On a bleak Black Friday, 25th November 2016, I ventured out from the warmth of my humble abode to attend the most delightful author talk, the subject being arguably one of the greatest writers in our English language, Mister Charles Dickens. The presentation, made in Slough’s newest space, a triumph of modern architecture, the Curve, was delivered with enthusiasm by historian Lucinda Hawksley, a great-great-great granddaughter of the man himself. She had come to share with us her new biography of her illustrious ancestor, ‘Charles Dickens and his Circle.’
Her connection to this great literary figure made for an intriguingly personal approach in offering an insight into the life, loves, motivations and achievements of this extraordinary man, told through his associations and friendships with other celebrity figures of the Victorian Age. Indeed, a member of the audience remarked on a perceived family likeness, as she stood next to a portrait of the 27-year-old Dickens by artist Daniel Maclise. This was the first of many portraits shown of Dickens (with a growing beard over his lifetime) and other notable Victorians. Some are paintings housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London (the publishers of this book) and others, illustrations and photographs.
Lucinda’s book includes portraits of the key figures in Dickens’ life, both family and friends that made for a good slide show, conveying a feel for the time as she delicately exposed the key moments of his life for us to get a sense of the man. She told us that his early childhood in Portsmouth was a happy time, with his carefree parents creating an atmosphere of kindness, love and playfulness in a tiny terraced house (still standing as a museum).
Things changed for the worse when the family moved to the urban squalor of London. Soon his parents got into debt and ended up in Debtor’s Prison. In fact the whole family were interred, and the young Charles, then 12 years old, was sent out to work to earn enough to cover the family’s costs. His first job was working in a shoe polish factory on the Strand, and he would walk there and back from his one room lodgings in Camden Town each day.
This wretched end to his happy childhood deeply affected Charles, but being of strong character, he battled through and helped his family out of debt, eventually progressing to a better job as a solicitor’s clerk. He began to follow his heart’s desire to be a reporter by going ‘freelance’ and selling news reports to various publications. Newspapers and magazines abounded in Victorian London, and he soon established a reputation under his pen name ‘Boz’, going on to serialise what was to become his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in a magazine. Much later, he finally dared to write about a family who were subjected to the shame and social censure of being sent to the Debtors Prison in Little Dorrit, a subject that haunted him through his life, given the trials of his parents.
Lucinda describes his struggles to achieve his dream of becoming a writer, and the crossover from journalism to fiction writing, through which Dickens could convey his observations and experiences of life in Victorian London. Various characters entered his life, the first being his wife, Catherine. She was the daughter of his newspaper editor, and is described as being from a well-off middle class family, and a cut above the ambitious but impoverished Charles. Together they had ten children, nine surviving to adulthood (kicking the trend of only one in three children becoming adults in Victorian times). During the course of their marriage he was transformed from an unknown journalist to a famous novelist.
Indeed, the rigours of poverty in industrial Britain were an ever-present theme in Dickens’s writing, and he spent much of his time campaigning for social justice and improvements for the poor. Lucinda presents us with an array of celebrity friends and associates of the Dickens family – fellow writers and artists, philanthropists and business associates, painting a picture of the celebrity culture of the day. He went on book promotion and reading tours, engaging with his readers, which has earned him the reputation as the first ‘modern’ author. He also fought for copyright law, as his works were mercilessly bootlegged, robbing him of income.
Once he became famous, he joined the literary set in London, mixing with the likes of William Makepeace Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot). Illustrators and artists abounded, including JMW Turner, and Hans Christian Anderson was their house guest. Philanthropists and radicals, royalty and musicians could all be found at their parties. He was greeted with the fervour of a pop star on his visits to the United States of America, where he befriended Edgar Allan Poe, William Wadsworth Longfellow and Washington Irving.
Lucinda described some of the more poignant moments of his life, including when he left Catherine for his mistress, Ellen Ternan. Dickens barely survived a devastating train crash in Kent that left him physically and emotionally scarred. He had pulled Ellen and her mother out of their crushed carriage and was lauded for helping the wounded and dying. He died exactly five years to the day after this awful event, in 1870 at the age of 57.
These were some of the fascinating insights into the life of Charles Dickens laid before us as the often stern faces of the Victorian greats and Dickens’ family members were flashed on the screen. I procured a signed copy and started reading the book as soon as I got home.
Charles Dickens and his Circle, by Lucinda Hawksley, published by The National Portraits Gallery Publications, 2016.