Crazy Facts About Charles Dickens


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

He Was Put To Work At An Early Age

Life should have been easy for Charles Dickens, having been born into a middle-class English family, but not long after their move to London, things went south for his father, a naval office clerk, who eventually fell into so much debt that he was arrested and sent to labor prison (which was a thing that used to happen). Dickens was only 12 years old, but without family support, he went to work in a warehouse for three years. No wonder childhood poverty and the struggles of the class system are major themes of his work.

He Began His Writing Career As A Journalist

Once he finally returned to school, Dickens found he had a knack for writing but turned his attention toward the news media at first. He worked for The Mirror Of Parliament, Morning Chronicle, and The True Sun but decided initially to publish under the pseudonym Boz because "dickens" was considered slightly N.S.F.W. at the time, thanks to Shakespeare's famous coinage of "What the dickens?" in his play The Merry Wives Of Windsor.

"Marley's Ghost," original illustration by John Leech from the 1843 edition. (British Library/Wikimedia Commons)

He Wrote Really Fast

By October 1843, Dickens had once again fallen on hard times. Convinced that a holiday hit would save him from ruin, he churned out A Christmas Carol, which not only sold well but went on to become his greatest literary success and a genuine classic, in only about six weeks. The cost to print the book was actually so high that he initially didn't make very much money from it, but it was enough to keep his head above water.

Dickens presiding over a charity meeting to discuss the future of the College of God's Gift, 1856. (London News & Sketch Limited/Wikimedia Commons)

He Gave People Second Chances

Dickens seemed to be a great believer in helping those who were struggling, cofounding a group home called Urania Cottage with the wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts to help so-called "fallen women" get back on their feet. Due to the structure of society in Victorian England, women had few prospects outside of marriage and often fell into homelessness, coped with alcohol abuse, or turned to sex work if those prospects were bleak. Urania helped over 100 women find work, marriage, or a path out of London to English colonies, where they were free of the city's judgement and ire. Some of Dickens's characters were even inspired by these women, adding a level of realism that was hard for many other writers to achieve.