A Boy and His Books
In a childhood plagued by poverty, Charles Dickens sought refuge in books—a scene he recreates in David Copperfield: "My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time . . .."
A Lasting Debt
Shortly before his 12th birthday, Dickens was sent to work at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, where he worked 10-hour days, six days a week; not long after, his father was sentenced to debtor's prison. Although his accounts of these experiences were not published until after his death, they colored everything he wrote and made him a tireless advocate for the poor and disadvantaged.
A Political Insider
As a young reporter, Dickens covered parliamentary debates in England's House of Commons—an experience that gave him a healthy disregard for government. "Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify," he wrote in David Copperfield. "I am sufficiently behind the scenes to know the worth of political life. I am quite an Infidel about it, and shall never be converted."
What's in a Nickname?
In 1834, Dickens began publishing his popular "Sketches by Boz," using an alias derived from his younger brother's nickname. Augustus Dickens was called "Moses," which he pronounced "Boses," and this was then shortened to "Boz." Dickens adopted this as his pen name and jokingly added the word "inimitable." Eventually "Boz" was dropped, and Dickens went by "The Inimitable." Boz was originally pronounced "boze," but is now most usually pronounced "bahz."
The Stage or the Page?
Dickens relished the theater and as a young man contemplated becoming an actor. He engaged in amateur theatricals regularly and did take the public stage on a few occasions. Acting, however, was not considered a very respectable profession, and Dickens, who wished to maintain a reputation as a gentleman, decided to focus on his writing instead.
A Man of the Streets
An avid walker, Dickens spent many a night walking the streets of London observing his surroundings. "Whenever we have an hour or two to spare," he wrote in 1835, "there is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy." The author seemed to need these wanderings both for inspiration and to rid himself of the tension that his intense writing process created.
Matters of the Heart
Dickens's youthful infatuation with Maria Beadnell made him an expert on unrequited love—and inspired some of his most ardent prose: "She was more than human to me. She was a Fairy, a Sylph, I don't know what she was—anything that no one ever saw, and everything that everybody ever wanted. I was swallowed up in an abyss of love in an instant."
An Overnight Success
Sketches by Boz was published as a book in 1836, and based on its success, Dickens landed his first big break, writing The Pickwick Papers. Mr. Pickwick's comic ramblings about the countryside with his faithful cockney servant, Sam Weller, captured the public imagination, and the novel became a huge international hit, launching Dickens's career as a full-time novelist.
Charles Dickens, Celebrity
After arriving in Boston in 1842, Dickens wrote to a friend, "How can I give you the faintest notion of my reception here; of the crowds that pour in and out the whole day; of the people that line the streets when I go out; of the cheering when I went to the theatre; of the copies of verses, letters of congratulation, welcomes of all kinds, balls, dinners, assemblies without end?"
Charles Dickens, Flashy Dresser
Dickens cut a dashing figure during his 1842 visit to America. "His external appearance did not answer to our Puritanical notions of a literary man," noted one Worcester observer. "His dress was that a genteel rowdy in this country and no one, who did not know him, could have supposed him to be 'the immortal Boz.' A stout Prince Albert frock coat, a flashy red vest with a dark figured scarf about his neck, fastened with a pin to which was attached any quantity of gold chain and his long flowing hair gave him the air of a fashionable young man."
'A Favourite Child'
While critics often rank Bleak House and Great Expectations as Dickens's finest novels, the author himself preferred David Copperfield: "Of all my books, I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD."
Dickens in Lowell
was sponsored by the University of Massachusetts Lowell, in partnership with the Lowell National Historical Park, the Tsongas Industrial History Center, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Charles Dickens Museum London, and with generous support from the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation and the University of Massachusetts President’s Office.