Dickens at 200

A life in letters.

Today, it is 200 years since Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Portsea to John and Elizabeth Dickens. The second of their eight children, Charles would go on to become not merely a novelist but the paradigmatic Victorian man of letters - journalist, essayist and prolific correspondent as well as novelistof his day.

As Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, author of Becoming Dickens, noted in an essay in the New Statesman in October, Dickens allows himself cameo roles in his novels, but without their turning into autobiography:

The best-known example is David Copperfield, whose initials reflect Dickens's in reverse, like somebody looking into a mirror, and who, over the course of the novel, encounters a mad second-hand clothes dealer named Charley, an ineffectual flute-playing schoolteacher, also named Charley, and Mr Dick, who is writing a "memorial" of Charles I. Similarly, A Tale of Two Cities revolves around physical doubles whom Dickens originally wanted to call Charles Darnay and Dick Carton, so that even their initials would reflect each other.

Dickens's "relationship" with his characters was also noted by Dostoevsky, as A N Wilson observed in a joint review for the NS of Douglas-Fairhurst's book and Claire Tomalin's biography:

"The person the writer sees most of is himself," the Russian wrote. "There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters . . ."

The Dickens bicentenary has garnered truly international attention. Here are just a few of the events and publications commemorating the man and his accomplishments:

  • The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall visit the Charles Dickens Museum and attend wreath laying Ceremony at Westminster Abbey which features readings from Ralph Fiennes & Claire Tomalin
  • The British Council's 24 hour Global Dickens Read-a-thon will take place in 24 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe beginning in Australia with a reading from Dombey and Son.
  • The BFI Southbank hosts the London leg of the Global Dickens Read-a-thon.
  • Dickens in London, an innovative cross-platform project, transmitted on Radio 4 and online throughout the week of the bicentenary

Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers will be publishing The Library of a Dickensian, a collection of Dickens material that will be offered for sale in this bicentennial year. Items include first editions of Dickens's novels, letters, manuscripts and portraits of the novelist. The full catalogue can be viewed online here.

Charles Dickens - A life in letters

1812 Born to John and Elizabeth Dickens
1827 Works as the clerk to an attorney
1834 Begins using the pseudonym "Boz"
1836 The first chapters of The Pickwick Papers are published. Marries Catherine Hogarth
1837 The first of his ten children, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, is born
1839 His daughter, Kate, is born
1842 Charles and Catherine travel to America
1846 The Dickens family travels to Switzerland
1853 Dickens gives his first public reading
1856 Dickens works with Wilkie Collins on The Frozen Deep
1857 Hans Christian Anderson is entertained at Gad's Hill Place, Dickens's country home in Kent
1858 Dickens separates from Catherine
1869 Dickens discontinues public readings. Begins writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood
1870 Dickens gives his final public reading, and dies at Gad's Hill Place on 9 June

The novels

The Pickwick Papers (1836)

Oliver Twist (1837)

Nicholas Nickleby (1838)

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840)

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Martin Chuzzlewit (1843)

Dombey and Son (1846)

David Copperfield (1849)

Bleak House (1852)

Hard Times (1854)

Little Dorrit (1855)

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Great Expectations (1860)

Our Mutual Friend (1864)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

Show Hide image

Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496