Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

What the Dickens? 10 things you didn't know about the great author

An undated photo of novelist Charles Dickens


There are hundreds of interesting things about Charles Dickens, but here are 10 to get you going.

Before he was a famous novelist, Dickens was a political journalist for The Morning Chronicle, publishing a collection of his work in Sketches by Boz. He later became editor of Bentley's Miscellany at 24.

Dickens loved his pet raven, Grip, and when it died, he had the bird stuffed and mounted in his study. A talking raven in one of Dickens's lesser-known works, Barnaby Rudge, was the inspiration for Poe's The Raven.

Story continues below advertisement

When staying in hotels, the obsessive-compulsive Dickens generally rearranged all the furniture. He also insisted on his children keeping their nurseries organized and sent rebuking notes when they did not. He combed his hair 100 times a day.

Speaking of Dickens's children, he had 10 with his wife, Catherine Hogarth, whom he eventually rejected and humiliated. Very few were successful. His third son, Francis, nicknamed "Chickenstalker" (the novelist gave all his children nicknames; his own was "Boz") served in Canada's North-West Mounted Police for 12 years, until his early death in 1886. He was in charge of the defence of Fort Pitt during the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.

In his volcanic romantic life, Dickens's great love was his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. When she died at 17, the novelist, then 25 and enjoying his first great success with The Pickwick Papers, was numb with grief. He took from her a finger a ring that he wore for the rest of his life.

Dickens had almost demonic energy. Often unable to sleep, he would take long night walks through the streets of London. His companion on many of his walking trips, urban and rural, was his close friend Wilkie Collins, author of The Moonstone.

Dickens was among the first authors to question the piracy of his works. During his tour of the United States in 1842, he fruitlessly attempted to urge the merits of international copyright, while American publishers gleefully printed his bestsellers without giving him a nickel. That experience largely coloured the negative views of the country in such works as Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes, which included a withering attack on slavery.

At his country home, Gad's Hill, Dickens had a fake bookcase that concealed a secret door. It was filled with such bogus titles as Noah's Arkitecture and Was Shakespeare's Mother Fat?

In 1865, Dickens and his mistress, actress Ellen Ternan, were in involved in a train wreck in which their first-class carriage was the only one of eight cars not to plunge into the river. Dickens helped other passengers to safety, and then returned to save the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend.

Story continues below advertisement

Though his place now seems secure, Dickens had, and has, his detractors. Henry James called Our Mutual Friend, usually regarded as a masterpiece, "lifeless, forced and mechanical," though he did grant Dickens's qualities as an observer and humorist. Oscar Wilde is famously reputed to have said of the sentimentalized heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing."

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.