Famous Family History Charles Dickens Parents

About the family of famous author Charles Dickens, history of his father and mother.

CHARLES DICKENS (1812-1870), English author

His Roots: Mr. Micawber and Old Dorrit had their real-life counterpart in Dickens's father. John Dickens (1786-1851), a naval pay clerk, was an intelligent, hardworking, good-natured loser. Never in his indomitably cheerful life could he make ends meet. He weathered two terms in the London debtors' prison, but not before he had exposed Charles, his second child, to a good schoolmaster and a shelfful of English classics. Family destitution forced Charles, at 12, to work in a squalid blacking factory, where he sealed and labeled jars while rats ran over his feet. John Dickens's repeated experience on the treadmill of poverty and debt, together with Charles's own misery in the dank sweatshop system that valued people only as economic units, provided material for a lifetime of writing. Clever propaganda rather than moralistic preaching, Dickens realized, might do something constructive as well as assuage his own outrage. Hence his use of satire and caricature in his fiction, as he tried to change the social conditions which had enslaved his father.

John Dickens mastered shorthand in prison and subsequently became a parliamentary reporter. Charles learned shorthand from his father and joined him in the spectators' gallery in the Houses of Parliament. There he gained spectacular success as a news reporter in 1832. Later, when Charles established his weekly Household Words, he employed his father. An irrepressible "operator," John Dickens toured England, sold bits of his son's handwriting in lieu of actual autographs, and borrowed money from Charles's publishers. Charles, though exceedingly tolerant of these shenanigans, finally had to move his parents to a comfortable cottage outside London just to get them out from underfoot. "Very soon," wrote English biographer Hesketh Pearson, "his father was sending him Micawberish letters, his mother Nicklebyish letters, and he was disgusted with both." John Dickens died in characteristic good spirits after a grisly operation without anesthetic for bladder disease.

Elizabeth Culliford (1789-1863), Dickens's mother, had tried to maintain the household when John went to prison by pawning the family spoons, but her efforts were futile and she soon joined him there. A kindly, somewhat scatter-brained woman, she taught Charles to read and write, but due to the demands of her numerous pregnancies and the younger children, she had little time for him later. Dickens drew accurate portraits of her as Mrs. Nickleby and Mrs. Micawber in his fiction. Her old age was marked by extreme senility.

Elizabeth anchored the family throughout the years of John's determined improvidence. Yet Charles was always partial to his father, perhaps because John Dickens was the boy's first appreciative audience and laughed at his comical singing. "The longer I live," said Charles, "the better man I think him."

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