In May 1867, Charles Dickens began considering a second tour of America. His motivations were purely financial and, as much as he hated the thought of leaving his mistress, Ellen Lawless Ternan, behind, he believed that a series of public readings in the US would be far more profitable than another novel. Thus, on 19 November 1867, after a farewell banquet, he set sail for Boston, arriving on 2 December, and departed from New York on 22 April 1868.
Financially the American tour was a great success. Dickens gave 76 readings to over 100,000 people and made a profit of £19,000 (around £860,000 in modern currency). His reputation, however, did not fare so well. The American press criticised him heavily for his legal separation from his wife, Catherine, and rumours of adultery. He was also regularly portrayed as greedy and materialistic. Poor health, particularly exhaustion, also plagued the tour.
19 December 1843 witnessed the publication of one of Charles Dickens’ most popular and well-loved stories, A Christmas Carol. Published by Chapman and Hall, its initial print run of 6,000 copies sold out within days and within three months the story had been adapted for the theatre at least eight times.
In 1822, the Dickens family had lived at 16 Bayham Street in London. Situated in the less genteel suburb of Camden Town, Dickens described it as having a ‘basement, two ground floor rooms, two on the first floor, a garret and an outside wash-house.’ When describing the Cratchit family home in A Christmas Carol, it was to Bayham Street that Dickens looked for inspiration. Home to his parents, four siblings, his relative through marriage, James Lamert, and an orphan brought from the Chatham Workhouse, the house must have felt extremely cramped and considerably less comfortable than any previous family home.
It was not, however, a love of Christmas that inspired A Christmas Carol. The true inspiration came from the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published in 1842. This expose shocked the nation with its graphic depictions of the poverty and cruelty faced by children employed in factories and mines.
A Christmas Carol was followed by a further four Christmas tales in the 1840s: The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846),and The Haunted Man (1848). These stories became instant favourites among the public and created a link between Charles Dickens and Christmas that endures to this day.
1824 was a particularly difficult year for the Dickens family. As we saw in ‘The Inimitable Mrs Dickens ‘, John’s debts had spiralled out of control and our great matriarch, Elizabeth, had been unable to remedy the problem. When the family’s cousin and former lodger, James Lamert, swooped in with an employment offer for Charles, it seemed like a step in the right direction. Grateful of the offer, John and Elizabeth immediately accepted. But the experience at Warren’s Blacking Factory would leave an indelible scar on the young Dickens and, more importantly, on the relationship with his mother.
On 9 February 1824, only two days after his twelfth birthday, Dickens left his home at 4 Gower Street North and walked the three miles to Warren’s Blacking Factory. Situated by the Thames, at Hungerford Stairs, it was a “crazy, tumbledown house with rotten floors and a staircase.” Here, for ten hours a day, Monday through Saturday, Dickens pasted labels onto the individual pots of blacking, a mixture used for polishing boots. In return he received six shillings per week – around £12.50 in modern currency.
Much attention has been directed to the women in Charles Dickens’ life – most notably his wife Catherine and his lover Ellen Ternan – but it is with his mother, Elizabeth Dickens, that I have become particularly interested, writes Kaye Jones.
An attractive and vibrant woman, she was the inspiration for the foolish and self-absorbed Mrs Nickleby. She had a profound influence on Dickens’ development – both as a man and a writer – and certainly informed his view of and relationships with other women in later life. So let’s take a brief look at the inimitable Mrs Dickens…
“A Dear Good Mother And A Fine Woman”
When John Dickens married the nineteen-year-old Elizabeth in 1809, she was a “pretty, bright-eyed, vivacious-looking woman with her hair clustered in dark ringlets and a neat wasp of a waist.” Their first child, Frances, was born the following year and Charles Dickens in 1812. She took full responsibility for the children’s education in these early years, teaching reading, writing and even the basics of Latin. Dickens would later recollect that she taught him “thoroughly well” and it was certainly her influence that inspired his lifelong love of reading.
7 February 2012 saw the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, and History in an Hour celebrated with the publication of Dickens: History in an Hour. Here, its author, Kaye Jones, writes about the imprisonment for debt of Dickens’ father and the lifelong effect it had on the young Charles.
‘Whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving stones of the extinct Marshalsea Jail. He will see its narrow yard to the right, and to the left, very little altered, if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; and will stand among crowding ghosts of so many miserable years.’
You don’t have to delve too far into the works of Charles Dickens to find a reference to the infamous Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Dickens possessed an intimate knowledge of the jail that came not though rumour or research but through a deeply personal experience that would profoundly affect his character and his writing.
Born in Landport on 7 February 1812, Charles was the second child of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father was a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, a job that led the family to move around extensively during Charles’ earliest years. By 1822 the family were settled in London and, though they were happy, were increasingly burdened by financial difficulties, the cause of which remains unknown. Whether he spent too much on socialising or struggled with the cost of feeding an ever-growing family, John Dickens had set the family on the road to ruin and, on 20 February 1824, found himself arrested for debt.