AUTHORS (1812–1870); PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND
Born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, author Charles Dickens will forever be linked to the streets of 19th-century London, where so many of his books took place. But there's a lot to learn about the writing process behind those novels and the man himself, so read on for some interesting facts about one of the most celebrated English writers of all time.
1. Many of Charles Dickens’s novels were originally released as serials.
From 1836 to 1837, relative newcomer Charles Dickens, going by the name of Boz, published a chapter a week of his novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, or The Pickwick Papers. It was an overwhelming success for Dickens, who soon shed his pseudonym and went on to release his most famous works in serialized form, including Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Hard Times, Bleak House, David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend, and more.
2. Charles Dickens's book Hard Times wasn't set in London.
In most Dickens novels, the city of London is just as complex, unforgettable, and alive as iconic characters like the Artful Dodger and Miss Havisham. For Hard Times, however, he took a break from his go-to setting to explore a fictional town called Coketown, which he based on the grim, soot-covered industrial mill towns from the Victorian era.
3. A Christmas Carol wasn’t Charles Dickens’s only Christmas story.
In the years after publishing A Christmas Carol in 1843, Dickens penned four other Christmas-themed tales, most of which also feature supernatural elements and not-so-subtle messages about family, finances, and class struggle. In 1844’s The Chimes, Dickens tells the story of an old “ticket-porter,” who is shown visions of the future by the spirits of the church bells and their goblin attendants. In 1845’s The Cricket on the Hearth, a Scrooge-like toymaker undergoes a personal transformation after a familial crisis prompts him to seek advice from—you guessed it—a cricket on the hearth. Find out more about those and his other holiday works here.
4. Charles Dickens intended Great Expectations to be funny.
In Charles Dickens’s opinion, Great Expectations—the classic (and pretty dark) story about orphaned Pip’s conflict-fraught journey to find his place in the world—had an undeniable sense of humor to it, too.
“You will not have to complain of the want of humour as in the Tale of Two Cities,” he wrote to a friend. “I have put a child and a good-natured foolish man, in relations that seem to me very funny.”
He also wrote that he thought it could be published as a serial, “in a most singular and comic manner.”
5. Some of Charles Dickens’s children are named after other writers.
Between 1837 and 1852, Dickens and his wife, Catherine, welcomed 10 children, nine of whom lived into adulthood. A few are named after well-known authors whom Dickens knew or admired, including Henry Fielding, Alfred Tennyson, Walter Savage Landor, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
The children didn’t all follow their father’s path—two served in the military, one became a judge, and one pursued painting, for example—but some did: his eldest son, Charles Jr., edited Dickens’s literary magazine, and his daughter, Mary, helped edit and publish volumes of her father’s letters. Dickens, for his part, was not always thrilled about his sizable brood of offspring.
“I begin to count the children incorrectly, there are so many,” he once said. “And to find fresh ones coming down to dinner in a perfect procession, when I thought there were no more.”
Here’s the full list, from oldest to youngest:
- Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, Jr. (1837-1896)
- Mary “Mamie” Angela Dickens (1838-1896)
- Catherine "Kate" Elizabeth Macready Perugini (1839-1929)
- Walter Savage Landor Dickens (1841-1863)
- Francis Jeffrey Dickens (1844-1886)
- Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens (1845-1912)
- Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens (1847-1872)
- Sir Henry Fielding Dickens (1849-1933)
- Dora Annie Dickens (1850-1851)
- Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (1852-1902)
6. Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine, eventually divorced.
Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine, ended their 22-year marriage in 1858, with Charles claiming that it was his wife who wanted to leave him. What he didn’t mention, however, was his alleged affair with actress Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, whom he had met in 1857 when she was just 18 years old.
According to a recently released letter that Catherine’s neighbor Edward Dutton Cook wrote after the separation, it seems like Dickens turned rather nasty during the divorce, even trying to commit Catherine to an insane asylum.
“He [Charles] discovered at last that she had outgrown his liking. She had borne 10 children and had lost many of her good looks, was growing old, in fact,” Cook wrote. “He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing! But bad as the law is in regard to proof of insanity he could not quite wrest it to his purpose.”
7. Charles Dickens’s books were used by doctors and scientists.
A 2018 exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum revealed just how much Dickens’s comprehensive descriptions of common (and uncommon) afflictions in his novels helped inform those studying them. Passages describing the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia were used by medical students learning how to diagnose patients, and obesity hypoventilation syndrome is sometimes called Pickwickian Syndrome after Joe the "fat boy," a character from The Pickwick Papers whose size caused him to snore loudly.
Books by Charles Dickens.
- The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837)
- Oliver Twist (1837-1839)
- Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839)
- The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841)
- Barnaby Rudge (1841)
- Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-1844)
- A Christmas Carol (1843)
- Dombey and Son (1846-1848)
- David Copperfield (1849-1850)
- Bleak House (1852-1853)
- Hard Times (1854)
- Little Dorrit (1855-1857)
- A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
- Great Expectations (1860-1861)
- Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865)
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (Unfinished)
Memorable Charles Dickens quotes.
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” —A Tale of Two Cities
- “The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.” —Nicholas Nickleby
- “A word in earnest is as good as a speech.” —Bleak House
- “Ideas, like ghosts (according to the common notion of ghosts), must be spoken to a little before they will explain themselves.” —Dombey and Son
- “No one is useless in this world ... who lightens the burden of it for any one else.” —Our Mutual Friend
- “The civility which money will purchase, is rarely extended to those who have none.” —Sketches by Boz
- “Reflect upon your present blessings—of which every man has many—not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” —Sketches by Boz
- “[If] there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.” —The Old Curiosity Shop
- “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” —Great Expectations
- “God bless us, every one!” —A Christmas Carol