There is something about Charles Dickens' imaginative power that defies explanation in purely biographical terms. Nevertheless, his biography shows the source of that power and is the best place to begin to define it.
The second child of John and Elizabeth Dickens, Charles was born on February 7, 1812, near Portsmouth on England's south coast. At that time John Dickens was stationed in Portsmouth as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. The family was of lower-middle-class origins, John having come from servants and Elizabeth from minor bureaucrats. Dickens' father was vivacious and generous but had an unfortunate tendency to live beyond his means. his mother was affectionate and rather inept in practical matters. Dickens later used his father as the basis for Mr. Micawber and portrayed is mother as Mrs. Nickleby in A Tale of Two Cities.
After a transfer to London in 1814, the family moved to Chatham, near Rochester, three years later. Dickens was about five at the time, and for the next five years his life was pleasant. Taught to read by his mother, he devoured his fathers' small collection of classics, which included Shakespeare, Cervantes, Defoe, Smollet, Fielding, and Goldsmith. These left a permanent mark on his imagination; their effect on his art was quite important. dickens also went to some performances of Shakespeare and formed a lifelong attachment to the theater. He attended school during this period and showed himself to be a rather solitary, observant, good-natured child with some talent for comic routines, which his father encouraged. In retrospect Dickens looked upon these years as a kind of golden age. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, is in part an attempt to recreate their idyllic nature: it rejoices in innocence and the youthful spirit, and its happiest scenes take place in that precise geographical area.
In the light of the family's move back to London, where financial difficulties overtook the Dickens's, the time in Chatham must have seemed glorious indeed. The family moved into the shabby suburb of Camden Town, and Dickens was taken out of school and set to menial jobs about the household. In time, to help augment the family income, Dickens was given a job in a blacking factory among rough companions. At the time his father was imprisoned for debt, but was released three months later by a small legacy. Dickens related to his friend, John Forster, long afterward, that he felt a deep sense of abandonment at this time; the major themes of his novels can be traced to this period. His sympathy for the victimized, his fascination with prisons and money, the desire to vindicate his heroes' status as gentlemen, and the idea of London as an awesome, lively, and rather threatening environment all reflect these experiences. No doubt this temporary collapse of his parents' ability to protect him made a vivid expression on him. Out on his own for a time at twelve years of age, Dickens acquired a lasting self-reliance, a driving ambition, and a boundless energy that went into everything he did.
At thirteen Dickens went back to school for two years and then took a job in a lawyers office. Dissatisfied with the work, he learned shorthand and became a freelance court reporter in 1828. The job was seasonal and allowed him to do a good deal of reading in the British Museum. At the age of twenty he became a full-fledged journalist, working for three papers in succession. In the next four or five years he acquired the reputation of being the fastest and most accurate parliamentary reporter in London. The value of this period was that Dickens gained a sound, firsthand knowledge of London and the provinces.
Dickens was very active physically. He loved taking long walks, riding horses, making journeys, entertaining friends, dining well, playing practical jokes. He enjoyed games of charades with his family, was an excellent amateur magician, and practiced hypnotism. One tends to share Shaw's opinion that Dickens, in his social life, was always on stage. He was like an eternal Master of Ceremonies, for the most part: flamboyant, observant, quick, dynamic, full of zest. Yet he was also restless, subject to fits of depression, and hot tempered, so that at times he must have been nearly intolerable to live with, however agreeable he was as a companion.
In view of his very strenuous life it was not surprising that he died at fifty-eight from a stroke. At his death on June 9, 1870, Dickens was wealthy, immensely popular, and the best novelist the Victorian age produced. He was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, and people mourned his death the world over.
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