Charles Dickens, a man with his own ghosts, gets Google Doodle


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Charles Dickens is the subject of a Google Doodle today on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth. It’s widely known that this Victorian author could really put together an opening line (i.e. the 119-word grabber of an intro to “A Tale of Two Cities”: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”). But his life held fascinating as well as sorrowful twists (and by that we don’t just mean Oliver).

Dickens’ novels were populated with waifs and oafs. It was the frail Oliver Twist who ate his thin gruel and told the workhouse master: “Please sir, I want some more.”


Fledgling writers are often told, “Write what you know,” and Dickens did. He was born in 1812 into a lower-middle-class family that only sunk from there. Some of the ghosts from his past -- poverty and fear among them -- later invaded his novels.

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John Dickens was a clerk and with wife Elizabeth had eight children. Charles was the second and the eldest boy. John was rash with his money and, after becoming unemployed, was imprisoned in 1824 because of his debts. Charles’ father and the rest of his family to boot then resided in debtors prison -- except for Charles, who, alone at age 12 and away from his imprisoned family, was sent to work in a “blacking” (shoe polish) factory to make money.

John was eventually released and got a new job, but he never could get the knack of keeping hold of his money. Charles went on to fame as a writer, but that dark period in his life seeped into many of his novels, and his father and mother -- and others in his family -- can be found among his literary characters.

Dad became the basis for Mr. Micawber in “David Copperfield.” It was Micawber who said: ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.’

Dickens’ mother inspired the confused, comic character of Mrs. Nickleby in “Nicholas Nickleby” -- a veiled insult of which she was never aware. Apparently, young Charles and Mom had a falling-out after he lost his job at the blacking factory. His mother tried hard to get him his job back, but Charles never forgave her.

A few more Dickens tidbits:

-- Dickens became wildly successful after serializing “The Pickwick Papers” in 1836-37, with about 1 in 10 people in Victorian England snapping up and following his writings. He’s said to be the first person to make serialization of novels profitable.

-- In his later years, Dickens railed against slavery in lectures in the United States.

-- As his fame was taking off with “Pickwick,” he married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of a newspaper editor. They managed to have 10 children during their 22-year relationship, which broke off in 1858. According to Web developer and Dickens fan David Perdue, ‘Dickens found Catherine an increasingly incompetent mother and housekeeper and seemed to blame her for the birth of their 10 children.’

-- When Dickens was a child, his father would walk him by the mansion Gad’s Hill Place and told him that, if he worked hard, he could live in such a place. In 1856, Dickens bought it.

-- Dickens had a harrowing experience in 1865. He was riding in a train with a woman, who may have been his mistress, when it derailed. Some carriages of the train fell off a bridge. Ten people were killed. Dickens, who helped minister to the wounded, realized his only manuscript of “Our Mutual Friend” was in his carriage, which was perched atop the bridge. He crawled through a broken window to save the manuscript.


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