Charles Dickens is one of England’s most famous authors. Remembered for capturing the worst and best of times the Victorian era had to offer, Dickens’ novels enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime and are still widely read today. His best-known novels, including Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities, have even shaped how we speak.
Yet more than entertaining Victorian Britain and beyond, through his writing Dickens championed children’s rights and social reform, education and accessible literature, and kindness towards others.
From boot-blacking to world infamy, here are 10 facts about Charles Dickens.
1. He went to work in a factory from age 12
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in 1812 to Royal Navy clerk John Dickens and his wife Elizabeth. Life as a clerk was hard, and the Dickens moved from Portsmouth to Kent to London but they could not escape John’s ever-growing debt. In 1824, the debtors came to collect and John, Elizabeth and most of their children went to live in Marshalsea Prison.
Aged 12, Dickens was taken in by a friend of the family who worked at Warren’s shoe polish factory. Dickens began working there too, earning 6 shillings a week putting labels onto pots of black shoe polish – a grim experience that characterised a great deal of his writing but was never shared with anyone until after his death in 1870.
2. He started publishing under the pseudonym ‘Boz’
Dickens took up a job in a law office trying to impress a young middle class woman he fancied. While the job was not enough to win over her family, Dickens began cultivating his skill for writing. Equipped to take on additional work as a parliamentary reporter, he honed his talent for description and built a reputation for writing impressive short stories.
His first short story The Boarding House was published in 1934 in the Monthly Magazine under the pseudonym ‘Boz’. Boz was his brother Augustus’s nickname. The mysterious Boz became so popular Dickens even published some essays in a collection called Sketches by Boz in 1839.
3. Dickens wrote his first novel aged 24
In 1836, Dickens began his first novel: The Pickwick Papers. Published in monthly instalments, The Pickwick Papers had a circulation of 400 copies a month. By the novel’s end, it was selling 40,000 copies a month.
4. He wrote A Christmas Carol in 6 weeks
Dickens’ warming winter tale, although it would become his most famous work, was not what he originally set out to write. After reading a parliamentary report published in 1842 detailing the conditions of children working in mines, a horrified Dickens wanted to raise awareness with his public response.
The most effective way to do this? Writing an entertaining story that asked people to consider those around them and change their ways. He wrote A Christmas Carol in just 6 weeks, paying half the publication costs himself because his publishers did not think a Christmas story would pay off. On the contrary, A Christmas Carol has come to be considered Dickens’ greatest literary achievement.
5. Dickens championed women’s access to opportunity
Financially backed by millionaire heiress Angela Coutts, Dickens founded Urania Cottage – a rehabilitation home for society’s ‘fallen women’ including ex-convicts, sex workers and the homeless.
Dickens was also the editor of two weekly magazines, Household Words and All The Year Round, featuring articles and short stories by a range of writers. He welcomed contributions from female writers, including the first salaried female journalist, Eliza Lynn Linton.
6. He contributed his fair share of words to the English language
Like William Shakespeare, Dickens was another infamous British writer known to come up with his own words. It was Dickens who gave us butter-fingers, flummox, the creeps, dustbin and more.
7. Dickens’ fictional cliffhangers caused an international sensation
As most of Dickens’ novels were written and published as periodicals in magazines, he often used cliffhangers from the end of one chapter to another. In 1841, American readers were so desperate to know what happened in the next chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop that they mobbed the docks of New York harbour to ask passengers arriving from Europe what happened to the character Nell (she died).
Dickens was perhaps one of the world’s first global celebrities. His books were read in countries across the world, merchandise inspired by his stories, which were adapted for the stage and even plagiarised.
8. He was a member of The Ghost Club
Although he remained a skeptic, Dickens was no stranger to the Victorian craze for seances and spiritualism. The Ghost Club was a collection of likeminded men, boasting other notable authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and William Butler Yeats, dedicated to investigating supernatural occurrences.
It should come as no surprise Dickens found fascination with what lies beyond the veil. One of his most popular and adapted novels, A Christmas Carol, is a ghost story.
9. He kept pet ravens
Dickens had a pet raven called Grip who inspired the character in Barnaby Rudge who keeps a raven. Sadly, Grip died after eating lead chips and was replaced by another raven, also named Grip. This second Grip allegedly inspired Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, ‘The Raven’, and Dickens had him stuffed and preserved when he died.
10. Dickens did not want to be buried at Westminster Abbey
But he was…
Dickens died from a stroke aged 58 on 8 June 1870. Before his death, the great author had expressed his wish to be buried next to his wife Catherine’s sister, Mary Hogarth, who had died in 1837 and was buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery. Dickens then changed his mind and requested he be buried in a simple grave at Rochester Cathedral.
Instead, his body was hastily installed in at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey at the request of Dean Arthur Stanley, who thought a famous author might draw in some much needed foot traffic. He was right. Despite his will saying that “no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial,” hundreds of thousands of people queued to walk past his body in Westminster Abbey.