The Making of a Writer
Great writers always seem to start out as great readers. But before they can write anything of substance, they need to have some experience and observations to draw from. Charles Dickens was no exception. His experiences of great books, a happy childhood and an unhappy adolescence all combined to create one of the greatest authors the world has ever known.Frontispiece for Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens in the Household Edition: Dickens as a boy having fallen asleep over a desk, pasting labels
Before he went to school, Mrs. Dickens, “A dear good mother and a fine woman, had taught him thoroughly well at home,” as his old nurse Mary Weller recalled.[i] She also remembered Charles as “A terrible boy to read,” holding his book with his left hand, holding his wrist with his right hand and constantly sliding it up and down while he sucked his tongue.[ii] His mother also taught him some English and Latin before sending him to a dame school for an unknown period of time.
He then switched to a school run by a Mr. Giles, where Charles made rapid progress. He enjoyed reading books such as Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, Robinson Crusoe, Arabian Nights, and Tales of Genii. He loved to act out his favorite characters from these books, as well as put on magic lantern plays with his sister.
With the other schoolboys, he romped in the fields, rowed, skated, and enjoyed Twelfth Night and Guy Fawkes celebrations around bonfires. Charles would also walk with his father to work in the mornings, absorbing all the sights and sounds of town, along with his father’s elaborate vocabulary.
Charles’s father, John Dickens, was kind hearted and genteel, but unfortunately lived beyond his means. In 1822, the family was forced to move to a cheaper area and ten-year-old Charles was taken out of school. He missed it terribly, and was embarrassed by his family’s reduced circumstances. His father was very much in debt, and was soon sent to debtors prison. At the age of 12, Charles was forced to go to work in a miserable blacking warehouse and fend for himself for 4 to 5 months. This episode had a dramatic impact on Charles, and he never spoke of it again until the end of his life. But he became very determined, and resolved never to be in such poverty again.
After being released from the blacking warehouse, the boy was able to attend Wellington House Academy for two and a half years. Relieved and happy to be there after his ordeal, Charles worked very hard. He then worked as an office boy before teaching himself shorthand so he could become a reporter.
As soon as he was 18, Charles applied for a “Reader’s ticket” at the British Museum. He then devoured books, especially Shakespeare, Addison and histories, along with attending the theatre every night. By the age of 21, he had risen to some prominence as a short hand reporter with the publication, “Mirror of Parliament.” His first real literary success was The Pickwick Papers published in 1836, when he was 24.
Dickens would of course go on to become world famous, writing such classics as Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities. The opportunity to read great books as a child (and adult) undoubtedly contributed to his future writing. But it wasn’t just his style, but his substance that made Dickens great. That episode in the blacking warehouse gave him a perspective on poverty and suffering that he might not otherwise have had. It was uncommon for working class poor at the time to have access to great literature (or the time to read). So Dickens experienced a unique combination of both privilege and poverty. This combination, plus a heap of determination never to be poor again, is what propelled Dickens to write his hugely popular books.
[i] “Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, Vol. 1” by Edgar Johnson, p. 13