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Charles Dickens

I am glad that I never met Charles Dickens. Dickens lived his stories; I would never have been able to know what was really behind his acting. As a man, he desired to be the centre of attention, to always be on stage and to be loved. “The street was his stage. He walked the street incessantly.” (Peter Ackroyd, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, 2002) He was loud, theatrically dressed in vivid clothes fit for the stage, and constantly mimicking the people he saw and met in London. He was an actor, a director and a playwright, but we know him best for his novels.

Dickens’ novels reflect his struggles as a child and his constant effort to put things right in the world. Although beginning his life in rural Kent, his family soon moved to London. His father was put into debtors’ prison. His childhood turned into a grinding job working in a rat filled, rotting blacking factory as he provided a little income for his family. At 10 years old, he could empathise with workhouse children as he worked 10 hours a day labelling shoe blacking bottles. He also visited his father in Marshalsea prison (inspiring the setting of Little Dorrit). You can see images of the prison here: Here many people died of disease, heat exhaustion or starvation as much of the food given in charity was reported to have been taken by the keepers. Dickens stated: ‘Ignorance has a very dreadful power to fill prisons.’

Dickens has been described as ‘odd’ as a child and ‘odd’ in his relationships with women. He was a performer in life, on stage and in his work. Mary, his wife’s sister, died at 17 years old. Dickens famously kept her clothes and a lock of her hair. He wore her ring until death. This experience permeates his novels. For example, the characters Nell and Nancy died cruelly despite their heroism.

Dickens’s characters were often caricatures enabling the reader to laugh at the wealthy and sympathise with the vulnerable and poor. His novels are peppered with bullies and defenceless children. Some characters are lovingly more complicated, such as Miss Havisham. She lives in potential opulence but decides to wallow in dust and self pity finding revenge in breaking Pip’s heart. She sits in her decaying wedding dress waiting for Pip to fall in love with Estella. However, most readers will sympathise with her loneliness after the betrayal of her fiancée and her death.

Dickens became a celebrity during his life time. His travels to America proved his fame. See: However, he was disappointed with the vulgarity of Americans and their love of money rather than ideals. His book, Martin Chuzzelwit, was burnt publically in New York because of his negative descriptions of Americans. Dickens challenged the fact that copyright laws were not applied and authors could not earn their deserved royalties in the US. However, on his second visit, he seemed to like Americans more and was liked in return.

Dickens publicised the luxurious Victorian Christmas that is often celebrated today. His descriptions of the goose, turkey and Christmas pudding in ‘A Christmas Carol’ and its theme of ‘Good will to all men’ created the enthusiasm and warmth of a family celebration. Dickens exclaimed: “A Christmas party! We know nothing in nature that is more delightful! There seems magic in the very name of Christmas. Kindly hearts are united, and all is kindness and benevolence.”

Dickens’s travels to and from his homes in France, Italy, London and the south coast of England finally wore him down. His health deteriorated but he refused to give up the public performances of his work. He said it was: “much better to die doing.”

There are so many adaptations of Dickens’ works that there is no room to describe them here. Adaptations of note, for children, Jim Carrey’s 2009 A Christmas Carol and for adults the 1981 BBC version of Great Expectations. There is a newer BBC version of Great Expectations that is a good introduction with respected actors and awe-inspiring settings ( However, the older version seems truer to Dickens.

No writer has really been able to emulate the strength and style of Dickens. However, other authors have tried to hold up a mirror to our society. Jane Austen (born before Dickens) successfully looked at the class differences of the middle and upper classes. Dickens went further and portrayed all walks of life from poverty to extreme wealth. Themes of poverty, oppression and ill treatment are still relevant today. Dickens went far to make sure that class differences were emphasised and challenged.

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Charles Dickens is born

Born in Portsmouth

Visit his birthplace


Moved to Kent

Dickens moved from Portsmouth to Kent when he was five. Here, he went to school and lived what are said to be the happiest days of his life.

Moved to London

His father and family moved to London.

Father and the rest of his family were put in debtor’s prison

After his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison, Charles left school.

Charles worked in a blacking factory

At 10 years old, Charles Dickens worked 10 hours a day labelling shoe blacking bottles. He used this experience to create his character Oliver Twist.

Returned to school for two or three years

His father received a small inheritance allowing Charles to return to school.

Worked as lawyers’ assistant at Gray's Inn, London

Dickens was a lively character, mimicking others from London before turning them into characters in his novels.

Worked as journalist

Dickens was an accomplished journalist and went on to be an Editor for various publications.

Dickens as a journalist


Dickens' first story A Dinner at Poplar Walk was published

A Dinner at Poplar Walk was published in a monthly magazine. Dickens was not paid but happy to see his work published.

Married Catherine Holgarth

Catherine Hogarth was said to be a quiet person who was a ‘good’ Victorian wife. She had 10 children with Charles.

Sketches by Boz published as a book

Sketches by Boz a collection of short stories was published for 150 guineas. (A large amount at the time.)

Wrote monthly chapters of The Pickwick Papers

The stories described the various adventures of a group of sporting men. By 25, Dickens was famous worldwide.

Sister in-law died aged 17

Dickens kept a lock of Mary's hair, her ring and her clothes. Later, he stated that he wished to be buried next to her.

Dickens' first visit to America

Dickens was treated as a celebrity when he first arrived. However, he found Americans increasingly difficult. When he brought up the subject of Americans not paying copyright for his work, he was criticised by the press.

Dickens begins public readings

Dickens had the chance to get the limelight and acting hours he had always craved. He toured the UK and America.

Dickens on Stage


Formal separation from his wife

Dickens gave his wife a house after their separation and his son Charley moved in with her.

Dickens had an affair with Ellen Turnan

‘Nelly’ was said to have inspired Dickens to write Great Expectations as she helped him to work through his childhood fears.

His mistress


Involved in train crash over the river Beult

Dickens’s carriage was leaning over the viaduct. Dickens helped others to escape then filled his top hat with water to help the dying and injured.

What Dickens said about his ordeal


Decline in health

Dickens never seemed to recover from the train crash. He was afraid of train journeys and suffered from anxiety. He is said to have been working and performing “to death” even ‘seeing’ his dead father performing the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes.

Dickens died aged 58

Dickens was received by Queen Victoria before dying a few months later. He was in the middle of writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens dies from fatigue related illness and a second stroke.

Charles Dickens' burial site

About the Contributor

Liz has always loved Charles Dickens since reading extracts of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at primary school and ‘Oliver Twist’ as a teenager. She has taught English in Leicester for more than 10 years and particularly enjoys teaching Pip’s relationship with Magwitch in ‘Great Expectations’ and Oliver’s relationship with Noah in ‘Oliver Twist’.

A Christmas Carol: GCSE Study Guide
Includes original character and scene illustrations and integrated 'Literary Heritage' notes throughout.
Great Expectations: GCSE guide and activities
A comprehensive combination of notes, activities, questions & worksheets analyse key chapters
Hard Times: A Level Guide
Intelligent, carefully researched notes work through the whole text tracking themes, characterisation, and symbols, and imagery.
Oliver Twist: GCSE Coursework Pack
The resource includes 15 carefully selected extracts and a special section on social and historical contexts and culminates in a series of worksheets focusing on essay-writing skills