Where and how did Charles Dickens learn to write like he did?
Dickens is acknowledged to be one of the greatest writers in the English language, and he was certainly the most popular author of the 19th and early 20th centuries. So how did he learn to speak with so many different and distinctive voices, to build and sustain consistent characters, to set believable scenes in both rural and urban areas, and to weave plots together?
Part of the answer, of course, lies in his own talent and determination. He knew from fairly early in life that he wanted to be a writer and that he wanted to work with words in some form. He knew that being a writer was hard, physical labor, and he didn’t shrink from it. But those factors don’t give us the complete answer.
A big part of our understanding of Charles Dickens the writer comes from the fact that, as a very young man, Dickens was a journalist. A working, day-in-day-out journalist. Writing constantly. Interviewing all sorts of people. Traveling around the country. Observing people in various venues and situation. Writing about them accurately. Meeting daily deadlines.
And then waking up the next day and doing it all over again.
Before he had the opportunity to get into journalism, Dickens had thought seriously about going into the theater and had showed some talent as a mimic. In later life, Dickens was a highly popular lecturer who took on the voices of many of his characters, so the talent was definitely there. But circumstances prevented him from pursuing the theater career before other opportunities to earn money — which he desperately needed to do — presented themselves. Dickens worked for a time as a law clerk, but he found the work repetitive and boring.
During his law clerk days, however, he did learn one very valuable skill: shorthand. Dickens also saw the inner workings of the British legal system, something that would show up many times in his later works of fiction. He was also writing, submitting reports on court proceedings. Most importantly, Dickens was growing a confidence in his ability that would serve him well throughout his career. He began submitting stories to various magazine that gained him publication credit but little money.
In 1829, Dickens got a job as a freelance reporter for Doctors’ Commons with the responsibility of reporting on sessions of Parliament. The House was undertaking some mighty debates at the time with regard to the slave trade, Catholic emancipation, and how society would deal with poor people. Dickens found these debates, and some of the people in Parliament, fascinating, and he developed an enthusiasm for the work. In 1831, he started reporting for The Mirror of Parliament, and from 1832 to 1834, he reporter for The True Son.
Each of these positions was a steppingstone to the next and eventually to a regular reporting job in 1834 for The Morning Chronicle. Among Parliamentary reporters, Dickens was considered one of the best — “universally considered the rapidest and most accurate shorthand reporter in the gallery,” according to one colleague. He was often consulted by other reporters when a matter of detail or accuracy needed clarification.
The Morning Chronicle job gave him a chance to travel around England in addition to covering Parliament itself. He covered election campaigns, speeches, and rallies. He attend banquets and dinners, often rushing back to London and writing while traveling. It was the life for a young, energetic young man, and Dickens was showing himself to be up to the task.
Along the way, Dickens picked up the pen name of Boz for the fictional “sketches” that he was submitting that were outside of his Parliamentary reporting. A collection of the Sketches by Boz was published in 1836 to good reviews and popular acclaim. This led publishers Chapman and Hall to offer Dickens the opportunity to write text for illustrations about London life by Robert Seymour. Dickens accepted but soon made it clear that the illustrations would accompany his text, not the other way around. That text, published in monthly episodes, eventually formed what became Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers.
At first, the episodes were not all that popular, but the fourth installment contained a Cockney bootblack named Sam Weller, a character that showed Dickens’ comic genius and that became hugely popular with the public. The final installment sold more than 40,000. Nothing like that had ever happened in publishing before.
Dickens learned the writing trade as a reporter, but it left him with little love for Parliament itself. In David Copperfield, Dickens offered what could have been a partial review of his own Parliamentary reporting career:
I have tamed that savage stenographic mystery. I make a respectable income by it. I am in high repute for my accomplishment in all pertaining to the art, and am joined with eleven others in reporting the debates in Parliament for a Morning Newspaper. Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify. I wallow in words. Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape. I am sufficiently behind the scenes to know the worth of political life. I am quite an Infidel about it, and shall never be converted. David Copperfield, chapter 53.
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