You Don’t Know Dickens

7 lesser-known facts that may make you see the beloved author and philanthropist of the Victorian era in a new light…

by Michelle Ossa

10

1. He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his time at Warren’s Shoeblacking Factory and Warehouse

At the age of 12 Charles Dickens suffers a life-changing event that forever marks his life. His father, John Dickens, was arrested for debt, and sent to Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison in London. The able-bodied, older male Charles was considered old enough to work and earn some wages. For this reason he is forced out of school and sent to Warren’s Shoeblacking;  a place fully-described in the semi-biographical novel Oliver Twist. Similarly, Charles works under grueling and cruel conditions that predate any workers’ rights movement.

Moved by these sad events Dickens used his talent to publish in mass and expose these realities. Through literature, he gave a voice to orphans, destitute children and mistreated workers using them as motifs that recur in his body of work.  According to Dickens’s most reliable biographer, John Forster, the author had “an attraction of repulsion” that rendered him more effective when dealing with topics that directly describe images of his sad childhood.  Therefore, this repetition of misery and pain during childhood as a central theme denote a need to continuously cope with the traumas of childhood.

Illustration Depicting Oliver Twist Asking for More Food by J. Mahoney

2. He was likely manic depressive

According to his own letters, Dickens suffered consistent bouts of “depression” that would start when beginning to write a new work, and would then developing into a “mania” that powered him to complete them.  It was a “balance” between deep, debilitating sadness followed by periods of acute impulsivity.  According to Hershman and Lieb in the book Manic Depression and Creativity  (1998), Dickens’s explosive creativity was a result of the maniac state that makes sufferers of bipolar disorder feel indestructible (p. 106).  An example of Dickens’s mania is what is known as the “Dickens Summers”. According to Manic Depression and Creativity Dickens would rent a spacious summer home and have sumptuous parties for large quantities of people on a daily basis. Dedicated to the very last detail both at home and work, Dickens would also spend hours insisting on completing massive amounts of work until the last word was written.

The book explains how bipolar disorder renders those who suffer from it extremely oblivious of the wants and needs of others. The need to be the center of all attention, and the extreme shift in mood certainly profile Dickens as bipolar.

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