As a small boy, a barely 12-year-old Charles Dickens spent days “of humiliation and neglect” pasting labels onto jars of black boot polish, in a rat-infested London warehouse. He saw his relatives only on Sundays, when he visited Marshalsea debtor’s prison where his whole family, with the exception of one sister, resided. During these years, Dickens vascillated between what friends and acquaintances later recounted as either an overwhelmingly cheery disposition or crippling depression.
In the course of his life, Dickens never told another soul—other than his wife and his best friend—about those years of poverty, abandonment, and fear. Except, of course, through novel after novel about abused, neglected and parentless children. Today those novels, many of which closely mirrored Dickens’ own life, continue to have a powerful emotional impact on readers.
In honor of Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, we take a look at the man behind those novels, with these five little-known facts.
1. Home Sweet Home: When Charles first walked by Gad’s Hill Place, in Higham, Kent, as a 9-year-old, he was enchanted with it. His father told him if he worked hard, he could one day live in a place like it. Dickens did him one better: He actually purchased the home in 1856.
2. Christmas Cheer: Originally, publishers were not fans of Dickens’ idea for a short novel about Christmas—so much so that the author had to publish the work on his own, at a considerable financial loss. The book, now a Christmas classic on both sides of the Atlantic, has never been out of print since its first press run. It was such a runaway hit, in fact, that Dickens’ use of the phrase “Merry Christmas” in the novella soon replaced “Happy Christmas” as the most popular holiday greeting.
3. Early Epilepsy: Experts believe Dickens suffered from mild epilepsy, based on some of the writer’s journal entries in which he described his symptoms with surprising medical accuracy. He also gave three of his main characters—Monks from Oliver Twist, Guster from Bleak House, and Bradley Headstone of Our Mutual Friend—the same medical condition.
4. Unusual Nicknames: Dickens’ characters are often known for their rather peculiar nicknames: Sweedlepipe, Honeythunder, and Pumblechook, to name just a few. But Charles also gave quirky nicknames to each of his 10 children, including the monikers “Skittles,” “Boz” and “Plorn.”
5. National Hero: On June 9, 1865, Charles Dickens was involved in the famous Staplehurst Rail Crash, where 10 people were killed and 40 injured. Dickens was hailed as a hero for his efforts in rescuing the wounded, which he later detailed in a letter to friend Thomas Mitton on June 13th. In the missive, he revealed that, after saving several victims of the crash, he climbed back into a teetering carriage to save his working manuscript of the novel Our Mutual Friend. He concluded the tale by telling Mitton that, “I don’t want to be examined at the Inquests and I don’t want to write about it … in writing these scanty words of recollection, I feel the shake and am obliged to stop.”
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