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Dickens at 200: 1812–2012

An exhibition in Special Collections

curated by
Jaime Margalotti

Children & Childhood

Many of Dickens’s books are concerned with the plight of the poor, particularly children. It was only after Dickens’s death that his friend and biographer John Forster revealed the difficulties Dickens faced during his own youth, including debtor’s prison and child labor.

“Oliver Asking for More” by George Cruikshank. Special authorized edition of the complete works of Charles Dickens: with all the original illustrations; and eighteen character sketches by Frederick Barnard. London: Cassell & Company, Ltd., [1900?].

Sample copy for bookselling.

Dickens’s first novel after his breakthrough Pickwick Papers, was the significantly more somber Oliver Twist (1837–1839). The story follows the journey of the orphaned Oliver from workhouse to life with a band of thieves, and, eventually, to a loving home. Part of Dickens’s inspiration for the book was the New Poor Law of 1834. Instead of individual parishes caring for their poor, those needing assistance were sent to regional workhouses where they were treated more like prisoners and often died through malnutrition. This is the very situation which prompts Oliver to request, on behalf of the group of starving orphans, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

“Newgate” London in miniature: with engravings of its public buildings and antiquities / from drawings by Alfred Mills. London : Printed for Darton, Harvey, & Darton ... and J. Harris .... 1814.

This miniature book, intended for children, describes London’s major landmarks. For the entry on Newgate prison it takes a typically didactic view, positioning poverty as a result of moral failings. It warns: “Submit to the law, to behave properly, and to keep out of dept. Those people are not wicked all at once; they grow so by degrees, and mostly begin by telling falsehoods.”

Charles Dickens.

Little Dorrit. With illustrations by H.K. Browne. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1857.

Several of Dickens’s novels touch on the experience of debtor’s prison, but it is most central in Little Dorrit. Amy Dorrit’s father has been imprisoned in Marshalsea for debt for so many years that she and her two siblings have virtually grown up in the prison. In 1824, Charles Dickens father, John, was imprisoned in Marshalsea for debt. Charles was sent to live with a family friend, but the 12–year–old was forced to work 10 hours a day at a blacking warehouse where he pasted labels onto jars of the boot polish. Even when a small inheritance allowed the rest of the family to leave debtor’s prison, only Charles’ father’s embarrassment at the position of his son overrode his mother’s desire to keep him working and led to his removal from the warehouse.

“Little Charles Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse” Charles Dickens: Some Notes on His Life and Writings. With eight portraits, thirty-seven illustrations and facsimiles of his handwriting and autographs. London: Chapman and Hall, [1902].

Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin.

A Child’s Journey with Dickens. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912.

Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin (1856–1923) is best remembered for the children’s novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Wiggin was a writer and advocate for children, involved in the formation of kindergartens and the training of their teachers. In this short recollection, Wiggin recounts a surprise meeting with Dickens during his American reading tour (1867–1868). The young Wiggin engages him in conversation whilst on a train, telling the author how much she and her family enjoy his books and getting him to admit that David Copperfield is his personal favorite. Such family reading time would have exposed even children too young to read to Dickens and his works.

Charles Dickens.

The Personal History of David Copperfield. With illustrations by H.K. Browne. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1850.

Although his audience at the time would not have known, David Copperfield was one of Dickens’s most autobiographic novels, subjecting young David to work in a factory, a stint in a cruel boarding school, time spent as a parliamentary reporter, and, ultimately, success as a writer. Dickens even sends Wilkins Micawber, the character he based on his own father, to debtor’s prison for a time. Dickens’s intimate connection to the novel is more keenly felt as it is written in David’s own voice, the first time Dickens structured a work this way.

Charles Dickens.

Little Folk’s Stories from Dickens: the Most Charming Portrayals of Child–Character from the Immortal Works of Charles Dickens. retold in simple language by his granddaughter and others. [S.l. : s.n.], [1898].

Sample page from a salesman’s sample book.

Often featuring resourceful young people, Dickens’s stories appealed to children. In addition to being read to, children also had access to streamlined version of Dickens stories which they could read themselves.

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