So what was Dickens really like?

Charles Dickens, by Frith in 1859
Charles Dickens, by Frith in 1859

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His books are renowned around the world but as we prepare to celebrate the bicentenary of his birth, what is known about Charles Dickens the man? Mischa Allen reports

In the darkness, a figure wanders aimlessly, his head full of thoughts.

He can’t sleep, so he rises from his bed and treads the gloomy streets of 19th century London.

The man is Charles Dickens. As he walks, perhaps he uses the time to think up characters for his hugely successful books.

Today his name is known around the world. The Portsmouth-born author is one of this country’s literary giants.

But how much do we know about the writer who penned such classics as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield?

One little-known fact is that Dickens suffered from chronic insomnia. He was a restless man and would often go for a walk in the middle of the night.

Writer Claire Tomalin, whose recently-published biography Charles Dickens: A Life was short-listed for the 2011 Costa Book Awards, has spent a lot of time studying Dickens the man and has found out other fascinating information about him.

She says he was tidy to the point of being obsessive, but had a very generous nature.

Claire explains: ‘He really cared about helping people. For instance, he would go round helping to raise money for the Mechanics’ Institutes, to help working men and women get further education.

‘Then he raised support for the Ragged Schools, for the poorest city children, so that they could get some education.

‘Whenever a friend died leaving orphaned children, Dickens always raised money to help them.’

Having begun his career as a journalist, much of Dickens’s work was published in monthly instalments in newspapers and magazines. He would create episodes for serialisation.

Claire explains: ‘Apart from the fact that he was a genius, he was also a man of extraordinary energy.

‘He started writing The Pickwick Papers and in the middle began on Oliver Twist. When he finished The Pickwick Papers, he started on Nicholas Nickleby and again was writing instalments each month for two different books. I don’t think another writer could have done that.’

But she believes there was a darker side to his character.

Claire says: ‘He behaved very badly after falling in love with the young actress Ellen Ternan (who is buried in Highland Road cemetery, Southsea).

‘For a while this good, kind, generous, wonderful Dickens behaved badly. I think Dickens, because he was a favourite of the public, always wanted to appear to be in the right.

‘It makes writing about him quite painful, and quite difficult. You have to give the truth.

‘It doesn’t take away from his greatness though. Possibly those bad elements of his character helped him to create some of his best fictional characters.’

She maintains it doesn’t detract from his work.

‘He was a great writer and also a great man who gave himself to good causes.

‘If he behaved badly then, well, most people somewhere in their life have behaved badly.’

There are many different opinions about what Dickens was like, as a lot of information about him has been gleaned from various histori cal documents and personal letters.

Professor Tony Pointon runs the Portsmouth branch of the Dickens Fellowship, a international organisation created in honour of the author. This year, to celebrate the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth on February 7, it will host the annual Fellowship conference in the city in August, which other international branches will attend.

He says: ‘The real Dickens was extremely intelligent, and an extremely fast writer and reader, who could take in information very rapidly.

‘When you read about what people said about him, he was generous, and generous to people who he didn’t even know.

‘Everybody who wrote about him at the time said he was a nice person.’

Prof Pointon believes that Dickens never treated anyone badly, including his wife, Catherine.

He explains: ‘His wife and her solicitor wrote up a document for him to sign when she walked out. It said she could have access to the children, but not at their home.

‘But he changed it and sent it back saying she could see her children wherever and whenever she wanted, including at their home. But she never went back, so what does that say about him?’

After being forced to leave school at a young age and work in a blacking factory, Dickens grew up respecting the working class.

A lot of his novels, such as A Christmas Carol, were filled with commentary on the appalling social conditions of Victorian London.

Prof Pointon says: ‘He wrote once about how he had lost the chance to grow up and be a learned man.

‘He woke up years later when he had a family, and was rich, still thinking about that factory. He was back there his whole life.

‘But he said that without it he would never have been the writer he was because he understood ordinary people. There were millions and millions of children who would never have a chance in the world. He was a man with a great social conscience.’

Being so aware of what was happening around him, Dickens felt he had to stand up for what he thought was right. With his work, he tried to reach as many people as possible.

Dom Kippin, literature development officer at Portsmouth City Council, says: ‘I suppose he had many different aspects to his personality. A lot of people have different views.

‘There are varying ideas of whether he was this perfect writer, or a human with feelings.

‘I think the man must have been filled with creative energy and he certainly worked incredibly hard for social injustice and for children.’


The following events all take place on February 7, the date of Dickens’s birth in 1812.

From 9.30am, Old Commercial Road, the street where Dickens was born, will be transformed into a Victorian street scene, complete with performers and market traders. Guests include Simon Callow, Sheila Hancock, and Brian Conley, who is appearing as Fagin in Oliver! when it comes to Southampton Mayflower later this year.

30 members of The Pickwick Bicycle Club will ride penny farthings from Cosham to the Dickens Birthplace museum.

A ceremony outside the museum begins at 10.30am with speeches from the Lord Mayor and Dickens’s great-great grandson Ian Dickens, and the Portsmouth Dickens Fellowship. More than 100 children from Charles Dickens Junior school in Dickensian dress will also be attending.

At noon there will be a service of thanksgiving at St Mary’s Church, where Sheila Hancock and Simon Callow will both give readings. St John’s RC Primary School choir will be singing songs from Oliver!

Back at the museum, Brian Conley will be making an appearance as Fagin at 1.30pm.

There will be a performance of The Ballad of Charles Dickens by Portsmouth University drama department in Old Commercial Road at 12pm, 2pm and 4pm.

Simon Callow will also be performing at The New Theatre Royal, reading excerpts from his book Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, while David Copperfield begins its run at The King Theatre (until February 11).