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MARCH 25, 2010 12:22AM

The Dickens You Say!

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Mrs  Mrs. Charles Dickens

I keep trying to wrap my mind around the fact that the tritest slogan in the entire history of humankind,  Home, Sweet Home, is attributed to Charles Dickens.

Victorian  home lives were like ours, but more interesting.

Dickens  had a "home" fixation.   When he was young (this is his famous tragic childhood that got written up by his secretary after he died so we ALL know it), his father went to debtor's prison and young Charles was boarded out and sent to work in a factory to help makes ends meet--for 4 months!  

 Cue:  Oliver Twist and David Copperfield (maybe even The Old Curiosity Shop and Hard Times).

Dickens was definitely ADHD--he slept very little, wrote, talked non-stop, socialized, and walked for hours to burn off steam.  His energy  enabled him to become a well-known journalist.  His first book was in fact, Sketches by Boz, which was a set of " Talk of the Town" pieces. 

He married his publisher's  daughter, Catherine.  She was sweet, not intellectual.  Dickens blamed her for the failure of his marriage--after knocking her up 12 times.  The Dickens kids were named after all his literary pals--so we have a good idea who they were. 

Dickens idolized one of his wife's sisters, who died suddenly before she was twenty.  No woman could stand up to her memory.

Fortunately, Dickens's wife had more sisters, so he was able to keep one on as "housekeeper" after he ditched  his wife.  He followed up the separation by publishing full-page ads in London newspapers about how he had been wronged by his in-laws.

History's first great public relations disaster was Dickens's divorce.  Not really a divorce because those were nearly impossible to get.

Dickens  hung around with Lady Marguerite Blessington who was famously her rich husband's mistress before his first wife died and he was able to marry her.  She had been supported by a man after her first marriage fell apart--Lord  Blessington paid him off to cover what he'd spent on her clothes and expenses. No ladies could associate with Lady Blessington, but her huge home was crowded with artistic and literary men.

Dickens supported a home for reformed prostitutes with Angela Burdett-Coutts, the richest woman in England.   ABC remained single until middle-age, when she married an American and nearly lost her entire fortune for marrying "an alien."

  Wilkie Collins


Wilkie Collins  (above), one of Dickens's bestest friends, had two houses in London.  In one, he lived with his wife and her child by another man.  In the other, he lived under another name with his mistress and their three children.  Dickens did NOT approve of this. Wilkie Collins made a very detailed will to make sure that his kids and the women in his life were taken care of.

Dickens is widely believed to have had an affair with the young actress, Ellen Ternan,  that lasted until his death.  He burned many private letters before he died, apparently,  in an effort to preserve his good reputation.


Dickens at desk

A Virgin Fixation

In his books, Dickens is obsessed with females who are young and sweet and virginal and generous and unassuming.  If the character dies young, so much the better.  The death of Little Nell in Old Curiosity Shop was a Victorian meme.  Dickens made a cult from his young sister-in-law's death.

 Factoid:  He invented Christmas!

A Christmas Carol included several idealized family traditions.  This runaway bestseller turned up the commercial burner for the Christmas season. 

Recommended:  Dickens Novels I Love!

 Bleak House--The most fun, the wildest dramas, longest chases, saddest love stories, wierdest saintly young girl, most haunted house, evilest lawyer, poorest loneliest orphan.  It's long and detailed and has every Dickens trick--but well blended.

Great Expectations. His masterpiece.  In Great Expectations, Dickens  pits the earnest, life-long gratitude of the amply reformed convict Magwitch against Society.  The novel contains mystery after mystery.  The sins of the past generation are slowly  revealed to young Pip.  He must make his own moral choices--finally.   Stella is one of Dickens' few rebellious girls.  The "happy ending" was tacked on to satisfy fans--not because Dickens wanted it.  Miss Havisham's monumentally decayed wedding feast is one of the most fully realized images in all of Dickens.

Our Mutual Friend--beginning with a drowned body, the novel explores the varieties of greed concerning a fortune left by a London "dustman" or household waste collector.  Lots of wonderful scenes in OMF.

Little Dorrit--Little Dorrit is what I think David Copperfield failed to be.  The first half introduced the Dorrit family--the patriarch has spent years in debtor's prison, where he thrives via a snobbish reputation.  He is released for the second half--and all the character and plot strings get pulled.  A wonderful hero in this book.  

Nicholas Nickleby:  Artists, loansharks, theater people,  & life lessons.  Nearly as much fun as Bleak House.

Mystery of Edwin Drood--Leon Garfield wrote a brilliant ending to this dark, dreamy, moody mystery novel that Dickens didn't live to finish.

The rest of Dickens in 150 words:

Dombey and Son--Freud stole everything from this book. Barnaby Rudge--Historical drama in England--anti-Catholic riots. Martin Chuzzlewit--Dickens goes to America--doesn't like it. Pickwick Papers--Sam Weller and lots of characters in a big mess David Copperfield-- Betsy Trotwood, Micawber, Factory work. Hard Times--Factory hell. Tale of Two Cities--French revolution, atypical Dickens novel.  Old Curiosity Shop--Sentimental beyond belief. Oliver Twist--How does an orphan learn to read? Christmas Carol--read it as well as watch movies. Sketches by Boz--early journalism collection.  Uncommercial Traveler--mature  journalism collection. 


  Lady BlessingtonYou can have me for 10,000 £


 Wilkie Collins will:





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Love this!!! Dickens for some reasons " gets me" and stays with me. I learned a lot from your biographical tidbits, though I am a Dickens fan! Yes, Great Expectations is a MASTERPIECE but I don't think you should have demoted David Copperfield–– it was Dicken's own favorite and the sorrowful afflictions of young Davy with Mr. (& Miss) Murdstone, and his London travails so like Dicken's own, and running away to Betsey Trotwood are unforgettable. Actually among Victorian heroines Betsey Trotwood is one of the strongest; then there are the vigorously interesting other heroines in the book in various stages of Victorian traps and trances. It's so good!

But you have inspired me to take another look at a few you review! Hooray! It seems like a present to have these books again. Wonderful piece, pictures and information.
I would rate it 100x
I have a few of these books that I bought for my son to expose him to the classics. I never realized that there was so much of a soap opera life behind the man. I must read that book about him. Greta piece :)
Please, please, dear reader, know how much more there is to the story of the man and of his works. If this piece reminds you of Dickens and sends you looking for more, know there is more to find. I first met Dickens before my 13th birthday when I read Oliver Twist for Summer Reading. He has been part of my life ever since.

Edgar Johnson's biography of Dickens was, I think, the first I read. Michael Slater has just written one that your piece reminds me I want to read.

Dickens had his demons. He knew that. They informed him and his work. He had an imagination that exploded within him. He .... No. To know more, read. This piece begins to open a door. Walk through. Pace with him. Walk with him. Run with him. Go with him through the nights of London streets and meet not only the heroes of his world, but the very real people who struggled every day of their lives. Understand human frailty and human nonsense alongside human kindness and human strength. Stop. Go now!

I would loan you my copy of Great Expectations if I could!

Dickens is so complex and convoluted and there is wierdness everywhere in Dickens.

Betsy Trotwood--I like her best of all the characters in David Copperfield--no, Micawber is my favorite, but she is second. I just hate the weakness in David's character--it feels like people act on him throughout the book. I know DC is what most people go for, but maybe those people who don't like DC could find OTHER Dickens books to like. Bleak House has a horrible title--but it's wild and crazy and keeps going.

Read on!!!
I thought everyone in the Victorian era was strait-laced? Talk about false advertising!

In school, I always chafed when reading the old classics. Dickens was the exception. I loved Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities. Gripping narratives, interesting characters, vivid atmosphere. Now I have to add Bleak House to my to-read list.

I live near Sunnyside, Washington Irving's old home, and every December, they perform readings of A Christmas Carol. My wife has participated a couple of times. A lot of fun, and the story still enthralls.
There was all sorts of sex going on in the Victorian era--and various laws were new. They actually lowered the age of consent for sex thinking it would help. That one I still can't figure out. You could buy "virgins" from experienced madams who provided young girls and sound-proof rooms. The journalist who exposed it by pretending to buy a virgin was then prosecuted for his crime--that would teach him to expose the sexual predilictions of his betters. They outlawed prostitution and "registered" prostitutes, which meant that if you had been arrested once--you were ruined publicly and might as well stay a streetwalker. Queen Victoria signed a law making male homosexuality outlawed--but they couldn't convince her that two women could do anything to each other. So lesbians remained legal--in the closet.
thank you for the excellent gossip on Dickens! --r-- now, where's the scoop on Jane Austen?
Jane was kind of wild -- without any Zombies!
My son, who is now fifteen, loved Great Expectations and I read it aloud as a bedtime story to him when he was about 10. But I tried to read him David Copperfield about twice, getting roughly both times to where poor duped Davy returns and his mother is married. He balked both times and said he couldn't read it , or hear it being read, as it was "too sad." So now I must ask him about your comment about poor Master Copperfield. I thought Davy was a marvelous study of some one who triumphs ( in the end )when the grown ups are all at sea, and I think I find all the dithering about with admiring Steerforth etc., understandable since he has been shown such weird models as a child. I like his progression to strength through horrible errors and blunders; it seems hopeful.
I thank you again for your wonderful research and views.
Oooh I've been putting off some Dickens, but mostly because once I get wrapped up in one, nothing else happens for me before I finish (ex. August '06: or, Did All That Really Happen While I Was Reading Bleak House?). I was geared up for OMF but you may have talked me into Nickleby!

Wilkie Collins is also on the soon-TBR list: if it kills me, I'll finish Armadale, which I put down to, um, move abroad. Excellently motivating post; I'm enjoying trolling your archives!