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Charles Dickens: a writing lifetime

Early sketches

Dickens had begun writing short sketches about London characters which he submitted to a variety of publications, under the pen-names of 'Boz' or 'Tibbs'. At the time of original publication (starting in 1833) many of these contributions often went unpaid, he being thankful enough to see them published. But his writing very soon became widely noticed and admired, and Dickens began earning money by it.

By the age of 22 he was earning enough to move away and to live independently from his parents in his own chambers. He was even able to help his father financially on more than one occasion, extricating him at least once from a 'sponging house' (a place debtors were held before being taken to prison) in Cursitor Street, just north of the Maughan Library.

It was not long before the idea was mooted that Dickens should gather his popular sketches together in book form. The resulting two-volume work was entitled Sketches by 'Boz'. While it was still in press in 1836 Dickens was approached by the publishers Chapman and Hall with a commission to write a sporting story in monthly illustrated instalments. Dickens transformed this commission into Pickwick Papers.

Within a very short time 'Boz' became such a sensation from the Sketches and Pickwick (which spawned a host of imitators) that another publisher, Bentley, offered him the Editorship of a new comic magazine. It was this offer, with the services of George Cruikshank as illustrator, which allowed Dickens to leave his newspaper job, and to marry. Dickens began publishing his own first fully plotted novel, Oliver Twist in monthly parts in the pages of Bentley's Miscellany, while he was still writing Pickwick.

So began Dickens's long career as a popular novelist, storyteller, and public speaker. His popularity was to continue until his death, a remarkable writing span of nearly forty years.

Portrait of Dickens, aged 56Portrait of Dickens in 1868, aged 56. Frontispiece from: BW Matz. Character Sketches from Dickens. London: Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd, 1924 [Rare Books Collection PR4589 M3]Charles Dickens died at the age of 58, a young age today, but he gave the appearance of being a much older man. He was perhaps what many of us might think of as a workaholic -always active, always busy, always working. He found great relief in long walks, especially at night. Dickens was not a reclusive writer, though at times he did seek to get away from London and write in the quiet of the countryside in England or abroad. As well as a creative genius, he was essentially a social being, involved in the hurly burly of London publishing, in numerous charitable projects and reforming political movements, hoping to improve human life, especially for the poor.

In his biography of Dickens, John Forster quotes something the novelist had confided in him after a visit to Venice:

' "Ah!" he said to me, "when I saw those places, how I thought that to leave one's hand upon the time, lastingly upon the time, with one tender touch for the mass of toiling people that nothing could obliterate, would be to lift oneself above the dust of all the Doges in their graves, and stand upon a giant's staircase that Sampson couldn't overthrow!" In varying forms this ambition was in all his life.'

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