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.

12 Surprising Facts About Evelyn Waugh

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Evelyn Waugh was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. From his early satires, like Decline and Fall, to his more serious works, like Brideshead Revisited, Waugh is beloved by both literary critics and readers. But many readers don’t know much about Evelyn Waugh, the man, who was born in London in 1903. Here are 12 facts about his colorful life and work.

1. Evelyn Waugh's first name caused confusion.

Waugh was often mistaken in print for a woman, thanks to his first name. In 2016, a TIME poll even named him the 97th "most read female author in college classes," a mistake that inevitably went viral.

This wasn’t even the strangest incident. When Waugh arrived in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea) in the 1930s, on assignment from the Daily Mail, he found that the Italian military's occupation of the city of Asmara had resulted in a population of seven white women and 60,000 men. Waugh's Italian host was ecstatic to hear about the arrival of the female-sounding Evelyn Waugh, and raced to the airport with a bouquet of flowers—and was sorely disappointed. Ironically, Waugh's given first name was Arthur (Evelyn was one of his middle names).

2. Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was also named Evelyn.

Waugh married Evelyn Gardner, an aristocratic socialite, in June 1928 despite the objections of her family; they thought Waugh lacked ambition and direction. Their friends called them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. The marriage broke down a year later, however, when Gardner had an affair with their mutual friend, John Heygate, and eventually left Waugh for him. In 1936, Waugh had his first marriage annulled and married Gardner’s cousin, Laura Herbert, in 1937. They had seven children.

3. Evelyn Waugh was incredibly old-fashioned.

According to NBC producer Edwin Newman, who filmed a TV interview with Waugh in 1956, the novelist wished he had been born 200 or 300 years earlier. He loathed the modern world and its technology; he refused to fly in a plane or learn to how to drive a car. He resisted using the telephone in favor of writing letters, which he did with an old-fashioned pen dipped in ink. His quirky eccentricity informed his conservative political leanings and his opposition to reforms in the Catholic Church, of which he was a devout convert.

4. Evelyn Waugh's brother wrote a bestselling novel at age 17.

Alec Waugh, Evelyn's older brother, wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Loom of Youth based on his time at the elite Sherborne School, a boarding school in Dorset. The novel was incredibly controversial for its time—it depicted homosexual relationships between students as well as hypocrisies and prejudices in the school system—and it was also an immediate success when it was published in 1917. Alec was then fighting as part of the British army in World War I.

The Loom of Youth hit close enough to the truth that Sherborne's headmaster wrote to Alec and accused him of libel. He also told Alec that he was being expelled from the Old Shirburnian Society, a private organization for former Sherborne students; he remains the only student to have ever been booted from it.

5. Evelyn Waugh based his novel Scoop on his career as a journalist.

In 1935, Waugh and approximately 100 other journalists arrived in Abyssinia to cover the invasion of Benito Mussolini’s fascist military. Waugh didn't think much of being a journalist. According to The Guardian, he described journalists as "lousy competitive hysterical [and] lying." Waugh didn't even know how to use a typewriter and regularly predicted breaking news that never materialized. His distaste for journalism and the people who practice it inspired his satirical, semi-autobiographical novel Scoop.

6. Evelyn Waugh failed to deliver his one real scoop.

Portrait of Evelyn Waugh by Carl Van Vechten

While in Abyssinia, Waugh befriended some Italians, who gave him a heads-up when their leader was preparing to leave Addis—a move that meant the fascist invasion was imminent. It was the moment they had all been waiting for, and Waugh didn't want the tip to find its way into another journalist's hands. Waugh sent a telegram alerting his Daily Mail editors to this development, but wrote it in Latin. The attempt at subterfuge backfired: The editors thought it was nonsense and threw it away.

7. The Daily Beast is named as an homage to Evelyn Waugh.

The paper at the center of Scoop is the brazen tabloid The Daily Beast. In 2008, editor Tina Brown chose that name for her news website to honor Waugh's novel. But critics picked up on the fact that, just like its fictional counterpart, Brown’s project was owned and financed by a media baron. In her case, it was film and television executive Barry Diller; in Scoop it's the unscrupulous Lord Copper, which invited unwanted comparisons when The Daily Beast website launched.

8. Winston Churchill procured a military commission for Evelyn Waugh.

At the start of World War II, Waugh solicited his friend Randolph Churchill, the son of future prime minister Winston Churchill, to help him obtain a military commission. Waugh finally got a position in the Royal Marines because of the elder Churchill’s admiration for his dogged determination. While one of his subordinates said that he was "everything you'd expect an officer to be,” nothing in his plummy upbringing prepared him to lead rank-and-file soldiers.

9. Evelyn Waugh stole his children’s bananas.

After World War II ended, a shipment of bananas arrived in England for the first time in years. Laura Herbert Waugh managed to procure three bananas for her three oldest children. As son Auberon recounted in his 1991 autobiography, Evelyn snatched the fruit for himself, peeled each one, doused them in cream and sugar, and ate them as his children watched. "He was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment," Auberon wrote.

10. Evelyn Waugh killed a Hollywood film of Brideshead Revisited.

MGM proposed a film version of Waugh's epic novel Brideshead Revisited in 1946, and offered a significant sum for the rights. When Waugh met the screenwriter in 1947, he realized that Hollywood saw Brideshead only as a love story with a happy ending—not a family and class saga interwoven with Catholic themes, as Waugh had written it. He sent the studio a condescending letter that effectively guaranteed the project would fall through.

11. Evelyn Waugh got his friend to change his will to avoid lawsuits.

While he was in Hollywood for the Brideshead discussions, Waugh visited the famed cemetery Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where numerous movie stars are interred. Forest Lawn aimed to erase signs of mourning by replacing headstones with brass plaques, giving corpses extensive cosmetic treatment and elaborate embalming, and naming sections of the cemetery Babyland, Graceland, and Eventide.

The visit inspired his 1948 novel The Loved One, which satirizes the funeral business and the movie industry. His publishers were concerned that he could get sued, since "Whispering Glades" in The Loved One could easily be recognized as Forest Lawn. So he got his aristocratic friend, Lord Stanley of Alderley, to vouch for the legitimacy of his prose by adding a codicil to his will stating that he wanted to be buried at Forest Lawn because it resembled the beautiful place described in The Loved One. The endorsement of a lord evidently carried weight: After 10 years without a lawsuit, Stanley removed the codicil.

12. Sunset Boulevard owes a debt to The Loved One.

When he couldn't secure film rights to The Loved One, director Billy Wilder used elements of the story in his masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. Wilder's main character, Joe Gillis, is a washed-up screenwriter like Waugh’s Dennis Barlow. Both men live with a faded Hollywood talent in a dilapidated mansion with an empty swimming pool: Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond was a silent film star and Waugh’s Sir Francis Hinsley is a former scriptwriter. And Waugh’s protagonist works in a pet cemetery, while Wilder's Norma mistakenly thinks that Joe has come to bury her pet monkey.

Artificial Intelligence Identifies Shakespeare's Co-Writer on 'Henry VIII'

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

William Shakespeare has long been celebrated as the greatest playwright of all time (and he's certainly the most quoted). Historians have speculated whether his name might be a pseudonym for a lesser-known writer or whether he had assistance in composing his plays, among other theories. In 2016, Oxford University Press credited Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe as co-writer of three plays in Henry VI.

Now, new evidence has come to light that casts doubt on Shakespeare’s sole authorship, this time for Henry VIII. According to an analysis [PDF] published prior to peer review on arXiv.org, the Bard wrote roughly half of Henry VIII. His contemporary, playwright John Fletcher, wrote the rest.

The conclusion was based on the findings of an algorithm taught to examine word choice and writing style, created by researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague.

The program first "learned" each writer’s approach to their craft by reading four plays by Fletcher and by Shakespeare, written at about the same time. The algorithm identified traits unique to each. Fletcher, for example, tended to use ye instead of you, or ‘em in place of them.

The algorithm was then applied to Henry VIII. It earmarked the first two scenes as being written by Shakespeare. Fletcher wrote the next four. The writers' styles then mixed until later in the play, when Shakespeare’s voice appeared to take hold.

Collaboration among playwrights was common in the era, and scholars have long believed Fletcher was somehow involved—possibly assisting an aging Shakespeare.

Nineteenth-century literary analyst James Spedding theorized in 1850 that Fletcher had co-written the play; Fletcher had succeeded Shakespeare as the house playwright of the King’s Men Acting Company following the Bard's death in 1616. Spedding even surmised who wrote which scene. This most recent analysis loosely lines up with his findings.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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