Charles Dickens - Early Life

Dickens' birth and childhood 1812-22

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812, three years before the Battle of Waterloo, and died at his house in Kent in 1870, six years before the arrival of the telephone. In that time, the country was transformed and Dickens became the greatest novelist of his age.

Charles was the second child of a clerk in the Naval Pay Office. He loved going with his father to taverns (where songs were sung) and to the theatre. He was a very sensitive child, easily hurt by insults and setbacks. Above all he was a great observer of life around him, noting and remembering details of dress and behaviour; we see this in his descriptions of the appearances and mannerisms of his characters. The family moved first to London, then Chatham, and eventually back to London in 1822.

More on Dickens’ homes: London was to be Dickens’ main home until 1860 when he settled in a house in Rochester, although he travelled a great deal in Britain and Europe. He also made two visits to America.

Dickens' difficulties in London 1822-27

The family experienced many difficulties during Dickens’ lifetime:

  • Dickens’ father was irresponsible and took little care of his son’s education; he also borrowed money recklessly
  • in 1824 (aged 12), Dickens was sent to work in a blacking factory, labelling bottles of shoe polish. Dickens at the Blacking WarehouseThe experience marked him for life. He saw it as dirty and demeaning work, and felt abandoned by his family. It was a traumatic experience which he never forgot
  • Dickens’ father was sent to the Marshalsea Prison for debt; his wife and the younger children moved into the prison with him but Charles had to find lodgings for himself
  • even when a legacy enabled Mr. Dickens to pay his debts and leave prison, Mrs. Dickens, still worried about money, sent Charles back to the factory, an act for which he never forgave her
  • in 1825 his father (who had social ambitions) took him out of the factory and Charles had two more years at school
  • in 1827 Charles became a lawyer’s clerk and the law plays a central part in many of his novels.

Dickens and the theatre

Dickens was a passionate theatre-goer throughout his life:

  • there is evidence that he paid theatre managers to allow him to appear on stage, doing a comic turn: it must have been very difficult as the audiences were rough and demanding
  • he had a considerable talent for mimicry and his eldest son witnessed him ‘acting out’ scenes from his novels before writing them down;
  • as a young man he might have become an actor, but a serious cold prevented him from attending a vital audition
  • later in his life he wrote, produced and acted in plays with his own amateur company, comprised of his family and friends, which once performed for Queen Victoria
  • the series of readings from his own work that he undertook in the last years of his life was another opportunity for him to exercise his talent as a performer.

Dickens' first love

Dickens fell in love with Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a banker but her parents disapproved. Dickens - about 18 at the time - took to standing in the street outside her house at night, lost in painful love. He wrote her many passionate letters, and felt that no-one had ever suffered for love as much as he had, but she rejected him.

More on the effect of Maria: He said later that his habit of concealing emotion dated from this experience. When he met Maria in later life, he was cruelly disappointed, and could not see what it was that had so fascinated him.