Charles Dickens: Stories, Biography, & Things You Didn't Know About The Literary Titan

By | February 5, 2021

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British novelist Charles Dickens (1812–1870) seated in his study in Gads Hill near Rochester, Kent circa 1860. (Epics/Getty Images)

Today, Charles Dickens is most remembered for his holiday classics and orphan rhapsodies, but there was more to the master of Victorian fiction than literature. He rescued passengers from a train wreck, busted ghosts, aided the search for a lost Arctic explorer, and rivaled the great William Shakespeare in coining new words.

Dickens's Early Years

Dickens was born in southern England on February 7, 1812 as the second of eight children. He later recalled an idyllic childhood of roaming the English countryside and exploring abandoned castles with his siblings, but the family was often financially unstable. In 1822, they moved to one of London's poorest neighborhoods, and two years later, Mr. Dickens went to debtor's prison, forcing the 12-year-old Charles to drop out of school and take a factory job to keep the family afloat. The experience at the dilapidated, rat-infested factory was eye-opening for the young Dickens, but fortunately, his father received an inheritance that paid off his debts and Charles was allowed to return to school.

Dickens always had a knack for storytelling, but his father hoped he would become a lawyer, so he spent a year as a junior clerk in a London law office as a teenager but mostly used his time there to learn shorthand. Once he mastered it, he left the law office and began reporting on the happenings in Parliament for the Morning Chronicle while publishing his first short stories on the side under the pseudonym "Boz," a character in the 1766 novel The Vicar Of Wakefield. (Dickens must have really admired this Oliver Goldsmith novel, because he mentioned it in A Tale of Two Cities, too). Readers enjoyed Boz's stories so much that in 1839, Dickens published a collection of his writings in a book called Sketches By Boz

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Dickens at his desk, 1858. (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

A Bit Of An Odd Bird

In his day, Charles Dickens was politely considered "eccentric," but today, he would probably be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He had a habit of always touching objects three times, believing it was unlucky to touch an object only twice, and reportedly combed his hair at least 100 times per day. He also always slept with his head pointed north and vigilantly avoided bats, believing they were bad omens.

It was far from his only superstition. As you might have guessed from one of his most popular novels, Dickens was keenly interested in ghosts. In addition to attending seances and visiting with mediums, he joined the exclusive, invitation-only Ghost Club, whose members included William Butler Yeats and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They tooled around together, investigating hauntings that they usually dismissed as hoaxes, which actually marked them as unusually skeptical among their peers. Unlike Dickens's other quirks, his spectral activities weren't considered weird during the spiritualism craze of Victorian England.

For all his fuss over bad luck, however, there was one such symbol he was perhaps a little too into: ravens. Specifically, his pet raven, Grip, who he found so amusing that he wrote him into his 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge. It's believed that Edgar Allan Poe based the eponymous character of his poem "The Raven" on Dickens's description of the bird in the novel. Sadly, shortly before the publication of Barnaby Rudge, Grip died after eating some lead paint chips (no word on how many times he touched them). Dickens was inconsolable, stuffing and mounting the bird and replacing him with a succession of ravens, all named Grip. Dickens had a pretty general obsession with his pets: He was also quite fond of his cat, Bob, to the point that when the cat died in 1862, Dickens had one of Bob's paws removed and fashioned into the handle of a letter opener, which is still on display at the New York Public Library.