Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Dickens is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the Victorian period but he was born during the Regency and spent the first 25 years of his life living under the reign of George III, George IV and William IV. His early years had a profound effect on the writer he became and provided many of the characters and experiences that he later used in his writing.
Dickens was born on February 7th 1812 in Portsea, Portsmouth. It was a momentous year, the year that the British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated and the United States Congress declared war on the United Kingdom. The Napoleonic War battles of Salamanca and Borodino took place. Lord Byron made his first speech in the House of Lords, defending the Luddite riots.
Dickens’ father was a clerk in the Navy Pay-Office and the family were comfortably off financially though John Dickens constantly lived beyond his means. His work took the family to London and thereafter to Kent where Charles had a few years of private education at William Giles School in Chatham. Dickens spoke nostalgically of his early childhood and the time he spent
outdoors and also his voracious reading of authors such as Fielding and Smollett. This childhood ended abruptly in 1824 when John Dickens was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea Prison and Charles was obliged to leave school and work in Warren’s blacking warehouse, pasting labels on blacking tins for 10 hours a day. The harsh working conditions had a profound effect on him and later influenced both his interest in reform and also his writing. The condition of the working poor became a strong theme in his work. He wrote of his own labour as a child:
“The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary's shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots.” He earned six shillings a week for a 10 hour day.
Memories of places such as the Marshalsea also stayed with him. The prison dated from medieval times and Dickens described it as full of "the crowded ghosts of many miserable years." He used the setting in his book "Little Dorrit."
To read Dickens is not only to read about the experience of the Victorian era but also to look back into his youth in the pre-Victorian age. It is full of the darker side of London life, the squalor and the poverty, drawn in vivid detail.
Are you a fan of Dickens' writing? Do you enjoy his descriptions? Which of his books do you enjoy? Or do you prefer the more glamorous side of the era?
Labels: 200th anniversry of Charles Dickens birth, Charles Dickens, Georgian era, Little Dorrit, Marshalsea Prison, The Regency, Victorian period