Thursday, 7 February 2013

Happy Birthday Charles John Huffam Dickens!

Today marks the 201st anniversary of the birth of Charles John Huffam Dickens, born this day 7th February 1812.  To celebrate here is my favourite image of him (looking very byronesque) and five interesting facts....

Charles Dickens by Francis Alexander 1842

 1.  Charles Dickens was something of a fop.  This may come as a surprise given the stereotypical view of Dickens which is generally an sombre looking older gentleman with an aged lined face and long beard.  But Dickens was only twenty-five when he became famous with the success of Pickwick Papers.  The writer George Augustus Sala writes of a man "who was, in the early days of Queen Victoria's reign, one of the best-looking and best-dressed young fellows about town". To his contemporaries he was a good looking young man known for his fashionable clothes, rings and chains, long brown hair and particularly his flashy waistcoats. 


Dear Mr. W. C. Macready,

You once--only once--gave the world assurance of a waistcoat. You wore
it, sir, I think, in "Money." It was a remarkable and precious
waistcoat, wherein certain broad stripes of blue or purple disported
themselves as by a combination of extraordinary circumstances, too happy
to occur again. I have seen it on your manly chest in private life. I
saw it, sir, I think, the other day in the cold light of morning--with
feelings easier to be imagined than described. Mr. Macready, sir, are
you a father? If so, lend me that waistcoat for five minutes. I am
bidden to a wedding (where fathers are made), and my artist cannot, I
find (how should he?), imagine such a waistcoat. Let me show it to him
as a sample of my tastes and wishes; and--ha, ha, ha, ha!--eclipse the

I will send a trusty messenger at half-past nine precisely, in the
morning. He is sworn to secrecy. He durst not for his life betray us, or
swells in ambuscade would have the waistcoat at the cost of his heart's


2.  Dickens had a keen interest in the paranormal.   He was also an early member of the Ghost Club, the first organised group for paranormal investigations that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also joined at a later date.  He also believed in the healing powers of mesmerism (hypnosis) and even performed a public demonstration on his wife.

3.   Hans Christian Andersen once outstayed his welcome.  In June 1847 Anderson was introduced to Dickens and the two developed a friendly correspondence.  On his return to England ten years later Andersen was to spend a fortnight at Gads Hill with the Dickens family.  However a fortnight came and went and despite hints from Charles Dickens the family were stuck with, as Dickens daughter Kate described him, "a bony bore, (who) stayed on and on".  Finally after five weeks the family were relieved of their unwanted guest, in reaction to which Dickens wrote a note on the guestroom mirror “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!".  After this visit Dickens put a stop to his correspondence with Anderson.  It is also believed by some scholars that Dickens partly based Uriah Heap on the physical attributes and mannerisms of Andersen.

4. Charles Dickens' children had some interesting nicknames. Dickens had in all 10 children, many of whom he named after authors.  He also gave them some very interesting nicknames.....
  • Charles Culliford Boz, “Charley” 1837 - 1896
  • Mary, “Mamie” "Mild Glo’ster" 1838 - 1896
  • Kate Macready, “Lucifer Box” 1839 - 1929
  • Walter Savage Landor, “Young Skull” 1841 - 1863
  • Francis Jeffrey, “Chickenstalker”  1844 - 1886
  • Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson, “Sampson Brass,” or “Skittles” 1845 - 1912
  • Sydney Smith Haldimand, “The Ocean Spectre,” or “The Admiral” 1847 - 1872
  • Henry Fielding, “Mr. H” 1849 - 1933
  • Dora Annie 1850 - 1851
  • Edward Bulwer Lytton “Mr. Plornishmaroontigoonter,” “The Noble Plorn,” “Plorn” 1852 - 1902

5. Charles Dickens helped to set up a home for "fallen women". In May 1846 Dickens was approached by millionairess and friend Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts to help set up a home (Urania Cottage) for fallen women.  Dickens was not convinced at first, but then took to it with great enthusiasm involving himself with everything from the layout of the house, hiring the staff, lesson plans to the colours of the ladies gowns.  He used his contacts in the prisons to find suitable candidates then personally interviewed them to see if they were suitable.  Unlike most institutions with the same goals at the time, Dickens did not believe in a system that constantly reminded them of their sins, rather giving hope and encouragement using 'Captain Maconnochie's Mark System' awarding marks for good conduct and deducting them for bad.  The ladies were taught practical skills such as sewing, laundering and cooking as well as lessons in reading and writing and more creative tasks such as singing and keeping a flower garden.  The ultimate goal was after one year for the graduates to emigrate for a new life in the colonies. Urania Cottage was open for 12 years, and during that time allowed 30 women to emigrate with good reports and have a chance at a better life.

Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts c.1840
Co founder of Urania Cottage and first patron of the British Goat Society 

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