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.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

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Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

No, Ernest Hemingway Didn’t Write That Six-Word ‘Baby Shoes’ Story

Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway was known for his clean, restrained writing style. Which makes it conceivable that he's the author of the most famous six-word short story of all time.

The story goes that Hemingway wrote the gut-punching line "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" to win a bet against his writer friends. But there's no evidence that such a bet ever took place, and it's likely that one of the best-known works attributed to Hemingway has nothing to do with the author at all.

According to Open Culture, the urban legend sets Hemingway in a hotel (usually the Algonquin, but the location varies) some time in the 1920s. He was allegedly having lunch with a group of writer pals when he bet them he could write a story with a full narrative in just six words. After his friends put their money down, Hemingway jotted down a few words on a napkin and passed it around the table. Though brief, the other writers couldn't deny that "Baby Shoes" was indeed a full story.

Chances are this story actually originated years after Hemingway's 1961 death. It first appeared in print in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by agent Peter Miller. When recounting the anecdote, Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed newspaper syndicator in 1974.

The story spread from there and its original source only became murkier. A retelling of the tale was included in the one-man biographical Hemingway play Papa in 1996, and then in a Reader's Digest essay in 1998. The internet—for which Hemingway's punchy, compact style was a perfect fit—got "Baby Shoes" in front of more eyeballs than ever.

Though it's been cited in articles and books numerous times, no one has ever been able to trace the story back to a first-hand source. As for the true author of "Baby Shoes" if it isn't Hemingway, flash fiction fans may never know his or her identity. It's possible that the line was never meant to be a fictional story in the first place: Real ads that bear striking similarities to the legendary work predate the myth.

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