The Secret Life of Charles Dickens
Famous Charles Dickens
Born Charles John Huffman Dickens in 1812 in the U.K. Charles had a childhood that would serve him well in his most famous novels throughout his life. As a very young boy, age eleven, he was forced to go to work at the Warren Blacking Factory. Here, he worked ten-hour days for six shillings a week. He had no choice because his father, John Dickens, had been sent to Marshalsea Prison for failure to pay a debt. Debtor's prisons were very common in London at this time.
His job was to place labels on the containers for polish. The trauma during his young years left such a lasting impression he would incorporate it into his novels, often reflecting a young, lost, helpless child. He would go on in his adult life to advocate social reform, and he established safe houses for women. His lectures always carried a talk about the poor and the need for change.
His father was finally released from prison after receiving a small inheritance and discharging his debts.
Charles next worked as a journalist and started doing sketches for a book he wished to do called Sketches by Boz. And he began to publish The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. These publications were made in a book in 1837.
He worked on his next book, Oliver Twist, which became an instant success. It was during this time he married Catherine Hogarth in1836. Together they had ten children. Charles had always loved the theatre and spent a lot of time at plays with his friends.
Charles Secret Door
Charles in his Study
Charles was always secretive and, in his study, was a secret door disguised to look like bookshelves with fake books on the shelves.
Warren's Blacking Factory
Mr. and Mrs. Catherine Dickens
Charles Meeting Ellen
Charles was working on a play and needed women for the leading parts. He had been at the theatre and was introduced to the Ternan women, all actors. The mother, Fanny, had even performed on a London stage, and her daughter Ellen was thrilled to be an actress in a Dickens play. He followed them to their next stage performance, chasing after Ellen. Better known as Nelly, she was eighteen years old, and Dickens was forty-five years old. Perhaps this as a mid-life crisis, but in any event, Charles went on to set Nelly up in a house and giving her an allowance so she would not have to work.
But Dickens was acutely aware of keeping everything a secret. He was known as a dedicated family man, and any scandal would affect his career. One day delivery from a jeweler was opened by Catherine with a gold bracelet inside and a card for Nelly. Catherine confronted Charles, who told Catherine it was not unusual to give an actress a gift, but Catherine would have none of it. After twenty-two years of marriage, Catherine was moving out.
It was essential to Charles that no scandal or divorce be in the news as it would destroy his career. He, therefore, set Catherine up with a stipend for the rest of her life. He had grown tired of Catherine, who seemed to have no interest in life or the theatre, and she was gaining a lot of weight.
Charles and Nelly
The secret affair between Charles and Nelly would last until his death in 1870. At this time, Charles sent a letter to his agent, suggesting the separation was Catherine's idea and that she had a "mental problem." He wanted to arrange a doctor to declare her "mentally unstable" and to commit her to an asylum. Catherine's aunt, Helen Thompson, later confirmed this.
It has been suggested that Nelly might have been the inspiration of the character, Estella in Great Expectations and maybe Bella in Our Mutual Friend. When Charles was working on his latest novel, The Myth of Edwin Dodd, Charles suffered a stroke. Even though medical help was summoned, Charles died on June 9, 1870. In his will, Charles provided for Nelly with a trust for a monthly stipend. Charles is buried in the Poet's Corner in Westminister Abbey.
After Dicken's Death
A few years after Charles died, Nelly met and married George Wharton Robinson. Her husband knew nothing about her relationship with Dickens or her actual age. She told him she was twenty-three, but in fact, she was thirty-seven. Together they had a son, Geoffrey, and a daughter, Gladys. Robinson died in 1910, and Nelly died in 1914. Nelly never told her kids or Robinson of her real age. Going through her papers, he discovered she had been an actress, had a relationship with Dickens, and lied about her age. Later all this was confirmed by Dicken's only surviving son Sir Henry Dickens. Geoffrey was so upset; he burned all of his mother's correspondence.
Charles had kept his secret, Nelly, away from the public for years. Yes, his novels were beautiful and emotional and treasured to this day. He was, however, an adulterer with a mistress.
Facts about Charles Dickens
Here are some little known facts about Dickens:
He is credited with introducing some 257 new words according to the
Oxford Dictionaries, including butter-finger, fluffiness, and manslaughter
He was an amateur magician
He was terrified of bats
He believed in ghosts and was a member of the Ghost Club.
His favorite letter opener was from a claw of his beloved cat, Bob.
Recent Letters of Catherine Dickens Found
Recently, some ninety-eight letters written by Catherine have come to light. These letters were found listed on an auction and finally acquired by the Houghton Library. A new view shows the cruelty of Charles to his wife, even his attempt to confine her to an asylum. As Catherine lay dying, she said to her daughter, Kate, "give these to the British Museum so that the world may know Charles loved me once." Catherine is buried next to her daughter Dora in Highgate Cemetery in London.