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Happy Birthday Mr Dickens

On his 194th birth anniversary the question remains: Is Dickens only for Literature students? Mishty Varma probes a bit.

india Updated: Feb 08, 2006 12:31 IST


Charles John Huffam Dickens – the prolific novelist who popularised the serial novel – was born to John and Elizabeth Dickens on February 7, 1812, 194 years ago.

Dickens Sr was a clerk in the Naval Pay Office who lost his post and most of his income due to reforms in the Admiralty in 1921. Dickens’s family was moderately well-off, and he received some education at a private school but all that changed when his father, after spending too much money entertaining and retaining his social position, was imprisoned for debt. In fact, at the age of twelve, Dickens was put to work for ten hours a day in Warren's boot-blacking factory, pasting labels on the jars of thick polish for six shillings a week. With this money, he had to pay for his lodging and support his family, which had joined his father in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. When the family finances were put partly to rights and his father was released, Charles was rescued by his father and sent to school. In later years, his impecunious father (who was the original of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, just as his mother was the original for the querulous Mrs. Nickleby) was once again arrested for debt, and Charles, much to his chagrin, was forced to come to his aid. Later in his life, both his parents (and brothers) were frequently after him for money.

At fifteen, he found employment as an office boy at an attorney's, while he studied shorthand at night. By 1829, Charles Dickens was a freelance reporter at Doctor's Commons Courts. In 1830 he fell in love with Maria Beadnell whom, however, he did not marry, probably because her parents did not consider him a good match. He later satirised her in Little Dorrit.

1833 was the year in which his first published story appeared, and was followed, very shortly thereafter, by a number of other stories and sketches. In 1834, still a newspaper reporter, he adopted the soon-to-be-famous pseudonym "Boz". In 1835, Dickens met and got engaged to Catherine Hogarth whom he married a year later. The couple eventually had ten children. The next year saw Dickens as the editor of Bentley's Miscellany and started publishing Oliver Twist in the same publication in 1837. From 1837 up until his death in 1870, Charles Dickens continued to write instalments for his stories, almost never missing a deadline.

Dickens even collaborated with Wilkie Collins on a play The Frozen Deep in 1856 and met one of his idols Hans Christian Anderson in 1857 (Anderson quickly wore out his welcome, however). That was also the year he fell in love with Ellen Ternan, a young actress with his amateur theatrical company that he had launched in 1845. He separated from his wife the next year after a long period of difficulties. They had been for many years "temperamentally unsuited" to each other. Dickens, charming and brilliant though he was, was also fundamentally insecure emotionally, and must have been extraordinarily difficult to live with.

Charles Dickens died on June 9, 1870, and is buried at Westminster Abbey.

Next:What the Dickens is Dickens doing in today’s world?

First Published: Feb 07, 2006 22:02 IST