“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.” Charles Dickens
These quotations are a small sampling of the many memorable lines that Charles Dickens wrote. Everyone is familiar with at least one of the characters Dickens created, but how much do you know about the man himself? The lines quoted above reflect some of the most important events in the life of this immortal author.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in 1812. While his early childhood was uneventful, he was forced to leave school at the age of twelve and go to work, when his father was put in debtors’ prison. The years of hard work and deprivation left an indelible scar on Dickens, and led to his later works on social activism. The character of Oliver Twist arose from his experiences working in a blacking factory under appalling conditions.
Dickens was able to leave the poverty of his childhood behind him after attaining success as a writer in his early twenties. He married Catherine Hogarth in 1837. They would eventually go on to have ten children together. The 1840s were among the best of times for Dickens. His writing career was giving him fame and wealth both at home and abroad. He toured America doing public readings from his works, and was given VIP treatment in every city he visited, with reporters hanging on his every word.
The best of times in the 1840s gave way to the worst of times in the 1850s with the death of his father and one of his daughters. The fame and notoriety he once enjoyed became intrusive and unwelcome, with the Victorian version of paparazzi dogging his every move. In 1859 he published A Tale of Two Cities, the novel which begins with that unforgettable line.
In 1858 Dickens left his wife for an 18 year old actress, Ellen Ternan. Abiding by the conventions of the time, Dickens never formally divorced his wife, and took great pains to hide his relationship with Ellen. His celebrity status meant that maintaining his privacy was difficult, more so after he was in a train accident in 1865 while travelling with Ellen and her mother. Dickens acted heroically, saving the lives of several fellow passengers. He avoided testifying at the inquest following the accident, to avoid having to answer questions about who he was travelling with. One can imagine him replying “Bah, humbug” to a nosy reporter who dared to imply something about his personal life.
Although Dickens passed away in 1870, he will live on forever through his writing. To discover more about the life and times of Charles Dickens, check out Michael Slater’s biography, simply titled Charles Dickens. Claire Tomalin’s book Charles Dickens: A Life takes a closer look at his relationship with Ellen, and the life they shared.
The writings of Charles Dickens are filled with countless quotable lines, but the one that may sum up his life the best is to be found in A Christmas Carol: “His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.”