Generally recognised as one of the greatest authors of all time, Charles Dickens was inspired by real life. The young Dickens witnessed poverty and social injustice at first hand on the streets of London.
The second centenary of Dickens’ birth was celebrated in February 2012 with many events in London and worldwide. The BBC commissioned a new adaptation of “Great Expectations”.
A new book, “Dickens and the Workhouse” by Ruth Richardson, has revealed how in his greatest works, Dickens was inspired by real life.
Research carried out by Richardson indicates that there was a William Sykes who was a trader in the East Marylebone Street where Dickens spent his teen years. Sykes could have been the model for the thuggish Bill Sykes in “Oliver Twist”.
Richardson also believes that Scrooge and Marley, from “A Christmas Carol”, were characters inspired by Dickens’ neighbours. A sculptor who lived nearby was apparently mocked as being a miser, while within yards of Dickens’ Norfolk Street home the premises of two traders who were blessed with the names, Goodge and Marney, was situated.
Richardson also claims that a former hospital threatened with demolition is the inspiration for the workhouse in Dickens’ novel, “Oliver Twist”. Another example of how Dickens was inspired by real life.
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812 but had seventeen addresses in his first twenty one years. At the age of twelve he had to leave school and work in a boot blacking factory near present day Charing Cross railway station, in order to support his mother and siblings while his father was incarcerated in Marshalsea debtors’ prison.
At that time in his life, young Charles stayed with Elizabeth Roylance, a family friend, who appeared “with a few alterations and embellishments” as Mrs Pipchin in “Dombey and Son”, one of many characters demonstrating how Dickens was inspired by real life.
At the age of fifteen Dickens became a junior clerk with attorneys Ellis and Blackmore of Holborn Court, Gray’s Inn. He learned shorthand in his spare time then became a freelance reporter, covering civil court proceedings at the Doctors’ Commons.
During this time Dickens would have been exposed to many sorry tales of how the poor would be forced to go to law; stories that would later surface in his novels, chronicling the injustices of the legal system towards the poor and disadvantaged.
Later, he would become a political journalist, reporting on parliamentary debate as well as covering elections across the country. Dickens’ experiences in witnessing the hustings would serve him well when his first novel, “The Pickwick Papers”, was serialised in March 1836.
How much Charles Dickens was inspired by real life can be demonstrated following his surviving a train crash in which many passengers were killed or severely injured. He used his experience from the crash to write a short ghost story, “The Signal Man”, in which the central character has a premonition of his own death in a train crash.
This story, in turn, was based on the real life Clayton Tunnel disaster, north of Brighton in 1861.
An interesting anecdote on which to finish shows that not only was Dickens influenced by real life; his works, in turn, influenced others.
In his novel, “Barnaby Rudge”, Dickens features a raven, which was in fact based on his own pet bird, named Grip. The American poet, Edgar Allan Poe, immortalised Grip in his own poem, “The Raven”.