This is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, who is widely considered the greatest English novelist. When it was 2009, I saw TV specials and various articles to do with a similar moment for Charles Darwin. Not enough, in my opinion, has been written or screened this year about Dickens. A master of evocative and lyrical prose. A man of the people and for the people. Now come on, let's do him justice! Go to your wardrobe and put on the oldest, holiest jumper, cardigan or vest you can find. Turn off the heater or the air-conditioning. Put the kettle on and come with me. Down, down through the mean streets of London in 1824. Feel the acrid smog attack your lungs, as your worn shoes scuff along the cobbled streets. Past the rows of hovels, with their bare floorboards and draughty rooms. Until you reach the last house on the left-hand side of the way by Old Hungerford Stairs, known as Warren's Blacking Warehouse. A crazy tumbledown old house, abutting the course on the river and literally overrun with rats. Welcome to Charles' first age 12 'Year of Revolution'. My theory called 'Life Cycles' charts real events that happens every 12 years in the lives of us all. However those with the biggest public profiles are a lot easier to research and verify. This is not a system of belief. I'm not asking you to trust me on this. I only deal in well-established facts.
When Dickens was 12, his father John was put into a debtors prison in Southwark and young Charles was boarded with an impoverished family friend in Camden Town, and had to work 10 hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. Although his father was released after a couple of months because of a bequest, his mother did not immediately release him from Warren's, although he did eventually go on to Wellington House Academy in North London. This experience changed him forever and fundamentally shaped him in several ways. He came to resent his parents for what happened to him and developed a burning drive to make sure this was never his fate. He also developed a righteous anger at how working class people lived. Many of the people of this time became characters in his most famous novels. Not what happens to most of us, thank God. However it undoubtedly meets the criterion of the ushering in of a new age/direction in his first 'Year of Revolution'.
Now the years have simply rushed by to 1836 and Dickens is now a young, ambitious 24 year old man, who wants to go places in a hurry. There was much going on in his life at this time, which could be thought of as a new age/direction. He had become a political journalist, who reported on parliamentary debate and travelled the country to cover election campaigns. His journalism formed the basis of his first collection of pieces called 'Skethches By Boz' and it was published in 1836. The success of these led to a proposal by Chapman and Hall, to supply text for Robert Seymour's engraved illustrations in a monthly journal. Control of the project was originally given to Seymour, a respected cartoonist, and he aimed to produce a book of sketches depicting sportsmen. The young writer's job was to provide a few words of text, but Dickens hijacked the job, cutting out almost all the illustrations. During this exact time Seymour shot and killed himself, most probably in despair. In response to accusations by Seymour's widow (who was going to be denied any royalties), Dickens protested that he probably took his life in jealousy, and also points to a history of mental instability, and that "not more than 24 pages were written up till that time". I have read extensively on this and there is little doubt that Dickens managed to completely alter the structure of the project and this minimalised Seymour's contribution.
A recent news report, almost 170 years on, claims the evidence that sealed both their fates is to be auctioned off for around $1million, in a collection of Victorian serialised novels, put together over 35 years by US lawyer Robert H. Jackson. It confirms, not what Dickens argued, but instead what he wanted to be kept from the public. Why do I dwell on this relatively minor moment in Dickens' star-studded career? Well that project, hijacked by Dickens, became 'The Pickwick Papers' and that is what made his name. It would seem his over-arching ambition had caused him to pay a heavy price for fame. He also married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of his employer George Hogarth, the editor of the Evening Chronicle, in this same year. His social standing was improved and he now had a solid platform to begin a prodigious output of novels. In fact, he began work on Oliver Twist in the same year. Do I need to tell you anymore about this first adult 'Year of Revolution'. Did it echo some of the bitter-sweetness of his age 12 'Year of Revolution'? There's probably an essay in this essay.
Now let's turn the clock to 1848. Much has happened to Charles. He now has a huge reputation for a string of evocative novels, depicting the characters and the mores of his time. He had just returned to London, following an extensive tour of Europe, and he now had a brood of six children and an unhappy marriage. However otherwise, he was very much a man of substance and life was good. Now those of you who know me, would have often read the phrase, that for many people their age 36, mid-life 'Year of Revolution', is a very important one and amounts to what I term a 'bursting on the scene' moment. We know that for Dickens this had already happened at his age 24 'Year of Revolution' with 'The Pickwick Papers'. So what was his new age/direction all about in this somewhat quieter year? Well let's knock on his front door together and go inside to find out, shall we?
During this year Dickens' elder sister Frances (Fanny) became sick and died a slow and painful death from consumption. She found that she could no longer keep up her work as a music teacher, and at Dickens' insistence, had come to live closer to his house in London. Charles was not the only gifted person in his family. Fanny was a child prodigy, who studied under Beethoven's pupil, and taught at the Royal Academy. He grew up in her shadow in terms of talent, and though a little jealous, nonetheless he loved her dearly. He wrote an emotional letter, expressing his distress, after visiting her for the last time, on her deathbed. They talked together about their religious views in this year and it was reported Charles went to a different church every Sunday, in an energetic quest for "true Christianity". This personal loss caused Charles to take an introspective turn and start thinking of his childhood. He went on an extended walking tour with his friends, to visit all the places of his upbringing. This would, no doubt, have included Warren's. From this journey was wrought his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, which he also commenced writing in this year. His own childhood, laid bare in slight disguise, was probably cathartic for him at this time. Again his 'Year of Revolution' was bitter-sweet, but much lay ahead and many great works were still unwritten.
Now we come to a later phase in his life. It's 1860 and Charles is beginning to show signs af aging and a lack of robust health. His lifelong habit of smoking has contributed, along with a series of public readings of his works, in response to his growing fame, beginning in 1858. Between 1858 and 1859, he made 129 appearances in 49 different towns, in England, Scotland and Ireland. His personal life is a bit 'schizophrenic' as well. He went strongly against Victorian convention, by separating from Catherine, although divorce was unthinkable for someone as famous as he was. This came after she discovered jewelery bought for his teenage mistress, Ellen Ternan. Catherine left with only one, of her then nine children, and her sister Georgina remained at Dickens' home to look after the rest. Ternan was set up in a house in London and travelled with Dickens when he went abroad. They had to be incredibly discreet to avoid a public scandal. It was a full-blown mid-life crisis by every definition. Oh yes, one more necessary building block, before I take you on to 1860 and that was Dickens' home at Gad's Hill. Back, way back in fact in 1821, a nine year old Charles walked with his father past Gad's Hill Place in Kent and he was told that if he worked hard, one day he could own such a home. Well, 35 years later that had come to pass, and we are now going to return there. What was his age 48 'Year of Revolution' about and why did it echo so strongly with every other bitter-sweet Revolution in his life?
It's a beautiful summer's day with a dazzling blue sky on Sept. 3rd, 1860 at Gad's Hill. But don't just sit there, there's work to be done! Roll up your sleeves and grab a basket of Dickens' letters and take them to the field behind the house, where a merry bonfire is blazing away. By day's end Dickens had managed to systematically destroy all his personal correspondence, including letters to other leading literary figures. It would be small wonder that he didn't want the press to get hold of any details of his relationship with Ellen Ternan, but he also wished to hide his shame at his father's bankruptcy, his work in the blacking factory and anything that might re-ignite interest in the suicide of Robert Seymour. In short, he wanted to try and free himself of the demons of his past. Because Ternan also burned her correspondence, their relationship became even more veiled. All this at the same time as his best-selling novel 'A Tale of Two Cities' had just been released and would eventually go on to sell 200 million copies. So "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" in more ways than one. This was the essence of his age 48 'Year of Revolution', and by implication, the essence of all his previous 'Years of Revolution'.
'Life Cycles', being the only true cycle theory of life, radically contends that if we examine all the 'Years of Revolution' in a person's life, it reveals a broad underlying theme that runs through that person's whole life and, in large part, defines who they are. Can you see for yourselves how this worked for Dickens? Every 'Year of Revolution' in his life was about the same general theme. His genius emerged through a series of personal ordeals and indiscretions, each of which in their own different ways, was a necessary step. If he had not gone to Warrens, he would never have experienced the working classes first hand and brought them to life in his novels. He would not have tried to obliterate it from his later life. If he had not seized his opportunity to hijack Seymour's project, he would never have had the success he did with 'The Pickwick Papers'. He would not have had to live with the spectre of Seymour's widow pouring scorn upon him. Were it not for the untimely death of his favourite sister Fanny, he would not have dwelt upon his own childhood to create David Copperfield. If it was not for fear of exposure and ridicule, he would never have destroyed his correspondence at the height of his success. Each Revolution in his life was based on the same bitter-sweet theme. For him, the demons never quite did go away.
All the events I have charted for you in the life of the great Charles Dickens are both well-known and were definite turning points in his life and career. Consider my thin framework of just every twelve years. Consider, as always, that I didn't know exactly what I'd find. In the words of William Shakespeare :- "Into nature's infinite book of secrets, a little I have read". To the bard I offer this rejoinder :- "With my discovery of 'Life Cycles', I have been permitted the opportunity to read from a precious few more pages and what I find is so wondrous, so passing strange, that I am in awe of it. I do not pretend to understand its reasons for being. I only know that it rests on a solid foundation of biographical facts."