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.

10 Amazing Facts About Harriet Beecher Stowe

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Over 41 issues, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era, the first installment on June 5, 1851. It was first followed by a only small group but its audience steadily grew as the story unfolded.

“Wherever I went among the friends of the Era, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin a theme for admiring remark,” journalist and social critic Grace Greenwood wrote in a travelogue published in the Era. “[E]verywhere I went, I saw it read with pleasant smiles and irrepressible tears.’” The story was discussed in other abolitionist publications, such as Frederick Douglass’s Paper, and helped sell $2 annual subscriptions to the Era.

The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded once it was made available in a more accessible format. Some publishers claim the book edition is the second best-selling title of the 19th century, after the Bible.

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe's father and all seven of her brothers were ministers.

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her mother, Roxana Beecher, died five years later. Over the course of two marriages, her father, Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher, fathered 13 children, 11 of whom survived into adulthood. He preached loudly against slavery. All seven of his sons followed him into the ministry. Henry Ward Beecher carried on his father’s abolitionist mission and according to legend sent rifles to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and Nebraska in crates marked “Bibles.”

The women of the Beecher family were also encouraged to rise to positions of influence and rally against injustice. Eldest child Catharine Beecher co-founded the Hartford Female Seminary and Isabella Beecher Hooker was a prominent suffragist.

2. The Fugitive Slave Act—and a surprise $100 gift—inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1832, Harriet Beecher moved to Cincinnati with her father, who assumed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary. According to Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick, the Ohio city introduced her to former slaves and African-American freemen and there she first practiced writing, in a literary group called the Semi-Colon Club.

She married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at Lane, and eventually relocated to Brunswick, Maine, when he went to work at Bowdoin College. By then, Stowe had published two books, Primary Geography for Children and the short story collection New England Sketches. She was also a contributor to newspapers supporting temperance and abolitionism, writing “sketches,” brief descriptive stories meant to illustrate a political point.

Following a positive response to her The Freeman’s Dream: A Parable, Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the anti-slavery paper The National Era, sent her $100 to encourage her to continue supplying the paper with material. The 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, obligating authorities in free states to re-enslave refugees, took the slavery fight northward. It also encouraged Stowe to step up her game.

“I am at present occupied upon a story which will be a much longer one than any I have ever written,” Beecher Stowe wrote in a letter to Bailey, “embracing a series of sketches which give the lights and shadows of the ‘patriarchal institution’ [of slavery], written either from observation, incidents which have occurred in the sphere of my personal knowledge, or in the knowledge of my friends.” For material, she scoured the written accounts belayed by escaped slaves.

3. Uncle Tom's Cabin made her rich and famous.

According to Henry Louis Gate Jr.’s introduction to the annotated edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, The National Era paid Stowe $300 for 43 chapters. Before the serial’s completion, Stowe signed a contract with John P. Jewett and Co. to publish a two-volume bound book edition, and that’s when it really took off. Released on March 20, 1852, the book sold 10,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week and 300,000 in the first year. In the U.K., 1.5 million copies flew off the shelves in the first year. Stowe was paid 10 cents for each one sold. According to a London Times article published six months after the book’s release, she had already amassed $10,000 in royalties. “We believe [that this is] the largest sum of money ever received by any author, either American or European, from the sales of a single work in so short a period of time,” the Times stated.

4. She went to court to stop an unauthorized translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin ... and lost.

Immediately after Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a literary sensation, a Philadelphia-based German-language paper, Die Freie Presse, began publishing an unauthorized translation. Stowe took the publisher, F.W. Thomas, to court. American copyright laws were notoriously weak at the time, irking British writers whose work was widely pirated. As someone who overnight became America’s favorite author, Stowe had much at stake testing them.

The case put her in the Philadelphia courtroom of Justice Robert Grier, a notorious enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act. “By the publication of Mrs. Stowe's book, the creations of the genius and imagination of the author have become as much public property as those of Homer or Cervantes,” Grier ruled. The precedent set by Stowe vs. Thomas meant that authors had the right to prevent others from printing their exact words, but almost nothing else. “All her conceptions and inventions may be used and abused by imitators, play-rights and poet-asters,” ruled Grier.

5. Beecher Stowe visited Abraham Lincoln.

Though Stowe had criticized what she saw as his slowness in emancipation and willingness to seek compromise to prevent succession, Stowe visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War. Reportedly, Lincoln greeted her with, “So this is the little woman who brought on this big Civil War,” but scholars have dismissed the quote as Stowe family legend spread after her death.

Details of their conversation are limited to vague entries in their respective diaries. Lincoln may have bantered with her over his love of open fires (“I always had one to home,” he reportedly said), while Stowe got down to business and quizzed him: “Mr. Lincoln, I want to ask you about your views on emancipation.”

6. Beecher Stowe wrote a lot of things that weren't Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe wrote more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction, plus essays, poems, articles, and hymns.

7. The Stowes wintered in the former slave state of Florida.

The influx of wealth from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the end of the Civil War allowed the Stowes to purchase a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, in 1867. It may have seemed strange—and perilous—for a famous anti-slavery crusader to buy 30 acres in a former slave state so soon after the war, yet six years after the purchase, she wrote to a local newspaper, “In all this time I have not received even an incivility from any native Floridian.”

8. Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain were neighbors.

The Stowes’ primary residence, beginning in 1864, was a villa in the Nook Farm section of Hartford, Connecticut, a neighborhood populated by prominent citizens, including Mark Twain. The homes of Nook Farm had few fences, and doors stayed open in sunny weather, creating an air of gentility. That did not prevent Twain from writing a somewhat unflattering portrait of Stowe, as she gave way to what was probably Alzheimer’s disease, in his autobiography:

“Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe who was a near neighbor of ours in Hartford, with no fence between. In those days she made as much use of our grounds as of her own in pleasant weather. Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irishwoman, assigned to her as a guardian.”

9. Beecher Stowe outlived four of her seven children.

While continuing a lucrative and prolific writing career, Stowe birthed and cared for seven children. When she passed away in 85 in 1896, she had outlived four of them, as bad fortune seemed to follow their offspring.

Their third, Henry, drowned in a swimming accident in 1857. The fourth, Frederick, mysteriously disappeared en route to California in 1870. The fifth, Georgiana, died from septicemia, probably related to morphine in 1890. (She was an addict.) The sixth, Samuel, died from cholera in infancy in 1849. These losses informed several of Stowe’s works.

10. There are several Harriet Beecher Stowe houses you can visit.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House of Cincinnati is where she lived after following her father to Lane. The Harriet Beecher Stowe House on the campus of Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine, is where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It became a restaurant from 1946 to 1998 and is now a faculty office building, but one room is open to the public and dedicated to Stowe. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves her home in Hartford. Her home in Florida is gone but is marked by a plaque.

Letters by Otto Frank, Anne Frank's Father, Are Being Digitized for the First Time

Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Decades after his family was ousted from their attic hiding space, Otto Frank began corresponding with a pen pal named Ryan Cooper. Throughout the 1970s, Frank and Cooper exchanged letters, with Frank offering perspectives on his time in seclusion and captivity during World War II. His daughter Anne’s famous diary was written while the family was hiding from German forces in Amsterdam.

Now, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is making those letters available digitally for the first time to commemorate what would have been Anne’s 90th birthday on June 12.

Cooper, an artist in California who was then in his 20s, struck up a pen pal relationship with Frank. In addition to garnering advice on a variety of topics, Cooper was able to learn more about the young woman whose Diary of Anne Frank went on to become one of the best-known chronicles of the war and who tragically died of typhus while being held in a concentration camp in 1945. The letters also reveal more about Otto Frank, who appeared determined to keep the memory of his daughter alive even as his own health began to deteriorate. Frank died in 1980 at the age of 91 as the family's only survivor of the war.

Cooper amassed more than 80 letters in total, including some from Miep Gies, who protected Anne’s writings until the war ended. The museum is expected to make all of it accessible online in the near future.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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