How Charles Dickens drew novel inspiration from Camden

When Charles Dickens settled down to write David Copperfield, he drew his inspiration from close to his Camden home.

His father John was the pitiful muse for the profligate Wilkins Micawber, as both struggled under the burden of debt, while the home of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol was thought to be inspired by a house near his home in Bayham Street, Camden Town.

These and other insights are among the tales told in a newly illustrated version of John Forster’s 19th century biography of Charles Dickens, which is being launched to coincide with the author’s bicentenary.

“When he was writing those novels he was drawing on his own experience,” explains Dr Holly Furneaux, the book’s editor.

“The book tells us things about Charles Dickens the public didn’t before know, like his work posting labels onto shoe polish at a blacking factory – something nobody knew about during his lifetime. It was a total revelation.

“Everyone thought he was form a prosperous middleclass background. Forster’s book tells them his dad struggled with debt and that Dickens despaired that he would ever become a gentleman.

“His years in Camden were probably the most difficult of his life.”

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The 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth today (Tuesday, February 7) will no doubt prompt aficionados to dig out copies of their favourite Dickens’ novels.

But as this abridged biography highlights, Dickens was a pioneer of serialising his work in the cheap, popular press, allowing him to reach a far wider audience than many of his literary contemporaries.

“It captures the frenetic activity of his life,” said Dr Furneaux, a lecturer at the University of Leicester.

But popularity came at a cost, and the book includes cautionary tales of hack writers who pilfered extracts from Oliver Twist and passed it off as their own.

Despite these downfalls, promoting popular reading in an age when literacy was growing but far from universal, remained central to Dickens’ philosophy.

Dr Furneaux said: “He wanted to reach a cross class audience. I think that ties in with his broad politics. He was somebody who was vey interested in speaking to those with no voice.

“He was making sense of his personal convictions.

“It also had something to do with his personal craving for that public affection. He had a very emotional engagement with his readers.”

The Life of Charles Dickens was launched at the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, Camden Town, yesterday (Monday, February 6).