In spite of humble beginnings, little education, and the sometimes-critical literary reviewers, Charles Dickens was loved by his public, and amassed wealth, prestige, and a large legacy of published works. He was one of the few writers to enjoy both popular acceptance and financial success while still alive. The drive for this success had its roots in his childhood.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England on Friday, February 7, 1812. He was the second of eight children born to John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father, John, was the son of illiterate servants. John Dickens managed to escape a similar fate when the family his parents worked for got him a job in a navy pay office. John continued his upward climb by keeping his own lowly background a secret and courting Elizabeth Barrow, the daughter of a wealthy senior clerk who worked there. The marriage succeeded, but John's hopes for further advancement fizzled when his father-in-law was accused of embezzlement and fled the country. The loss of this financial opportunity did not slow the spending habits of John and Elizabeth, who liked the upper-class lifestyle. This problem would be their downfall as time went on.
During Charles Dickens' early years, his family moved a great deal due to his father's job and spending habits. He recalled later that the best time of his childhood was their five years in Chatham, where they moved when Dickens was five, and where life was stable and happy. Dickens loved the area, learned to read, and was sent to school.
However his father's financial problems required a move to smaller quarters in London when Dickens was ten. Their four-room home was cramped, creditors called frequently trying to collect payments, and Dickens' parents alternated between the stress of survival and the gaiety of continuing to party. Dickens wanted to return to school but was instead sent to work at the age of twelve to help support the family.
For twelve hours a day, six days a week, Charles Dickens pasted labels to bottles of shoe polish at the rat-infested, dilapidated Warren's Blacking factory. He was ridiculed and harassed by the older, bigger workers and shamed by the stigma of working in such filthy, low-class surroundings. Intellectually frustrated, resentful of his older sister (who was studying at the Royal Academy of Music), and hurt by his parents' lack of interest in his education, Dickens despaired.
When his father was arrested for nonpayment of a debt, Dickens' mother and younger siblings moved into prison with his father, leaving the twelve-year-old alone on the outside to continue working. His older sister remained at the music academy. Lonely, scared, and abandoned, Dickens lived in a run-down neighborhood close to the prison so that he could visit his family. It was a firsthand experience of poverty and prison life and a reinforcement of the considerable insecurity and emotional abandonment that marked his childhood.
A small inheritance a few months later allowed his family to leave prison. Dickens was finally allowed to attend school over his mother's objections — she did not want to lose his income. School was short-lived though: At fifteen, Dickens had to return to work. Dickens never got over the time he spent at Warren's and his fierce sense of betrayal and rage at his mother's callousness stayed with him for life. Recalling that time, he said: "I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back [to Warren's Blacking]."
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