A Tale Of Two Centuries: Charles Dickens Turns 200
Charles Dickens — one of the most beloved storytellers in the English language — was born 200 years ago today. He was a comic genius and a social reformer whose novels made him famous in his own time, and continue as classics in ours.
Dickens began his literary career with almost no formal education. He was born in Landport, on Feb. 7, 1812, the second of eight children. When he was 12, his father was sent to debtor's prison. Dickens was forced to quit school and work in a London blacking factory, sealing pots of shoe polish and pasting labels on them. He would rework that hellish experience into his fiction for the rest of his life.
"He was a social reformer who knew whereof he spoke," says actor Simon Callow, author of a new biography called Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. "He knew what poverty was. He knew what it was to be rejected, to be cast aside, to live in squalor."
With the appearance of Oliver Twist in London periodicals in 1837, the 25-year-old Dickens became the most popular writer in England.
Dickens created 989 named characters — each with a distinct voice and style. Those characters bolstered his popularity; every one of his major works has been adapted for either stage or screen. A Christmas Carol inspired more than a dozen films, from Alistair Sims' Scrooge in 1951 to Jim Carrey's voicing of the same character in Disney's 2009, 3-D animated film.
Dickens wrote all the time. He traveled with a portable inkwell and a supply of quill pens. He was working on his last novel, Our Mutual Friend, en route from France to London when the train he was on crashed, killing several people and injuring more than 50, Kiely says.
Dickens died five years later in 1870, after a stroke at age 58.
But Dickens' greatest fiction was his own character, says Callow, the biographer: "People think of him as a jolly chap ... but he was ... increasingly plagued with depression and a sense of hopelessness and despair. And that's worth knowing. I think it's always good to know that great creative individuals have their struggle, their drama."
Dickens' struggle manifested itself in a dramatic signature — and more than two-dozen works of fiction that have never gone out of print.