17 Facts About Charles Dickens

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and Charles Dickens wrote it all down—the gruesome truths about Victorian England and the perils of Britain’s social class system. His unprecedented celebrity made him the most popular novelist of his century, and since then Charles Dickens's books have never been out of print. But the author of Great Expectations, Bleak House, and dozens of other works was more than just a writer. Here are 17 facts about Charles Dickens on his 207th birthday.

1. Charles Dickens was forced to work at a young age. 

The eldest son of Elizabeth and John Dickens was born in February 1812 on Portsea Island in the British city of Portsmouth, and moved around with his family in his younger years to Yorkshire and then London. He was, admittedly, a “very small and not over-particularly-taken-care-of boy."

When his father was called to London again to be a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, the elder Dickens amassed so much debt that the entire family—except for Charles and his older sister Fanny—were sent to Marshalsea debtors’ prison (later the setting of Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit).

Left to fend for himself at only 12 years old, Dickens had to drop out of private school and work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse along the River Thames, earning six shillings a week pasting labels onto blacking pots used for shoe polish.

2. Another job taught Charles Dickens how to write.

In 1827 and 1828, the 15-year-old Dickens found work as a junior clerk at the law office of Ellis and Blackmore—but instead of brushing up on legal work to eventually become a lawyer, he voraciously studied the shorthand method of writing developed by Thomas Gurney. The skill allowed him to begin working as a reporter in the 1830s covering Parliament and British elections for outlets like the Morning Chronicle.

3. Charles Dickens published works under a pseudonym. 

Dickens’s first published works appeared in 1833 and 1834 without his author's byline. In August 1834, his short story "The Boarding-House," published in the Monthly Magazine, featured his chosen pseudonym, “Boz.”

The single-syllable name came from a childhood rendering of the character Moses from Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s 1766 novel The Vicar of Wakefield, later mentioned in Dickens’s own A Tale of Two Cities.

Dickens called his brother Augustus “Moses,” but later explained it was “facetiously pronounced through the nose, [and] became Boses, and being shortened, became Boz. Boz was a very familiar household word to me, long before I was an author, and so I came to adopt it.”

The nom de plume became so popular that he published a compilation of his essays and short fiction called Sketches by Boz in 1839.

4. Charles Dickens's fame kept a certain idiom alive.

The phrase “what the dickens,” first mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, was a euphemism for conjuring the devil. In his book Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit, author John Bowen explained the name “was a substitute for ‘the devil,’ or the deuce (a card or a dice with two spots), the doubling of the devil in short.”

Dickens allegedly used the pseudonym Boz to deflect any unseemly comparisons to Satan, but once his real name was revealed and the public became familiar with his work, Dickens ended up keeping the then-200-year-old phrase en vogue.

5. Charles Dickens might have had epilepsy.

Though any indication he might have suffered from epilepsy isn’t corroborated by contemporary medical records, he did return to the neurological disorder enough times in his work that some speculate that he might have drawn from his own experiences with seizures.

Characters such as Guster from Bleak House, Monks from Oliver Twist, and Bradley Headstone from Our Mutual Friend all suffered from epilepsy.

6. America was not Charles Dickens's favorite place.

By the time he first journeyed to America in 1842 on a lecture tour—later chronicled in his travelogue American Notes for General Circulation—Dickens was an international celebrity because of his writing, and he was received as such when he toured east coast cities like Boston and New York.

“I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see,” he complained in a letter about his U.S. travels. “If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude.”

Though he loved the fast-growing cities and was awed by a trip west to the American prairie, Dickens didn’t necessarily have the best time on the whole. Especially in the country's capital: “As Washington may be called the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva,” he wrote, “the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening.”

7. Charles Dickens helped the search for the lost Sir John Franklin expedition.

The author used his influence to help Lady Jane Franklin search for her husband, Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in the Arctic along with 128 crew on the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror while searching for the Northwest Passage in 1845. He wrote a two-part analysis of the ill-fated voyage called "The Lost Arctic Voyagers," and even lectured across Britain hoping to raise money for a rescue mission.

In the end the missing vessels weren’t found until 2014 and 2016, respectively, and various explanations for the crew’s fate have been suggested. But at the time, Dickens gave in to racist sentiment and blamed the Inuit, writing, "No man can, with any show of reason, undertake to affirm that this sad remnant of Franklin's gallant band were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux themselves … We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel." Inuit oral histories and other evidence show that Franklin’s men actually died from starvation, disease, or exposure.

8. Charles Dickens perfected the cliffhanger ending.

Most of Dickens's novels—including classics like David Copperfield and Oliver Twist—were initially written in monthly, weekly, or infrequent installments on a subscription basis or in magazines, only to be republished in complete book form later. In doing so, Dickens employed cliffhangers from chapter to chapter to get eager readers to buy subsequent episodes.

In one 1841 incident, American readers were so anxious to know what happened in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop that they flocked to docks in New York harbor, hoping to ask passengers arriving from Europe whether they’d read the ending of the story and if the character of Nell had died. (Spoiler alert: She did.)

9. Charles Dickens had pet ravens and kept them around even after they died.

Dickens owned a beloved raven he named Grip, and it even appears as a character in his novel Barnaby Rudge. In an 1841 letter to a friend named George Cattermole, Dickens said he wanted the titular character of the book “always in company with a pet raven, who is immeasurably more knowing than himself. To this end I have been studying my bird, and think I could make a very queer character of him.”

Following the bird’s death from eating lead paint chips later that year, Dickens replaced it with another raven, also called Grip, which was allegedly the inspiration behind Edgar Allan Poe’s poem "The Raven.” When the second Grip met his demise, Dickens had a taxidermist stuff and mount the bird in an elaborate wooden and glass case, which is now in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s collection.

10. Charles Dickens also kept his pet cat around for a while. 

Not to be outdone by birds, companions of the feline variety also accompanied Dickens throughout his life, with the author once declaring, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?”

When his cat Bob died in 1862, he had its paw stuffed and mounted to an ivory letter opener and engraved with “C.D., In memory of Bob, 1862.” The letter opener is now on display at the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library.

11. Charles Dickens revealed that his earliest inspiration was Little Red Riding Hood.

In 1850, Dickens began editing a weekly magazine, Household Words, to which he also contributed short fiction and serialized novels. In one of his first stories for the magazine, “A Christmas Tree,” Dickens described his earliest muse as the main character in the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood—perhaps as a way of dealing with his own childhood innocence devoured by unexpected evils. “She was my first love,” he wrote. “I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding-Hood, I should have known perfect bliss. But, it was not to be.”

12. Charles Dickens wasn't afraid to speak his mind.

In an 1860 letter written to Florence Marryat, the daughter of his friend Captain Frederick Marryat, Dickens berated her after she asked him for writing advice and submitted a short story for a literary journal he was editing called All the Year Round.

“To read professed contributions honestly, and communicate a perfectly unprejudiced decision respecting every one of them to its author or authoress, is a task, of the magnitude of which you evidently have no conception,” Dickens told her. “I cannot […] alter what seems to me to be the fact regarding this story (for instance), any more than I can alter my eyesight or my hearing. I do not deem it suitable for my Journal,” and later telling her plainly, “I do not think it is a good story.”

13. Charles Dickens was a prodigious wordsmith.

Not to be outdone by the likes of William Shakespeare, Dickens was the other British writer known to create words and phrases of his own. Thank Dickens for words and phrases like butter-fingers, flummox, the creeps, dustbin, ugsome, slangular, and more.

14. Charles Dickens started a home for "fallen women."

With help from millionaire banking heiress Angela Coutts, Dickens set up and effectively managed Urania Cottage, a rehabilitation home for homeless women, ex-prisoners, and prostitutes so they could (hopefully) emigrate to Britain’s colonies and reintegrate into Victorian society.

According to The Guardian, Dickens would “visit the house in Shepherd's Bush, often several times a week, to supervise it, select inmates, consult with prison governors, hire and fire matrons, deal with the drains and the gardener, report to Coutts in detail several times a week on whatever was happening there, handle the money, keep careful written accounts of the backgrounds of the girls, and arrange their emigration to Australia, South Africa, or Canada.”

15. Charles Dickens was a Victorian ghostbuster.

In an era of séances and mediums, when many Victorians believed in both spiritualism and science, Dickens didn’t discriminate. In fact, along with other authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and William Butler Yeats, he was a member of the Ghost Club, a kind of members-only group that attempted to investigate supposed supernatural encounters and hauntings, often exposing frauds in the process.

It makes sense, considering that some of Dickens’s best-known work, like A Christmas Carol, hinges on the supernatural. But unlike Conan Doyle, he remained a skeptic.

“My own mind is perfectly unprejudiced and impressible on the subject. I do not in the least pretend that such things are not,” Dickens said in a September 1859 letter to writer William Howitt. “But … I have not yet met with any Ghost Story that was proved to me, or that had not the noticeable peculiarity in it—that the alteration of some slight circumstance would bring it within the range of common natural probabilities.”

16. A train crash nearly derailed Our Mutual Friend.

On June 10, 1865, Dickens was traveling home from France when his train derailed while crossing a bridge, and his car was left dangling from the tracks. After finding a conductor to give him keys to the seven first-class train cars that had tumbled into the river below, the then 53-year-old writer helped save stranded passengers.

When all was said and done, he was forced to climb back into the dangling car to retrieve a just-completed missing installment of Our Mutual Friend that he was supposed to send to his publishers.

17. Charles Dickens was buried in Westminster Abbey against his wishes.

The author had specific plans for how he wanted to spend eternity. He initially wished to be buried next to his wife Catherine’s sister, his muse Mary Hogarth (who had died in 1837 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London). He then requested to be buried in a simple grave in the cemetery of Rochester Cathedral in Kent.

Dickens collapsed from a stroke while dining with his wife's other sister, Georgina Hogarth, at his home; he died on June 9, 1870. But he didn't end up in either of his chosen spots. Instead, he was whisked away to the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey because the Dean of Westminster, Arthur Stanley, wanted a famous writer to give some cultural significance to the Abbey at the time.

Despite stipulating in his will that "no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial," hundreds of thousands of people lined up to walk past his body in Westminster Abbey.

20 Memorable Virginia Woolf Quotes

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Getty Images

Born on January 25, 1882, Virginia Woolf was a true writer’s writer. With flowing prose and a courageous pen, she dissected every topic from the idiocy of warfare to the joys of sex. We've picked 20 lines that rank among her all-time best—which is no easy feat.

1. On recorded history

“Nothing has really happened until it has been described.”

— Said to a young acquaintance,Nigel Nicholson, who later became a successful publisher, memoirist, and politician

2. On writing about nature

“Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.”

— From her 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography

3. On translating comedy

“Humor is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue.”

—From the essay collectionThe Common Reader, First Series (1925)

4. On time

“Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

5. On being an honest writer

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

From The Moment and Other Essays (1947)

6. On sexism

“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

7. On writing fiction

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

—From her seminal 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”

8. On questioning the status quo

“Let us never cease from thinking—what is this ‘civilisation’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?”

— From her anti-war essay “Three Guineas” (1938)

9. On fashion

“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

10. On food

virginia woolf

A photo of author Virginia Woolf, who was famous for writing To The Lighthouse and Orlando.

George Charles Beresford, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

11. On getting older

“I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.”

—From her diary (entry dated October 2, 1932)

12. On artistic integrity

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

13. On the universe

“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?”

—From the novel Night and Day (1919)

14. On personal growth

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

—From her 1931 novel The Waves

15. On society

“At one and the same time, therefore, society is everything and society is nothing. Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

16. On evaluating literature

“The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities… into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions—there we have none.”

—From The Common Reader, Second Series (1935)

17. On passion

“Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us. To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have—positively—a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang—there is no getting over the fact that this desire seizes us pretty often.”

—From the novel Jacob’s Room (1922)

18. On the past

“Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title.”

—From Jacob’s Room

19. On words

“Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.

“Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Anthony and Cleopatra, poems lovelier than the 'Ode to a Nightingale,' novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

—From “Craftsmanship,” a BBC radio address Woolf delivered on April 20, 1937 (listen to a portion of it here)

20. On life and its interruptions

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

— From her diary (entry dated February 17, 1922)

bonus: a common misquote

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

These wise words are often mistakenly cited as Woolf’s. In reality, another writer came along and gave them to her—57 years after she died! Here’s what went down: In 1998, author Michael Cunningham released his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours. This story includes a fictionalized version of Virginia Woolf, who delivers the above line.

Write a Letter to Shakespeare’s Juliet for a Chance to Spend Valentine’s Day in Her Romantic Verona Home

Airbnb
Airbnb

Shakespeare didn’t specify which luxurious Italian estate was home to Juliet and her family in Romeo and Juliet, but hopeless romantics have linked a certain 13th-century house in Verona to the Capulets for many years. A balcony was even added during the 20th century to mirror the famous scene from Shakespeare’s play.

Now, Airbnb is offering one pair of star-crossed lovers the opportunity to stay in the house for Valentine’s Day. To apply, you have to write a letter to Juliet explaining why you and your sweetheart would be the ideal guests for the one-night getaway. The winner will be chosen by the Juliet Club, an organization responsible for answering the 50,000 letters addressed to Juliet each year.

juliet's house in verona, italy
Airbnb

If you’re chosen, you won’t just get to spend the evening reenacting the few happy parts of Romeo and Juliet—you’ll also be treated to a candlelight dinner with a cooking demonstration by Michelin-starred Italian chef Giancarlo Perbellini, access to a personal butler for the duration of your stay, tours of both the house and the city of Verona, and the chance to read and answer some letters sent to Juliet. Even the bed you’ll sleep in is especially romantic—it’s the one used in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.

juliet's house in verona, italy
Airbnb

juliet's house in verona, italy
Airbnb

And, of course, you’ll be giving yourself the ultimate Valentine’s Day gift: Freedom from the pressure to plan a perfect Valentine’s Day. The contest is open now through February 2, 2020, and you can apply here.

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