How did Dickens' own life experiences influence his work? Why is the Marshalsea prison the focal point of Little Dorrit?
Dickens is a name synonymous with the cold, winding, dark streets of Victorian England; colourful and eccentric characters with inventive names such as Wackford Squeers, Uriah Heep and Ebenezer Scrooge; and the struggle of the poor against the class system. He wrote unashamed and vivid accounts of slums and prostitutes as well as damning portrayals of the legal system and government offices. His popularity has barely waned since his death and there have been over 180 adaptations of his work for film and television.
The second of eight children, Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in February 1812 to John Dickens, a clerk for the Royal Navy, and his wife Elizabeth. Aged 12, Dickens was sent to work at a boot-blacking factory when his father was imprisoned in Marshalsea debtors prison. His father owed £40 - the same amount as Edward, Amy Dorrit's brother. Dickens' mother went to live with her husband inside the jail, taking their youngest children with her. She left Dickens and possibly the eldest sister, Fanny (the name of Amy Dorrit's sister), to fend for themselves. Dickens later took a room near the Marshalsea in order to have meals with them.
Dickens was haunted all his life by the shame of his father's sentence, and the menial work he had to do, and told very little about it. Debtors prisons were a constant presence looming over the lives of those who were or had been incarcerated. In two of Dickens' other major works debtors were jailed: David Copperfield, in which Wilkins Micawber was sent to the King's Bench Prison; and The Pickwick Papers, in which Mr Pickwick was imprisoned in the Fleet, which stood on the other side of the Thames next to the now-covered River Fleet. It's thought that in his books Dickens played down many of its horrors for fear of upsetting the Victorian constitution.
After receiving an inheritance, John Dickens was released and Charles was sent to the private Wellington House Academy in North London. He was an average student and left at 15 to work in a solicitors' office as a clerk. A year later - after teaching himself shorthand - he became a court reporter and then a court stenographer in 1829. His knowledge of the tedious and disorganised legal processes feature in many of his works, most notably Bleak House.
Six years later, whilst working as a political journalist under the pseudonym Boz for The Morning Chronicle, the serialisation of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published. The following month he married Catherine Hogarth and they settled down in Bloomsbury, London.
Over the next 10 years, Dickens was busy writing Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House and Hard Times. He also kept Catherine busy with their 10 children.
In June 1865, Dickens was returning from Paris with his mistress Ellen Ternan when he was involved in a rail crash in Staplehurst, Kent. He tended the wounded, only remembering at the last minute to go back into the carriage and retrieve the nearly finished manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. The crash affected his nerves so severely that over the following five years he only managed to finish Our Mutual Friend and start The Mystery of Edwin Drood. However, he did write two collections of short stories: Mugby Junction, which includes a story about a signalman who foresees his own death, and No Thoroughfare.
Dickens continued to perform dramatic readings of his popular works until he suffered a mild stroke. He cancelled all his readings but continued to work on The Mystery of Edwin Drood until he died from another stoke in 1870 whilst at his home in Gads Hill, Kent. In his will, Dickens asked to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, but was laid to rest in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. He also requested that no memorial be made to him, and this has been honoured with the exception of one statue in Philadelphia, America.
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