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Charles Dickens at writing desk

By the time Charles Dickens turned ten, his family had lived in six different houses, each poorer than the one before. Although Charles’ father John Dickens was employed as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, he lived well beyond his means. Plus, the family kept growing; there were eight children in all, which meant many mouths to feed.

Then, in 1822, John Dickens was transferred to London and the family followed. Things went rapidly downhill. John Dickens was soon in debt up to his eyeballs. He informed Charles that he no longer could afford to send him to school. This broke Charles’ heart. The headmaster at his school had already recognized Charles’ special intelligence and imagination and Charles wanted to be a man of letters.

To pay the butcher and the baker, Charles was sent with armloads of books to sell at the pawnshop. Charles was humiliated and heartbroken. Gone were the wonderful hours in his little attic room in Chatham, reading tales of heroes like Robinson Crusoe and Peregrine Pickle. Now he was forced to part with his beloved stories, his only escape from the drudgery of his life. The books were soon followed by all the household goods, sold in an attempt to pay off the family’s debts, and keep John Dickens out of debtors’ prison.

In this 1840 engraving, 'Love Conquered Fear,' fictional character Michael Armstrong, a boy adopted by the mill owner, is shown embracing his brother Edward who is one of the ragged factory boys working amongst the spinning mules. By Michael's foot, a child can be seen crawling out from under a mule, employed to keep the floor under the mules dust and fiber free to minimise risk of fire. These poor boys often suffered horrific injuries when crushed by the moving machinery. From Frances Trollope's ''The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong'' London 1840.

Then, in “an evil hour for me,” Charles was offered work at Warren’s Blacking Factory at six shillings a week, or about $1.40.  Charles’ parents jumped at the offer. Charles remembers:

It is wonderful [shocking] to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age….My mother and father were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge.”

No one – no neighbors, friends, or family members reached out to save Charles from this terrible fate. So, on Feb. 9, 1824, at the tender age of twelve, he entered the business world to earn wages for the family. From eight in the morning until eight at night, six days a week, Charles worked alongside rough boys in a dark room covering pots of boot polish and gluing on labels.  The work conditions were appalling:

“The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old gray rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place,rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river.”

 Victorian children are shown working in a cotton mill. At the beginning of British Queen Victoria’s reign (1837), many children worked in factories for cheap wages. Some workers were as young as five. Few citizens questioned the practice of employing children at the time as there were no laws to protect them. The novels of British author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) with their depiction of poverty did much to bring about positive social change and improve the living conditions of the poor.
 
 
Then, two weeks later, John Dickens was arrested and thrown into Marshalsea Prison, where he had to stay until his debts were paid. Charles’ mother and his seven siblings were allowed to live there with him, everyone living in one room, except, alas, Charles. The blacking factory was too far from the prison for Charles to get back before the gates were shut at night. Charles was sent to live in a cheap boarding house. After work he wandered the dark streets of the big city, utterly alone, totally miserable, shabbily dressed, anticipating a dinner of bread and cheese in an empty room.
 
Those days were so crushingly painful for Charles that, years later, when he was a grown man with a family of his own, he could not walk those same streets without being reduced to tears. As a writer, Dickens filled his books with people and places from those bitter days, offering a social commentary that improved the lives of the poor. The novel Oliver Twist (1839), for example, shocked readers with its depiction of poverty and crime in Jacob’s Island, resulting in an actual clearing of the slum.

For more on Victorian child labor, click here.

Readers: For more on Charles Dickens, scroll down the right sidebar: Categories/People/Charles Dickens. Enjoy!

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Old Fezziwig's Christmas Eve Ball from "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens (1843)

The Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan owns the entire handwritten manuscript of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The 66-page manuscript written in 1843 bears all of Dickens’ edits in his own hand. “He worked on it with loving care, doing much more rewriting than usual.” (1) The original story is written in light blue ink. Edits are in thick, black ink.

One edit is visible on page 12, where Scrooge encounters Marley’s ghost, and chalks up the vision to indigestion. Dickens originally wrote “a spot of mustard” then changed it to read: a “blot of mustard.”

The manuscript is exhibited each holiday season but, alas, only one page is put on view each year, under glass. This year, however, the Morgan has allowed the New York Times to photograph and display the entire handwritten treasure online at

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/11/30/nyregion/dickens-christmas-carol-pages.html

The Morgan challenges readers to go online and study the manuscript and submit what they think is the most interesting edit in the work. The contestant judged to have submitted the most intriguing edit will be invited as the newspaper’s guest to afternoon tea at the Morgan.

What motivated Charles Dickens to write his classic holiday ghost story?

“At the time A Christmas Carol was written, Dickens feared for his future. He had six children to feed, a large house in London to maintain, and a lavish lifestyle. Christmas was approaching.

Yet Martin Chuzzlewit, the work he was then producing, a few chapters at a time, was not selling as well as earlier installments of The Pickwick Papers or Nicholas Nickleby. Bitterly, he confided to a friend that his bank account was bare….

Conjuring up what Dickens himself described as a “ghost of an idea,”…he got to work. The 6,000 copies printed in time for Christmas sold out. But because he had splurged on hand-colored drawings by John Leech, one of England’s leading illustrators, the project was a financial bust.

Fortunately for Dickens, his quickie book went on to become a classic.” (2)

(1) Stanley, Diane and Vennema, Peter. Charles Dickens: The Man Who Had Great Expectations. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1993.

(2) “Dickens the Editor To Dickens the Writer: Make it Sell.” The New York Times. A29. December 2, 2009.

Readers: Check out these other related posts:

“Dickens: Marley’s Ghost” 

“Grip the Raven” about Dickens’ pet raven

“Nellie Bly: Charles Dickens’ Visit to Blackwell Island Asylum 1842″

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The ghost of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843); Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1915)

‘Mercy! [Scrooge] said. ‘Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?’

“Man of the worldly mind!’ replied the Ghost, ‘do you believe in me or not?’

‘I do,’ said Scrooge; ‘I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?’

‘It is required of every man,’ the Ghost returned, ‘that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!’

Marley's Ghost by John Leech (1843) from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1943)

Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.

‘You are fettered,’ said Scrooge, trembling. ‘Tell me why?’

‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’

Scrooge trembled more and more.

‘Or would you know,’ pursued the Ghost, ‘the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain!'”

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The Eldest Children of Charles Dickens with Pet Raven Grip by Daniel Maclise, 1941

The Eldest Children of Charles Dickens with Their Pet Raven "Grip" by Daniel Maclise, 1841

In yesterday’s post , I mentioned Grip the Raven, author Charles Dickens’ pet bird that was the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven.” Dickens’ children loved the bird Grip although he did bite their ankles. At his children’s request, Dickens included Grip as a character in one of his books, Barnaby Rudge (1841). Dickens had three pet ravens, all named Grip. Grip I died in 1841, possibly because he ate lead chips scraped off a wall being repainted at the Dickens home. Dickens had the bird preserved and mounted in a glass case for display in his study. After Dickens’ death, a Poe collector acquired Grip I and donated him to the Free Library of Philadelphia where it remains today.

Dickens was saddened by Grip’s death. On March 12, 1841, he wrote the following letter to his friend, Daniel Maclise, who provided illustrations for his books and portraits of Dickens and his family, including the one on the left here featuring the eldest four of Dickens’ nine children: Charley, Mamie, Katey, and Walter. Dickens wrote:

 Mr. Dear Maclise,

Charles DickensYou will be greatly shocked and grieved to hear that the Raven is no more… On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but he soon recovered, walked twice or thrice along the coach-house, stopped to bark, staggered, exclaimed “Halloa old girl!” (his favorite expression) and died. The children seem rather glad of it. He bit their ankles but that was play…”

You might well ask why Grip the Raven is part of an Edgar Allan Poe Collection in Philadelphia. Toward the end of his life, Poe was a paid literary critic. In this role, he reviewed Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, in which Grip the Raven plays a part. When Grip makes his first noise in the book, one of the characters says, “What was that — tapping at the door?” The answer is “‘Tis someone knocking softly at the shutter.” Poe’s criticism of Barnaby Rudge was that, although he liked the book overall, he felt that the raven’s “croaking might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.”

Four years later, Poe published his most famous work, the poem  “The Raven,” which gave the raven a more central role. It features a tapping and talking raven who flies into a man’s room and perches on a bust of Pallas Athena. Dickens’ raven could speak many words and had many comic turns, including the popping of a champagne cork, but Poe emphasized the bird’s darker “devil-bird”qualities. His bird spoke only one word, “Nevermore.” Poe’s raven may have represented a messenger from hell or the after-life, mirroring the gloom and foreshadowing the doom of the troubled narrator who misses his beloved Lenore.

                                                                 
  The Raven

verse 1

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door-
                Only this, and nothing more….”

verse 3

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”- here I opened wide the door;-
                Darkness there, and nothing more.

verse 4

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mienof lord or lady, perched above my chamber door-
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door-
                Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

1884 Illustration from "The Raven" by Gustave Dore

1884 Illustration from "The Raven" by Gustave Dore

verse 5
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore-
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
                Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
Edgar Allan Poe
1845

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charles-dickens2One day, during my stay in New York, I paid a visit to the different public institutions on Long Island, or Rhode Island: I forget which. One of them is a Lunatic Asylum. The building is handsome; and is remarkable for a spacious and elegant staircase. The whole structure is not yet finished, but it is already one of considerable size and extent, and is capable of accommodating a very large number of patients.
blackswells-island-lunatic-asylum

I cannot say that I derived much comfort from the inspection of this charity.The different wards might have been cleaner and better ordered; I saw nothing of that salutary system which had impressed me so favourably elsewhere; and everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror. In the dining room, a bare, dull, dreary place, with nothing for the eye to rest on but the empty walls, a woman was locked up alone. She was bent, they told me, on committing suicide. If anything could have strengthened her in her resolution, it would certainly have been the insupportable monotony of such an existence. The terrible crowd with which these halls and galleries were filled, so shocked me, that I abridged my stay within the shortest limits, and declined to see that portion of the building in which the refractory and violent were under closer restraint.

 I have no doubt that the gentleman who presided over this establishment at the time I write of, was competent to manage it, and had done all in his power to promote its usefulness: but will lit be believed that the miserable strife of Party feeling is carried even into this sad refuge of afflicted and degraded humanity? Will it be believed that the eyes which are to watch over and control the wanderings of minds on which the most dreadful visitation to which our nature is exposed has fallen, must wear the glasses of some wretched side in Politics? Will it be believed that the governor of such a house as this, is appointed, and deposed, and changed perpetually, as Parties fluctuate and vary, and as their despicable weathercocks are blown this way or that? A hundred times in every week, some new most paltry exhibition of that narrow-minded and injurious Party Spirit, which is the Simoom of America, sickening and blighting everything of wholesome life within its reach, was forced upon my notice; but I never turned my back upon it with feelings of such deep disgust and measureless contempt, as when I crossed the threshold of this madhouse.

http://nyc10044.com/timeln/dickens.html

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