Charles Dickens Biography



In the strictest sense, Dickens' formal education was limited. His mother taught him to read when he was a young boy, and his early education was of a self-taught nature. By the age of ten, he had devoured novels such as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote. At nine, he experimented with writing a play for his family and called it Misnar, the Sultan of India.

In 1821, Dickens attended the Giles Academy in Chatham for about one year. Later, when he was twelve, he attended the Wellington House Academy in London. At fifteen, family problems required him to return to work, and so his last "schooling" was again, self-taught. He purchased a reading ticket to the British Museum at eighteen and immersed himself in its large library. He also taught himself shorthand.


For seven years after Dickens left Wellington House, he lived at home and worked at various jobs. He spent the first two years as a law clerk. After learning shorthand he spent four years as a legal reporter, then as a shorthand reporter in Parliament. In 1834 he joined the staff of the Morning Chronicle as a news reporter covering elections, Parliament, and other political events. Dickens also spent some of his time involved in the theater, and he also began to write for publication. His adulthood was marked by a feverish work pace and a desire to achieve.

Love and Family

At eighteen Dickens met Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a rich banker. She was two years older, beautifulhe fell totally in love. He wrote to her: "I never have loved and I never can love any human creature breathing but yourself." Though the relationship went well for a while, she lost interest in him after returning from finishing school in Paris. Dickens' friend and biographer, John Forster, was at first surprised that Dickens was so affected by this relationship, a pain that continued even years later. But Forster realized that this was fueled by a deep sense of social inferiority. Dickens was determined to succeed beyond everyone's wildest dreams and show them how wrong they were about him. Interestingly enough, he met Maria again years later. Eagerly looking forward to his meeting with her, and expecting the desirable vision of his youth, he was crushed when a middle-aged woman resembling his wife showed up. As his sister-in-law happily put it, Maria "had become very fat!"

In 1834, Dickens met Catherine Hogarth, the oldest daughter of the Morning Chronicle's editor, George Hogarth. Hogarth had favorably reviewed Dickens' work, Sketches by Boz, and the two men had become friends. Charles and Catherine were engaged in 1835 and married in 1836. It was a strange courtship: While the two held each other in affection and Catherine share his interest in a family, the courtship lacked the passion of his relationship with Beadnell. Dickens often broke dates with Catherine to meet work deadlines and sent her reprimanding letters if she protested.

As time went on their differences grew more apparent. Catherine was not outgoing or socially poised, and she avoided the public and social events her husband attended. In addition, Catherine's younger sister, Mary, had come to live with them shortly after their marriage. Dickens was very attached to Mary and when she died suddenly in 1838 at the age of seventeen, he was devastated. His enduring grief over her death incurred his wife's jealousy. Mary, adored by Charles Dickens, would show up again and again as a character in his works.

In time, another seventeen-year-old would steal his heart. Middle-aged, hard working, and disillusioned with his marriage, Dickens met Ellen Ternan, an actress in one of his plays. She was everything his wife was not: lovely, young, and slim. Catherine, with ten pregnancies, had grown stout, and at forty-three could not compete with the younger woman. It did not take long for the marriage to dissolve, resulting in something of a scandal at the time. Catherine, rejected by her husband, left the family home. The children rarely saw her because they stayed with Dickens, and she died in 1879, nine years after he. Dickens spent the rest of his life maintaining a secret relationship with Ternan.

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