An unsettled childhood inspired classic novels

Fear of poverty after his father’s bankruptcy motivated the great writer’s prodigious output, says Rose Martin

HAPPINESS writes white, so the saying goes, and if an unhappy childhood is the precursor to greatness, then Charles Dickens was the catalyst for his future success.

It’s not so much that he was abused, orphaned, starved or sold into slavery, like his characters, it’s more that his trust in adults was annihilated by his feckless, profligate father and unsupportive mother.

The details of his early life are outlined in Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens, a treacly, slow-moving read that was published in 1990, but has been re-issued for the writer’s bicentenary.

Dickens spent most of his childhood moving from house to house, as his father remained one step ahead of the bailiffs.

Finally, John Dickens’s losing streak caught up with him. Even though he was a clerk in the British navy with an income that would have withstood the demands of a family of five, Dickens was jailed as a bankrupt.

The jailing led to the defining moment of the young Charles’ life, his assignment to a blacking factory job. This involved filling terracotta pots with range polish. It was menial, demeaning work that ended his formal education, (for a period only) and began his immersion into the cruel realities of life.

Charles became the adult in his family, which subsisted on his meagre earnings (he was also put into lodgings), and he remained in the factory until his father’s debts were expunged and his family released from incarceration.

Dickens resumed his education (on the basis of a legacy his father inherited), but it wasn’t long before the paternal pattern resumed: it’s not known if John Dickens was a drinker or gambler and there are suggestions that Charles himself was a heavy drinker, but his father’s ability to lose every penny meant that the child Dickens never knew security.

Charles spent his early childhood by the sea, in Portsmouth and Kent, and he was most happy in Rochester (to where he eventually returned, and from where his secret mistress, Ellen Ternan, hailed).

When he began work as a law clerk at around the age of 15, it’s likely that Charles’ financial support was badly needed at home, especially as his father had retired from the navy and had begun an uncertain career as a reporter.

But the time and place was right for Dickens to blossom: the early Victorian period was a phenomenally outward looking and progressive time and it saw the rise of the self-made man, of which Dickens was the star on the literary stage.

Great strides were being made in engineering, manufacturing and commerce (fired by coal and cheap expendable labour), during a period of empire upon which the sun never set.

It was also a time of quiet revolution in the literary sense and comparison can be made with our own time, 200 years later.

Dickens was in the vanguard of journalism — literature and information became democratic — when printed paper became cheap, when public education increased literacy levels and when the newspaper emerged as the pre-eminent democratic force, as the source of all news.

And in this world Dickens was no slouch: he taught himself shorthand to remarkable speeds and eventually became what today would be called a political reporter, and worked with a number of emerging newspapers but moved gradually toward periodicals and fiction, when his short stories began to gain a following.

Writing as Boz, this little sideline grew, and, for a long period, he juggled reporting, writing and editing for a number of publications, while still living at home.

Eventually, his labours allowed him the freedom to escape his family, (but his father would continually tap his publishers, using his name), and it could be said that, instead, he ran into a hasty marriage.

It seems that even Dickens was surprised by the fluency of his writings, and at top speed he could complete 2,300 words a day on a novel. And while that might not seem much to the Facebook generation — try that with a quill and ink.

Newspapers flourished in this period (this imprint also set sail in 1841), and the differences between storybooks, news and periodicals were blurred.

In fact, Dickens’ prose work would have been mostly polemical and political, in this period when London fizzed with new ideas and his populist touch reached out to an emerging middle class.

And while his stories were derided as sentimental by the literary elite of his day (he was too flamboyant in his dress and too common for some), his readership was broad and classless — he addressed social and political issues and instilled a moral tone within the weave of his storytelling.

Even Karl Marx approved.

Dickens’s fear of poverty however, never went away and he worked himself to the bone.

His novels, written in monthly format and sold in sheets with great amounts of advertising, went hand in hand with other editing work and his annual Christmas story defined the Victorian ideal of Christmas, and, by extension, ours.

In regard to his private life, Dickens managed his world with the dexterity of a seasoned PR man. He preferred to hang out with his peers, like his mentor, John Forster; the author, Wilkie Collins; actor, William Macready; and the painter, Daniel Maclise, who was born in Cork and trained in the School of Art.

Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of one of his earlier publishers. In Ackroyd’s description, Catherine was neither witty, educated nor interesting, it seems, but her kind and easy-going manner was in sharp contrast to her highly strung and probably highly-sexed spouse.

Nonetheless, Dickens remained loyal to his wife up until his meeting with 18-year-old Ellen Ternan. An actress from a well-known dynasty, Dickens apparently lost no time in ditching Catherine in favour of Ternan.

And there are some who question Dickens’ attraction to young women: the writer was distraught when Mary, Catherine’s younger sister, died at 14, and his final amour, Ternan, was little more than a child when they met — he was 45 and had children the same age.

Cleverly, Dickens burnt all of his letters and correspondence in 1860, and the couple managed to live quietly together until his death in 1870.

And he worked up to the last.

* Dickens by Peter Ackroyd is published by Vintage.

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