Things you may not know about Charles Dickens

I’ve updated an older post in honor of Dickens’ Birthday.


Charles Dickens was born on this day in 1812. Though his work is still highly praised, his personal life is ignored. While we shouldn’t judge a man’s work by his personal life, we must admit biography does sometimes bleed into writing. Let’s look at the complex man who shaped our modern view of Victorian England.

As with many beloved men in history, Dickens had a dark side. He was a very strict father, and left his wife because she had lost all “warmth and tenderness”. Yeah, Chuck, you try being witty and sexy after having 10 children and being left home with them. Dickens left his wife for a young actress who in turn left him when he was too old to be much fun. Karma baby!

I offer you:

“Things may not know about Charles Dickens”

The name “Dickens” was a curse, possibly invented by Shakespeare.

Instead of saying, “What the devil?” as a profanity, people exclaimed, “What the dickens?” The first usage of that word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

He had first had experience with debtor prisons.

His father was imprisoned for debt and 12-year-old Dickens was sent to work in a boot factory to help support the family. This episode may have formed his worldview and colored everything he accomplished, though he never told the story except obliquely through his fiction. His book Hard Times was thought to be a hardline critique of Victorian society’s view of education and poverty.

He started writing at a young age.

Dickens first published fiction was A Dinner at Poplar Walk, published in Monthly Magazine. He wrote it at the age of 21 while working as a reporter at The Morning Chronicle.

He thought highly of himself but his children? Not so much.

Dickens gave himself a number of different nicknames, including “The Sparkler of Albion”, “Revolver” and “The Inimitable.” He also gave his children nicknames including “Chickenstalker” and “Plorn.”

Dickens kept a pet raven named Grip, which he had stuffed when it died in 1841.

He may have saved multiple lives of friends and strangers after a train crash.

According to the New York Times, Dickens was on a train that derailed over a bridge, in the only first-class carriage that didn’t plummet into a river. He not only found the key that freed his friends, he went to the carriages below and gave water and brandy to those who needed it. Then, the ailing 53-year-old “climbed back into the dangling carriage and retrieved from the pocket of his coat the installment of Our Mutual Friend that he had just completed and was taking to his publishers. The rescue of his fellow passengers and manuscript was kept quiet for many years. Why? Because he was traveling with his mistress the actress Ellen Ternan.

He helped create a home for “fallen women.”

In an era in which women had few options to support themselves and their families, prostitution was a common crime, but one that was severely punished. After an appeal from heiress Angela Coutts, he helped create “Urania House” where former prostitutes could learn to read and write, as well keep house.

Dickens interviewed potential candidates personally after looking in prisons and workhouses for them. He even established the house rules. Approximately 100 women “graduated” from Urania House.


But what was he really hiding?

Dickens had a secret door built in his study which was designed like a bookcase filled with fake books rumored to include titles like Noah’s Arkitecture and a nine-volume set titled Cat’s Lives.

Dickens would have loved Stephen King.

Fascinated by all things paranormal, Dickens belonged to London’s famous Ghost Club, an organization that investigates “ghosts and “hauntings” . His passion for the uncanny began in his teens, when he pored over tales of phantoms, murder and cannibalism.

His last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, remains a mystery.

Dickens had written half of a novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, before he died of a stroke in 1870. Edwin Drood was a young man engaged to Rosa Bud, who is also the object of his uncle John Jasper’s affections, as well as Neville Landless, a young man from Ceylon. After he and Rosa break their engagement, Drood disappears.

Dickens left no clues behind as to who killed his protagonist, although many suspect his jealous uncle. There have been multiple radio, television, and theater reworkings of the story, each with different endings.

In 1873, a young Vermont printer, Thomas James, published a version that he claimed had been literally ‘ghost-written’ by him channeling Dickens’ spirit. A sensation was created, with several critics, including Arthur Conan Doyle, a spiritualist himself, praising this version, calling it similar in style to Dickens’ work and for several decades the ‘James version’ of Edwin Drood was common in America.

And now you know!

Just for fun.

In the age of digital interaction, what counts as friendship?


While talking to my assistant yesterday I mentioned my love of podcasts. Without thinking I said, “I have two friends who host a thought provoking podcast on Sunday afternoons”. As soon as the words fell out of my mouth, I started to question my use of the term “friend”. I started to wonder, “are they my friends or are they acquaintances”? Why did I choose that word, and why was it so easy to think of them as friends even though we’ve never met face to face? In the age of superficial connections via social media, who is it that we can truly call our friend and who, an acquaintance?

Merriam Webster defines an acquaintance as:  Someone who is known but who is not a close friend The state of knowing someone in a personal or social way : the state of knowing someone as an acquaintance

This definition doesn’t seem to be at all helpful. If you know someone in a personal way, wouldn’t that person be your friend, or someone, because you personally know what she or he is like, is someone to avoid? We need a better definition.

Thanks to Facebook, we have come to loosely throw the term “friend” around when speaking about someone we’ve had even the slightest contact with. Before FB installed its Page feature, celebrities and authors looking to engage with their fans had to become “Friends” with them. Back in 2012 I became “friends” with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and even had a one on one conversation with him, but in no way did that count as friendship. So what does?

Who is the friend and who is the acquaintance?

Take these two people as examples: one is someone with whom I am in almost daily contact with, even if it’s a quick note on her FB wall. We’ve been in contact for almost 9 years. In those 9 years we’ve managed an online book club together, wrote long personal e-mails (I owe her one) and have exchanged Christmas gifts. I can still recall the thrill of picking out books for her daughter’s 6th birthday. But for all of that, we’ve never met face to face. The other is someone that I went to school with. Someone I hung out with middle school (somewhere in my collection of pictures is one of us dancing at my 13th birthday party). Of course we lost contact after high school and it wasn’t until the invention of FB did we reconnect. I have no idea what his wife’s name is, or how long they’ve been married. Once in a while we post a comment on each other’s wall, and give the obligatory birthday greeting. Yet despite the fact that he and I went to school together and at one time had a personal relationship, I’d be hard pressed to say we are truly friends. He has become an acquaintance, while my online friend and I share a very close personal relationship.

The above example seems obvious, we are learning in large part thanks to the Internet, that real friendships can develop even if distance keeps us apart. But that doesn’t answer my original question, given that we can now connect with authors, podcasters, bloggers etc. Who is it that we can truly call our friend and who an acquaintance?  Have we’ve been conditioned to use this term as a catch all for our daily social interactions? What is the line between friendship and a casual acquaintance? Surly not everyone we interact with are true friends.

That last question was key to my understanding of why I called the two above mentioned podcasters my friends. I’ve subconsciously formed an idea of whom I call friend. We all have I’m sure. I even suspect we all have list of what makes up a friendship or at least a vague idea of such a list.

The more I pondered the term “friend” and how I use it, the more important this list seemed to be. So I sat down and wrote one out in order to answer my question and understand why I called two guys I’ve never met, friends. This is how I determine whom I feel comfortable calling friend. I was a little hesitant to share it, as I am sure there will be those reading it that don’t agree or may feel uncomfortable with my idea of friendship. Don’t worry, most of you will never be asked to help me move or get that frantic 2am call.

I once had a boyfriend tell me my internet relationships were not real. He's gone, but my online friends remain.
I once had a boyfriend tell me my internet relationships were not real. He’s gone, but my online friends remain.

You might be Sari’s friend, even though we’ve never met if:

We’ve stayed in contact for a long period of time, even if that contact has moved from one form of social media to another. We’ve shared our ups and downs and know as much, if not more, than the people in our daily lives.

You share personal pictures and stories on your FB wall and or blog and we talk about them, and we do this on a regular basis. I know about your family and your achievements and you know about mine. We cheer each other on and give sympathy when needed.

We feel comfortable posting possible unpopular opinions, knowing the other will not be offended because we both value honesty and differing points of view. And we do this quite often.

I am one of the few people that you will get back to right away. Whenever I e-mail or send a quick Tweet, you make sure to respond right away. We may not communicate often but when we do it is never shallow or impersonal.

Our conversations have moved beyond what brought us together in the first place. If we stay on one topic, then we are acquaintances who share similar tastes and worldviews.

In short, those I call friends know and value my opinions, take me for who I am and are comfortable being themselves around me. We share pieces of our lives, sometimes small, and sometimes more than we share with others. We may not be in constant contact, but when we do communicate it is always a good feeling. And that, I believe, is the cornerstone of all friendships, no matter the distance between us.

I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends.
William Shakespeare Richard II

If you have an idea or list of things that you use to determine friendship let us know. All comments are welcome.