Dickens and London

      Dickens 1836
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     Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812, the second child of a large family. His father was the son of a butler and a housekeeper, and worked as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. The family moved to London when Dickens was three and to Chatham in Kent two years later.  In 1822 Dickens' father was transferred to London and slid seriously into debt. Dickens did not go back to school and at age twelve set to work in a blacking factory spending ten hours a day sticking labels on pots of boot blacking. Shortly afterwards his father was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea prison. His experience in the blacking factory had a profound effect on him, he never told his family about it.  

His father was released from the Marshalsea and, after nearly a year, took Dickens out of the blacking factory and sent him to school for two years. At fifteen he started work as a lawyer's clerk. He became a Parliamentary reporter, and gradually won success first as a journalist and later as a novelist.

Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in 1836 and she bore him ten children. He seems to have found relationships with women difficult. In his novels he idolised young girls with a penchant for housekeeping and ridiculed mature women. In 1857 he met a young actress, Ellen Ternan, and started a relationship with her that lasted until his death. In 1858 he separated from Catherine. With the exception of his eldest son, Dickens' children stayed with their father and saw little of Catherine after the separation.  See Dickens and Women for more about the Victorian attitudes to women.

From around 1840 to his death in 1870 Dickens was the most famous and popular writer in the world. He lived a prosperous middle class life, mainly in London, and knew most of the intelligentsia of the time.  His books are largely set in London, at the time the largest and richest city in the world, but struggling to cope with a rapidly growing population and a substantial  number of desperately poor people.  Dickens' characters span all social classes and he wrote compassionately (if patronisingly) about the lives of the poor and campaigned for better conditions for them.  

A dinner of policy for a great man
by Gustav Doré from London: A Pilgrimage (1872

by Gustav Doré from London: A Pilgrimage (1872