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CHARLES DICKENS, the most popular novelist of the century, and one of
the greatest humourists that England has produced, was born at Landport
in Portsea on Friday, the seventh of February, 1812.

His father, John Dickens, a clerk in the navy-pay office, was at this
time stationed in the Portsmouth dockyard. He had made acquaintance with
the lady, Elizabeth Barrow, who became afterwards his wife, through her
elder brother, Thomas Barrow, also engaged on the establishment at
Somerset-house; and she bore him in all a family of eight children, of
whom two died in infancy. The eldest, Fanny (born 1810), was followed by
Charles (entered in the baptismal register of Portsea as Charles John
Huffham, though on the very rare occasions when he subscribed that name
he wrote Huffam) ; by another son, named Alfred, who died in childhood;
by Letitia (born 1816); by another daughter, Harriet, who died also in
childhood; by Frederick (born 1820); by Alfred Lamert (born 1822); and
by Augustus (born 1827); of all of whom only the second daughter now

Walter Scott tells us, in his fragment of autobiography, speaking of the
strange remedies applied to his lameness, that he remembered lying on
the floor in the parlour of his grandfather’s farmhouse, swathed up in a
sheepskin warm from the body of the sheep, being then not three years
old. David Copperfield’s memory goes beyond this. He represents himself
seeing so far back into the blank of his infancy, as to discern therein
his mother and her servant, dwarfed to his sight by stooping down or
kneeling on the floor, and himself going unsteadily from the one to the
other. He admits this may be fancy, though he believes the power of
observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for
its closeness and accuracy, and thinks that the recollection of most of
us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose. But what
he adds is certainly not fancy. «If it should appear from anything I may
set down in this narrative that I was a child of close observation, or
that as a man I have a strong memory of my childhood, I undoubtedly lay
claim to both of these characteristics.» Applicable as it might be to
David Copperfield this was unaffectedly true of Charles Dickens.

He has often told me that he remembered the small front garden to the
house at Portsea, from which he was taken away when he was two years
old, and where, watched by a nurse through a low kitchen-window almost
level with the gravel-walk, he trotted about with something to eat, and
his little elder sister with him. He was carried from the garden one day
to see the soldiers exercise; and I perfectly recollect, that, on our
being at Portsmouth together while he was writing Nickleby, he
recognized the exact shape of the military parade seen by him as a very
infant, on the same spot, a quarter of a century before.

When his father was again brought up by his duties to London from
Portsmouth, they went into lodgings in Norfolk-street,
Middlesex-hospital; and it lived also in the child’s memory that they
had come away from Portsea in the snow. Their home, shortly after, was
again changed, on the elder Dickens being placed upon duty in Chatham
dockyard; and the house where he lived in Chatham, which had a
plain-looking whitewashed plaster-front and a small garden before and
behind, was in St. Mary’s-place, otherwise called the Brook, and next
door to a Baptist meeting-house called Providence-chapel of which a Mr.
Giles to be presently mentioned was minister. Charles at this time was
between four and five years old, and here he stayed till he was nine.
Here the most durable of his early impressions were received; and the
associations that were around him when he died, were those which at the
outset of his life had affected him most strongly.

The house called Gadshill-place stands on the strip of highest ground in
the main road between Rochester and Gravesend. Very often had we
travelled past it together, many years before it became his home; and
never without some allusion to what he told me when first I saw it in
his company, that amid the recollections connected with his childhood it
held always a prominent place, for, upon first seeing it as he came from
Chatham with his father, and looking up at it with much admiration, he
had been promised that he might himself live in it or in some such house
when he came to be a man, if he would only work hard enough. Which for a
long time was his ambition. The story is a pleasant one, and receives
authentication at the opening of one of his essays on travelling abroad,
0 when as he passes along the road to Canterbury there crosses it a
vision of his former self.

The incidents to be told now would probably never have been known to me,
or indeed any of the occurrences of his childhood and youth, but for the
accident of a question which I put to him one day in the March or April
of 1847.

I asked if he remembered ever having seen in his boyhood our friend the
elder Mr. Dilke, his father’s acquaintance and contemporary, who had
been a clerk in the same office in Somersethouse to which Mr. John
Dickens belonged. Yes, he said, he recollected seeing him at a house in
Gerrard-street, where his uncle Barrow lodged during an illness, and Mr.
Dilke had visited him. Never at any other time. Upon which I told him
that some one else had been intended in the mention made to me, for that
the reference implied not merely his being met accidentally, but his
having had some juvenile employment in a warehouse near the Strand; at
which place Mr. Dilke, being with the elder Dickens one day, had noticed
him, and received, in return for the gift of a half-crown, a very low
bow. He was silent for several minutes; I felt that I had
unintentionally touched a painful place in his memory; and to Mr. Dilke
I never spoke of the subject again. It was not however then, but some
weeks later, that Dickens made further allusion to my thus having struck
unconsciously upon a time of which he never could lose the remembrance
while he remembered anything, and the recollection of which, at
intervals, haunted him and made him miserable, even to that hour.

Very shortly afterwards, I learnt in all their detail the incidents that
had been so painful to him, and what then was said to me or written
respecting them revealed the story of his boyhood. The idea of David
Copperfield, which was to take all the world into his confidence, had
not at this time occurred to him; but what it had so startled me to
know, his readers were afterwards told with only such change or addition
as for the time might sufficiently disguise himself under cover of his
hero. For, the poor little lad, with good ability and a most sensitive
nature, turned at the age of ten into a «labouring hind» in the service
of «Murdstone and Grinby,» and conscious already of what made it seem
very strange to him that he could so easily have been thrown away at
such an age, was indeed himself. His was the secret agony of soul at
finding himself «companion to Mick Walker and Mealy Potatoes,» and his
the tears that mingled with the water in which he and they rinsed and
washed out bottles. It had all been written, as fact, before he thought
of any other use for it; and it was not until several months later, when
the fancy of David Copperfield, itself suggested by what he had so
written of his early troubles, began to take shape in his mind, that he
abandoned his first intention of writing his own life. Those warehouse
experiences fell then so aptly into the subject he had chosen, that he
could not resist the temptation of immediately using them; and the
manuscript recording them, which was but the first portion of what he
had designed to write, was embodied in the substance of the eleventh and
earlier chapters of his novel. What already had been sent to me,
however, and proof-sheets of the novel interlined at the time, enable me
now to separate the fact from the fiction; and to supply to the story of
the author’s childhood those passages, omitted from the book, which,
apart from their illustration of the growth of his character, present to
us a picture of tragical suffering, and of tender as well as humorous
fancy, unsurpassed in even the wonders of his published writings.

Dickens was nineteen years old when at last he entered the gallery. His
father, with whom he still lived in Bentinck-street, had already, as we
have seen, joined the gallery as a reporter for one of the morning
papers, and was now in the more comfortable circumstances derived from
the addition to his official pension which this praiseworthy labour
ensured; but his own engagement on the Chronicle dates somewhat later.
His first parliamentary service was given to the True Sun, a journal
which had on its editorial staff some dear friends of mine, through whom
I became myself a contributor to it, and afterwards, in common with all
concerned, whether in its writing, reporting, printing, or publishing, a
sharer in its difficulties. The most formidable of these arrived one day
in a general strike of the reporters; and I well remember noticing at
this dread time, on the staircase of the magnificent mansion we were
lodged in, a young man of my own age whose keen animation of look would
have arrested attention anywhere, and whose name, upon enquiry, I then
for the first time heard. It was coupled with the fact which gave it
interest even then, that «young Dickens» had been spokesman for the
recalcitrant reporters, and conducted their case triumphantly. He was
afterwards during two sessions engaged for the Mirror of Parliament,
which one of his uncles by the mother’s side originated and conducted;
and finally, in his twenty-third year, he became a reporter for the
Morning Chronicle.

The first letter I had from him was at the close of 1836 from
Furnival’s-inn, when he sent me the book of his opera of the Village
Coquettes, which had been published by Mr. Bentley; and this was
followed, two months later, by his collected Sketches, both first and
second series; which he desired me to receive «as a very small testimony
of the donor’s regard and obligations, as well as of his desire to
cultivate and avail himself of a friendship which has been so pleasantly
thrown in his way. . . . In short, if you will receive them for my sake
and not for their own, you will very greatly oblige me.» I had met him
in the interval at the house of our common friend Mr. Ainsworth, and I
remember vividly the impression then made upon me.

Very different was his face in those days from that which photography
has made familiar to the present generation. A look of youthfulness
first attracted you, and then a candour and openness of expression which
made you sure of the qualities within. The features were very good. He
had a capital forehead, a firm nose with full wide nostril, eyes
wonderfully beaming with intellect and running over with humour and
cheerfulness, and a rather prominent mouth strongly marked with
sensibility. The head was altogether well-formed and symmetrical, and
the air and carriage of it were extremely spirited. The hair so scant
and grizzled in later days was then of a rich brown and most luxuriant
abundance, and the bearded face of his last two decades had hardly a
vestige of hair or whisker; but there was that in the face as I first
recollect it which no time could change, and which remained implanted on
it unalterably to the last. This was the quickness, keenness, and
practical power, the eager, restless, energetic outlook on each several
feature, that seemed to tell so little of a student or writer of books,
and so much of a man of action and business in the world. Light and
motion flashed from every part of it. It was as if made of steel, was
said of it, four or five years after the time to which I am referring,
by a most original and delicate observer, the late Mrs. Carlyle. «What a
face is his to meet in a drawing-room!» wrote Leigh Hunt to me, the
morning after I made them known to each other. «It has the life and soul
in it of fifty human beings.» In such sayings are expressed not alone
the restless and resistless vivacity and force of which I have spoken,
but that also which lay beneath them of steadiness and hard endurance.

Several unsuccessful efforts were made by each to get the other to his
house before the door of either was opened at last. A son had been born
to him on twelfth-day (6 January, 1837), and before the close of the
following month he and his wife were in the lodgings at Chalk they had
occupied after their marriage. Early in March there is a letter from him
accounting for the failure of a promise to call on me because of «a crew
of house agents and attornies,» through whom he had nearly missed his
conveyance to Chalk, and been made «more than half wild besides.» This
was his last letter from Furnival’s-inn. In that same month he went to
48, Doughty-street ; and in his first letter to me from that address,
dated at the close of the month, there is this passage: «We only called
upon you a second time in the hope of getting you to dine with us, and
were much disappointed not to find you. I have delayed writing a reply
to your note, meaning to call upon you. I have been so much engaged,
however, in the pleasant occupation of ‘moving’ that I have not had
time; and I am obliged at last to write and say that I have been long
engaged to the Pickwick publishers to a dinner in honour of that hero
which comes off to-morrow. I am consequently unable to accept your kind
invite, which I frankly own I should have liked much better.»

That Saturday’s celebration of his twelfth number, the anniversary of
the birth of Pickwick, preceded by but a few weeks a personal sorrow
which profoundly moved him. His wife’s next youngest sister, Mary, who
lived with them, and by sweetness of nature even more than by graces of
person had made herself the ideal of his life, died with a terrible
suddenness that for the time completely bore him down. His grief and
suffering were intense, and affected him, as will be seen, through many
after years. The publication of Pickwick was interrupted for two months,
the effort of writing it not being possible to him. He moved for change
of scene to Hampstead, and here, at the close of May, I visited him, and
became first his guest. More than ordinarily susceptible at the moment
to all kindliest impressions, his heart opened itself to mine. I left
him as much his friend, and as entirely in his confidence, as if I had
known him for years. Nor had many weeks passed before he addressed to me
from Doughty-street words which it is my sorrowful pride to remember
have had literal fulfilment. «I look back with unmingled pleasure to
every link which each ensuing week has added to the chain of our
attachment. It shall go hard, I hope, ere anything but Death impairs the
toughness of a bond now so firmly riveted.» It remained unweakened till
death came.

The notion of America was in his mind, as we have seen, when he first
projected the Clock, and a very hearty letter from Washington Irving
about little Nell and the Curiosity Shop, expressing the delight with
his writings and the yearnings for himself which had indeed been pouring
in upon him for some time from every part of the States, had very
strongly revived it. He answered Irving with more than his own warmth:
unable to thank him enough for his cordial and generous praise, or to
tell him what lasting gratification it had given. «I wish I could find
in your welcome letter,» he added,» some hint of an intention to visit
England. I should love to go with you, as I have gone, God knows how
often, into Little-britain, and East-cheap, and Green-arbour-court, and
Westminster-abbey. . . . It would gladden my heart to compare notes with
you about all those delightful places and people that I used to walk
about and dream of in the day time, when a very small and
not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy.» After interchange of these
letters the subject was frequently revived; upon his return from
Scotland it began to take shape as a thing that somehow or other, at no
very distant date, must be; and at last, near the end of a letter filled
with many unimportant things, the announcement, doubly underlined, came
to me.

The decision once taken, he was in his usual fever until its
difficulties were disposed of. The objections to separation from the
children led at first to the notion of taking them, but this was as
quickly abandoned; and what remained to be overcome yielded readily to
the kind offices of Macready, the offer of whose home to the little ones
during the time of absence, though not accepted to the full extent, gave
yet the assurance needed to quiet natural apprehensions. All this,
including an arrangement for publication of such notes as might occur to
him on the journey, took but a few days; and I was reading in my
chambers a letter he had written the previous day from Broadstairs, when
a note from him reached me, written that morning in London, to tell me
he was on his way to take share of my breakfast. He had come overland by
Canterbury after posting his first letter; had seen Macready the
previous night; and had completed some part of the arrangements. This
mode of rapid procedure was characteristic of him at all similar times,
and will appear in the few following extracts from his letters.

«Now» (19 September) «to astonish you. After balancing, considering, and
weighing the matter in every point of view, I HAVE MADE UP MY MIND (WITH
IT WILL BE SAFE TO GO.» Further information was promised immediately;
and a request followed, characteristic as any he could have added to his
design of travelling so far away, that we should visit once more
together the scenes of his boyhood. «On 9 October we leave here. It’s a
Saturday. If it should be fine dry weather, or anything like it, will
you meet us at Rochester, and stop there two or three days to see all
the lions in the surrounding country? Think of this. . . . If you’ll
arrange to come, I’ll have the carriage down, and Topping; and,
supposing news from Glasgow don’t interfere with us, which I fervently
hope it will not, I will ensure that we have much enjoyment.»

Three days later than that which announced his resolve, the subject was
resumed. «I wrote to Chapman and Hall, asking them what they thought of
it, and saying I meant to keep a notebook, and publish it for half a
guinea or thereabouts, on my return. They instantly sent the warmest
possible reply, and said they had taken it for granted I would go, and
had been speaking of it only the day before. I have begged them to make
every enquiry about the fares, cabins, berths, and times of sailing; and
I shall make a great effort to take Kate and the children. In that case
I shall try to let the house furnished, for six months (for I shall
remain that time in America); and if I succeed, the rent will nearly pay
the expenses out, and home. I have heard of family cabins at Ј100; and I
think one of these is large enough to hold us all. A single fare, I
think, is forty guineas. I fear I could not be happy if we had the
Atlantic between us; but leaving them in New York while I ran off a
thousand miles or so, would be quite another thing. If I can arrange all
my plans before publishing the Clock address, I shall state therein that
I am going: which will be no unimportant consideration, as affording the
best possible reason for a long delay. How I am to get on without you
for seven or eight months, I cannot, upon my soul, conceive. I dread to
think of breaking up all our old happy habits, for so long a time. The
advantages of going, however, appear by steady looking-at so great, that
I have come to persuade myself it is a matter of imperative necessity.
Kate weeps whenever it is spoken of. Washington Irving has got a nasty
low fever. I heard from him a day or two ago.»

His next letter was the unexpected arrival which came by hand from
Devonshire-terrace, when I thought him still by the sea. «This is to
give you notice that I am coming to breakfast with you this morning on
my way to Broadstairs. I repeat it, sir, — on my way to Broadstairs.
For, directly I got Macready’s note yesterday, I went to Canterbury, and
came on by day-coach for the express purpose of talking with him; which
I did between eleven and twelve last night in Clarence Terrace. The
American preliminaries are necessarily startling, and, to a gentleman of
my temperament, destroy rest, sleep, appetite, and work, unless
definitely arranged. Macready has quite decided me in respect of time
and so forth. The instant I have wrung a reluctant consent from Kate, I
shall take our joint passage in the mailpacket for next January. I never
loved my friends so well as now.» We had all discountenanced his first
thought of taking the children; and, upon this and other points, the
experience of our friend, who had himself travelled over the States, was
very valuable. His next letter, two days later from Broadstairs,
informed me of the result of the Macready conference.» Only a word. Kate
is quite reconciled. Anne» (her maid) «goes, and is amazingly cheerful
and light of heart upon it. And I think, at present, that it’s a greater
trial to me than anybody. The 4th of January is the day. Macready’s note
to Kate was received and acted upon with a perfect response. She talks
about it quite gaily, and is satisfied to have nobody in the house but
Fred, of whom, as you know, they are all fond. He has got his promotion,
and they give him the increased salary from the day on which the minute
was made by Baring. I feel so amiable, so meek, so fond of people, so
full of gratitudes and reliances, that I am like a sick man. And I am
already counting the days between this and coming home again.»

He was soon, alas! to be what he compared himself to. I met him at
Rochester at the end of September, as arranged; we passed a day and
night there; a day and night in Cobham and its neighbourhood, sleeping
at the Leather-bottle; and a day and night at Gravesend. But we were
hardly returned when some slight symptoms of bodily trouble took
suddenly graver form, and an illness followed involving the necessity of
surgical attendance. This, which, with mention of the helpful courage
displayed oy him, has before been alluded to, put off necessarily the
Glasgow dinner; and he had scarcely left his bedroom when a trouble
arose near home which touched him to the depths of the greatest sorrow
of his life, and, in the need of exerting himself for others, what
remained of his own illness seemed to pass away.

Dickens’s next letter was begun in the «United-states-hotel,
Philadelphia,» and bore date «Sunday, sixth March, 1842.» It treated of
much dealt with afterwards at greater length in the Notes, but the
freshness and vivacity of the first impressions in it have surprised me.
I do not however print any passage here which has not its own interest
independently of anything contained in that book. The rule will be
continued, as in the portions of letters already given, of not
transcribing anything before printed, or anything having even but a near
resemblance to descriptions that appear in the Notes.

«. . . As this is likely to be the only quiet day I shall have for a
long time, I devote it to writing to you. We have heard nothing from you
yet, and only have for our consolation the reflection that the Columbia
is now on her way out. No news had been heard of the Caledonia yesterday
afternoon, when we left New York. We were to have quitted that place
last Tuesday, but have been detained there all the week by Kate having
so bad a sore throat that she was obliged to keep her bed. We left
yesterday afternoon at five o’clock, and arrived here at eleven last
night. Let me say, by the way, that this is a very trying climate.

«I have often asked Americans in London which were the better railroads
— ours or theirs? They have taken time for reflection, and generally
replied, on mature consideration, that they rather thought we excelled;
in respect of the punctuality with which we arrived at our stations, and
the smoothness of our travelling. I wish you could see what an American
railroad is, in some parts where I now have seen them. I won’t say I
wish you could feel what it is, because that would be an unchristian and
savage aspiration. It is never inclosed, or warded off. You walk down
the main street of a large town: and, slap-dash, headlong, pell-mell,
down the middle of the street; with pigs burrowing, and boys flying
kites and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and
children crawling, close to the very rails; there comes tearing along a
mad locomotive with its train of cars, scattering a red-hot shower of
sparks (from its wood fire) in all directions; screeching, hissing,
yelling, and painting; and nobody one atom more concerned than if it
were a hundred miles away. You cross a turnpike-road; and there is no
gate, no policeman, no signal — nothing to keep the wayfarer or quiet
traveller out of the way, but a wooden arch on which is written in great
letters ‘Look out for the locomotive.’ And if any man, woman, or child,
don’t look out, why it’s his or her fault, and there’s an end of it.

Charles Dickens was an English novelist and one of the most popular
writers in the history of literature. In his enormous body of works,
Dickens combined masterly storytelling, humour, pathos, and irony with
sharp social criticism and acute observation of people and places, both
real and imagined.

Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth and spent most of his
childhood in London and Kent, both of which appear frequently in his
novels. He started school at the age of nine, but his education was
interrupted when his father was imprisoned for debt in 1824. The boy was
then forced to support himself by working in a shoe-polish factory. From
1824 to 1826, Dickens again attended school. For the most part, however,
he was self-educated. Among his favourite books were those by such great
18th-century novelists as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, and their
influence can be discerned in Dickens’s own novels. In 1827 Dickens took
a job as a legal clerk.

In December 1833 Dickens published the first of a series of original
descriptive sketches of daily life in London, using the pseudonym Boz.
The success of this first novel The Pickwick Papers made Dickens famous.

Dickens subsequently maintained his fame with a constant stream of
novels. A man of enormous energy and wide talents, he also engaged in
many other activities. He edited the weekly periodicals Household Words
(1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1870), composed the travel
books American Notes (1842) and Pictures from Italy (1846), administered
charitable organisations, and pressed for many social reforms. In 1843
he published A Christmas Carol, an ever-popular children’s story.

Incompatibility and Dickens’s relations with a young actress, Ellen
Ternan, led to his separation from his wife in 1858, after the marriage
had produced ten children. He suffered a fatal stroke on June 9, 1870,
and was buried in Westminster Abbey five days later.

He made a valuable contribution to world literature, he wrote “The
Pickwick Papers”, “Bleak House”, “Oliver Twist”, “Dombey and Son” and
other novels and stories.

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