It was the best of times;it was the worst of times…~Excerpt from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens~
Born 1812 – Died 1870 (at the age of 58). Born in Portsmouth, England February 7, 1812 to John (a clerk in an office) and Elizabeth Dickens. Soon after, the family moved to London.They were an “average” lower to middle class family. Unlike many children of the times, Charles Dickens had some formal schooling .
Charles’s father loses his job and most of his income. 1824 – Charles’s father is arrested for debt and is imprisoned (supposedly along with Charles’s mother and 5 of the siblings).At the age of 12, Charles is separated from his family and forced to go to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory to help pay off family’s debt. (A blacking warehouse was an establishment manufacturing, packaging, and distributing “blacking”, which was used for cleaning boots and shoes. The experience of working in the Blacking Factory haunted Dickens for the rest of his life, and he spoke of it only to his wife and closest friend, but the topic emerged in his writings.
Charles’s father was released from Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison (supposedly after 1-1½ years), but Charles was further psychologically scarred by the blacking factory experience because his mother insisted he continue to work there to help the family a bit longer. Charles’ father rescues him from this fate however, and Charles Dickens was able to return to school where he remained until the age of 15. At 15, he finds employment as an office boy/law clerk at an attorney’s office, but this experience leads him to conclude that he does not desire to go into law. He soon began working as a free-lance newspaper reporter.
As stated, Dickens began to work as a free-lance newspaper reporter and writer.His first published work is Sketches by Boz, which appeared in 1833 (Boz was the pseudonym that he wrote under). Over time, Dickens wrote a wide array of works that made him one of the most prolific writers of all time. Books to know (many written in serial/installment form): The Pickwick Papers (1836), Oliver Twist (1837), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1849 – which was considered semi-autobiographical), Bleak House (1852), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860)… and more (14 novels written…plus one half finished at time of his death).
Dickens’s writings often contained negative social commentaries about the times (particularly comments on social status), but they also contained a positive message. Dickens was concerned with the plight of the “common” man.Dickens’s characters were often said to be like “people we know in the world.” Yet some critics has accused Dickens of engaging in writing caricatures (stock images) of people rather than solid, believable characters.Keep in mind how many of Dickens’s characters are so memorable that they passed into common language …such as Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens desired to reflect truth about life and people (the good and the bad).
During time that Dickens was a free-lance write (age 18), he falls in love, but the relationship ends because her parents do not find him to be a “good enough match”. At 23, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of his journalist friend. Together, they had 10 children (7 boys and 3 girls). There is a bit of scandal in the Dickens’ household. Catherine’s younger sister, Mary, moves in to help with the children, and it is said that Charles idolized her. She died very young, and this greatly distressed him and often surfaced in his writing as well.
After 22 years of marriage and much financial success, Charles separated from his wife Catherine due to marital difficulties and being “temperamentally unsuited” for each other. He begins seeing an actress. It is said that Dickens was charming and brilliant, but had many emotional insecurities that most likely caused him to be extraordinarily difficult to live with. It is stated that he emotionally (and financially) blackmailed his own children to favor him and ignore their mother in his final years by threatening to cut the children out of his will (some of the children obey – but others do not).
In his books, Dickens continually spoke out about the conditions in Victorian England. His books stressed the themes that he considered to be the two greatest problems of the times: ignorance and poverty. He believed that education was the key to ending poverty. In part due to his vigilance to these causes, there was an eventual change to the welfare system in England.
Charles Dickens was well loved for not only his works, but for his public readings. In his later years, he went on tour, vowing to do 100 last readings before he died. He completed 86 of them before his death in 1870. Charles Dickens insisted on continuing to work and perform public reading even when his health deteriorated and the doctors warned against it. His work was his life. He was very popular with his fans.
Dickens’s final public readings took place in London in 1870. He suffered from his 2nd stroke (after a full day’s work) and died the next day. He died on June 9, 1870, at the peak of the Victorian Age. He wished for a quiet burial, but that request went unheeded. Instead, he is buried at Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, a place reserved for only the most respected writers in England. Summing up his career…Dickens wrote many books and was a celebrity of his time as well as quite wealthy for the times (but children, a separation, charitable contributions, etc. took away much of that wealth).
The Victorian Age lasted from 1837-1901, starting with the coronation of Queen Victoria (at age 18) until her death in 1901 (at the age of 82). Queen Victoria remains a remarkable figure in history – not only for having been the longest reigning British monarch, but also as the leader of a vast empire, and as the inspiration for a culture. She was often advised not to read Dickens’s works because they contained “unpleasant subjects” that would upset her.
In 1840, Queen Victoria had married her first cousin Albert. For the next 20 years they lived in close harmony and had nine children. Albert died from typhoid in 1861. Victoria never fully recovered from his loss (she was only 41 when he died), and she remained in mourning the rest of her life. Queen Victoria made many reforms to the monarchy during her time. She also brought about great expansion of the British empire. Conflict was not a feature of the Victorian overseas policy, but she had to face many uprisings, and even had seven attempts on her life. Her stoic attitudes toward these attacks greatly strengthened her popularity. She tended to remain out of the public eye after her husband’s death except when necessary. Victoria died on January 22, 1901 (at the age of 82).
Victorians invented the modern idea of invention – the notion that one can create solutions to problems, and that man can create new means of bettering himself and his environment.
Art was beginning to enjoy a revival. The upper classes tried to re-culture themselves in the rise of the new monarchy. The availability of inexpensive reading materials, especially illustrated newspapers and periodicals, created a large reading public. People were anxious for nonfiction and fiction. (Thus…one reason Dickens was so popular). Queen Victoria’s country was the world’s leading industrial power (producing more than half its iron, coal, and cotton cloth). It was a high point for England industrially and economically (the industrial revolution caused a boom in employment in cities, but problems still existed because the pay was not good).
England’s territories were at their greatest size under QueenVictoria, and London was by far the most powerful city in the world. London’s population went from 1 million to 4.5 million by QueenVictoria’s death. The west end enjoyed great wealth, but the moreindustrial east end suffered great financial hardships. Many people fell to financial hardships and were imprisoned fordebt, as was the law. Most people were unable to earn enough moneyto pay off their debt and support their families, thus causing a cycle ofpoverty.
During the Industrial Revolution, the shameful practice of child labor was most common. The displaced working classes were not able to support themselves unless children were employed. In 1840, only about 20% of children went to school, while the remainder went to work. More fortunate children were apprenticed to tradesmen (for 64 hours/week) or hired out as servants (80 hours/week). Others were not so fortunate (factory workers and even prostitution for teen girls). Most children ended up in factories (like Dickens) and they were forced to work the allowed 16 hours/day. There were many changes along the way…with the best being a reform act in 1847 that limited both adults and children to a maximum of 10 hours of work/day.
Overcrowding in cities due to the Industrial Revolution caused disgusting living conditions. Sewers ran into drinking water and caused serious problems. Cholera and typhoid were carried by polluted water; typhus was spread by lice; and ‘summer diarrhoea’ was caused by swarms of flies feeding on horse manure and human waste (and then landing on food). Health was a major concern/issue. Cholera becomes a major problem (a severe gastrointestinal bacteria illness) in 1831. The wealthy were not immune; in fact, they were often more vulnerable. Water closets were adopted by the more affluent households. As a result of this, sewers originally intended to take rain water into the Thames now carried raw sewage – which was extracted by water companies to be drunk by customers.
The crisis came to a peak during a time referred to as the “Great Stink” of London in 1858. There was an overpowering smell coming from the Thames River, which finally prompted some action. Death rates were higher than any time since the Black Death plague, and this forced reformers to face the need for better urban planning: better/decent housing, sewers, street paving and cleansing, pure water, etc. Dangerous working conditions and lack of unions or child labor laws also contributed to deaths. The need for many reforms started to be addressed.
London’s conditions caused a serious rise in orphanages, work houses, debtor prisons, criminal prisons, etc. (all of which Dickens speaks out against in his works). Over-crowding caused crime, but mostly in the manner of prostitution, pickpockets, street robbery (“garroting”), etc. As a whole, the upper classes did much better than the lower classes, but these were not easy times by any means.
It has been said that Dickens invented Christmas, and it is at least certain that he contributed to its popularity, especially with the writing of A Christmas Carol.The Victorians loved Christmas and are an inspiration behind how we celebrate it today. The Christmas Card: The sending of greeting cards was a Victorian innovation. The first commercial Christmas/New Year card is believed to have been designed and printed in London, England in 1843.
The very first Christmas card(which was printed in Victorian England - 1843)
The Christmas Cracker: This was a wrapped cylinder that pops when pulled apart – and sometimes reveals candy, which originated in Victorian England and was created by a confectioner who wanted to imitate the noise of a crackling fire. The Christmas Feast: Christmas often meant roast beef in the northern part of England and roast goose or turkey in the southern plus some plum pudding. Victorians created the idea of a large Christmas “feast” of treats to celebrate. The Christmas Story: It was customary for Victorian authors to publish a Christmas story every year, and this is the origin for what is certainly the most famous of all Victorian Christmas stories… A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
The Christmas Tree: After Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert decorated their first Christmas tree at Windsor Castle (reminiscent of Albert’s childhood times in Germany), the English public followed with enthusiasm. It soon became fashionable to decorate a tree with lighted candles, ribbons, paper ornaments, candies, and fancy cakes hung from branches by ribbon and paper chains. Commercially manufactured ornaments (often glass from Germany) replaced handmade ornaments as the century wore on. Holiday Gifts: The tradition of gift-giving continued, and followed the popular trends and fashions of the times.
Dickens’ books continue to be popular. Dickens is known to be one of the greatest storytellers who ever lived, and, with the single exception of Shakespeare, no writer of the English- speaking world has the reputation for having a greater gift for creating sharply individualized characters.