. It lead to some eye-opening, and heartwrenching realizations that lead to fairer treatment for the oppressed in England, and to this day, his novels give hope to people worldwide.
Karson, Jill. Johnson, Edgar. Readings on Hard Times. San Diego, CA, Greenhaven Press, Inc.
Rosen, Michael, Dickens His Work and His World. Cambridge, MA, Candlewick Press.
Charles Dickens Life
David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page
Charles Dickens – Biography and his Works
SPECTRUM Biographies – Charles Dickens
Dombey and Son – Wikisource