Abandoned children and orphans are everywhere in the work of Charles Dickens, a reflection of the the child abuse and exploitation he saw in the pre-Victorian and Victorian England his work. His own, and the general sense abandonment and bertrayal of need not be literal to wound deeply and permanently. Dickens appeared frenetic and obsessed by the fear of poverty and debt all his life and this anxiety and a habit of over-working likely contributed to his death at age fifty-eight.
”Dickens’s childhood was a sorry mixture of the fondly remembered and the wholly detested. The Dickens family was both large and almost always hard-pressed…. In early February, only a few days after his twelfth birthday, young Charles was sent to work pasting labels on bottles at a tumbledown, rat-overrun shoe polish factory on the Thames. Pay was six shillings a week, hours 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. “It is wonderful to me,” he would later write of this catastrophe, “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.”…But worse was to come when, on February 20, John Dickens was arrested for debt, and soon after the entire family (except for Charles and his older sister Fanny, who was studying at the Royal Academy of Music) joined him in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. Each evening, young Charles returned alone to his lodgings in Camden Town, a three-mile walk from Warren’s Blacking factory. These cruel turns of fate–his humiliating enslavement to menial labor and his father’s imprisonment and disgrace–would haunt Dickens for the remainder of his life.”
John Dickens had spent the first three nights of his detention in a sponging house, a detention house for debtors, where Charles had visited him and discovered him crying. Charles had cried too; and for the whole of that weekend, as he ran about London carrying messages and trying vainly to raise the forty pounds that would have secured his father’s release, he found difficulty inkeeping the tears out of his eyes. On Monday Charles went with his father to the Marshalsea, ”an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back…environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at the top.”
At the prison gates John Dickens , in a characteristic comment of extravagant self-pity, said that the sun had now set on him forever; and Charles, believing that it might be true, thought that his own heart was really broken. Feeling more lonely than ever now, he worked at Warren’s in utter misery. In the evenings after work he went to visit his father, who met him in the lodge and took him up the stone steps to his little room on the top floor but one. They sat down together, and his father wept as he told his son to take warning from his sad and bitter fate.
One evening he was sent upstairs to borrow a knife and fork from a Captain Porter, who lived in the attic, and he remembered thinking as he stood nervously in the doorway that he would not like to borrow Captain Porter’s comb. There were four people in the room, the shabby captain with his uncut beard, and his ”old, old, brown great-coat, with no other coat below it. ,” two washed out looking girls with rumpled hair, and a very dirty woman who, Charles knew instinctively, ”was not married to Captain P.”
This glimpse of Captain Porter’s room, with its disheveled inmates, a bed rolled up in the corner, and a row of plates and pots on the shelf, would be used as a scene in ”David Copperfield” . Indeed, the crying man downstairs seems already himself designed to form the model of William Dorrit, the ”father of the Marshalsea” and for twenty-three years a prisoner there. The resemblence between the two men is unmistakeable. William Dorrit’s social pretenses, his ornately verbose style, his nervous habbit of fluttering his fingers in front of his lips when he first enters the prison, and the way in which, during the later years of his incarcerastion, he sits in his chair with a ”wonderful air of benignity and patronage,” are all drawn closely from life.
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