Charles John Huffam Darwin Dickens was born in 1812, the second of about 37 children; they were all up to that sort of thing in the Victorian era despite covering legs of mutton on the grounds of public decency.
He had an interesting childhood, the tribe moving from Chatham to Bloomsbury to the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison and to Camden; this provided him with a wealth of characters who subsequently appeared in his books and stories, and also inspired his ‘Origin of Species’, some of them bearing only a passing resemblance to what we currently understand as human. Time spent as a report in law courts introduced him to further humanoids; his speculations as their origins led to works such as ‘The Mudfog Papers’ and ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’.
In 1830, he met his first love, who was a young lady whose parents were so horrified at the prospect of a liaison between the two of them – not least that Dickens had a sister with the blatantly sexual name of ‘Fanny’ – that they sent her to Paris instead. Undaunted, Charles then got off with someone else and had ten children.
He agreed with the broad consensus that natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution, and this can be seen very clearly in the names with which his characters are favoured. Of course, names like ‘Wackford Squeers’ and ‘Abel Magwitch’ and are largely extinct in polite society these days. Anyone who finds themselves saddled with a moniker like ‘Pecksniff’, has heard of the Deed Poll Office and has a tenner to spare can join the stream of hapless Kermits and Lillicraps seeking to become less conspicuous. Thus these whimsical names died out.
Yet there was a sound reason for these monstrous appellations. In the olden days, the word ‘Dickens’ was used as an interjection. Oh yes. Someone in Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ was heard to say “What the Dickens!” So it may be that having grown up with a surname equivalent to ‘Gorblimey’ or ‘Ticklemyarsewithafeather’ coloured young Charles’ attitude to cognomenkind. He also used the name ‘Boz’ which seemed sensible in comparison. That’s how bad it was.
At any rate, his books and stories provided the ideal vehicle for these marvellous characters. A lot of his books were first written in monthly or weekly instalments in journals such as ‘Noddy’s Magical Shoelace’ and ‘Baths and Bathing’; they had cliff-hanger endings every time – which ensured his great success. He went on holiday to the USA and American fans were waiting at the docks, chanting “Is little Nell dead?” It meant that he could judge public ractions and change the plot if needs be – the first recorded instance of interactive readership. His novels also featured little girls who ask little boys to make mud pies, and then tell them how dirty they are. He was a fierce opponent of the rigid class system rampant in Victorian society. By exposing the horrible details of life in working class Britain to people who could actually read, he shamed the Powers that Be into doing something about it, very much like the Daily Mail does nowadays.
Dickens’ influence has survived long past his death. The character of Ebenezer Scrooge still continues to be used in advertising humbugs; Jamie Oliver Twist has now stopped encouraging obese school children to ask for more, and Jiminy Cricket on the hearth is played at Lord’s every year.
Charles Dickens now resides in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey (as of 1870); for a less contemplative experience you can visit the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, which is where he wrote ‘The Pickwick Papers’, Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. It contains lots of manuscripts and proper Dickensian junk.