Charles Dickens, that grand old poet of the wretched and wonderful human condition, was born 200 years ago today: on February 7, 1812.
Charles Dickens spent the rough years of his childhood living in the Camden Town section of London. That happens to be the same “drug-ridden mishmash of hard-drinking pubs, tattoo parlors [and] cheap food stalls” where singer Amy Winehouse lived and died.
In Dickens’ day it sounds not so different. At age 12, the lad was put to work in a bootblack factory, walking “four miles to and from Camden Town” every day. On Sundays he could visit his unhappy father in the debtor’s prison at Marshalsea. The squalor and hopelessness he saw and lived there he later poured into works like Oliver Twist.
Camden didn’t change much over the years, it seems, though its rock ‘n roll reputation has at times turned “sketchy” into “arty.” A monster fire in 2008 prompted Winehouse’s shout that “Camden Town ain’t burning down!” after she won five Grammys a few days later. She was 24, and began burning down herself not long after.
Charles Dickens turned 24 in 1836, the year his collection Sketches by Boz appeared. It was his first hit. The next year he began writing Oliver Twist and he was off and running. Like Winehouse, Dickens had his personal demons, but he managed to put them to work for almost 35 years:
Dickens was possessed by a kind of demonic energy, which he channelled into a frenzy of literary activity — there were the vast novels, of course, like Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend; but also essays, short stories, journalism, a voluminous correspondence; he also found the time (how?) to run several magazines and launch a newspaper — but it could also be turned against his family. Dickens had a cruel streak, and behaved ruthlessly to his wife, who bore him 10 children.
Whew. Camden Town was also the sometime home of troubled poet Dylan Thomas. There must be something in the water.
Here’s one view of the tourist markets of modern-day Camden Town:
And here’s a more polite view from a formal Charles Dickens tour, which ends at the Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street in Camden:
Happy 200th birthday, Mr. Dickens!