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Old 05-14-2022, 09:27 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default A Voice for the Voiceless: The Life and Works of Charles Dickens

It’s only in recent times - the last few years - that I’ve really started reading the works of Charles Dickens; well, now I’m finished them in fact. For several years I would read A Christmas Carol for my sister Karen every Christmas - became a sort of tradition with us - and one year, bored with doing the same thing, I rewrote it for her. Prior to that, the only Dickens I had read was Oliver Twist, several times (because Karen likes to hear/read books more than once, unlike me who, once I’ve read a book, seldom if ever revisit it) and had to admit I wasn’t a fan of his style. But a few years back I got his complete novels and we decided to go through them. If nothing else, it would eat up a year or two as we worked through the fifteen finished novels, and as we went along I do have to admit I began to acquire a new respect for the man. Of course, I knew and accepted he was feted as a genius, one of the best English writers - one of the best humanity has ever produced, placed on a level with the great William Shakespeare and with few if any peers other than him, but I just had never really liked his style, which seemed overly descriptive of ordinary matters.

Now, I can honestly say I’m a fan. I was wrong in my initial assessment of him, and I can now see why he is rated so very highly. In addition to reading all his novels, we also read a biography of the man, which was almost as interesting, and other connected works. All of which, of course, gave me the idea for yet another journal.

This one will work rather similarly to the one about Prince, wherein I trace the man’s beginnings from his early childhood to his first writings, and then feature those writings - be they stories, novels, novellas or other articles - and comment upon them as I feel it may be needed. So all his works will be looked at in chronological order, and I will be trying to cover them all. Needless to say, the synopses will contain many spoilers, so if you’re just getting into his works, or planning to, or in the middle of one, as the sea captain says in The Simpsons: “Fairly warned be thee, says I.” Don’t blame me if my writing here ruins it for you.

Of course, the works of Dickens are not confined to his original books, but have been translated over the years, decades and even a century and a half later show up in films, television and even the odd musical, so I’ll be looking at those too. These will be done in conjunction with the novels, mostly, so when, for instance, talking about David Copperfield I will also take into account the television series and movies made based on the novel, and so on. Comment and debate is as always invited.

To kick things off, I’d like to cheat slightly and repost an article I wrote around Christmas time for the Playlist of Life, and here it is:

The man who invented Christmas --- Charles Dickens

It’s not too much of a stretch to make the above claim. One of the foremost writers of the nineteenth century, Dickens’ works have been transformed into television dramas, films, cartoons and plays, and even Walt Disney took inspiration from him when creating the character of Donald Duck’s miserly old uncle, and so Scrooge McDuck was born. Everybody knows of Dickens’ more famous works, even if they have never read a line. Most have been as I say on the TV or made into films, and names like Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield evoke the kind of familiarity with the works of a man of whom many of us can say we have never read anything that is almost astonishing.

But of course Dickens is always best remembered for his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, in which we are introduced to the mean, nasty old Ebeneezer Scrooge, who hates everything about Christmas until he is visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve, who show him where his life is heading unless he changes, and open up to him the joys of the festive season, making of him a new man. For this novel Dickens is widely and rightly acclaimed, but more than that: A Christmas Carol became instrumental in remaking Christmas at least in England, where the season was only half--heartedly celebrated and where there was no real structure for same; it was mostly a religious holiday, strictly and piously observed but without the traditional jollity we associate with it now.

(This next passage is lifted wholesale from Wiki, as I’m too lazy to paraphrase it)
Christmas - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th century and early 19th century.[141] Superimposing his secular vision of the holiday, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.[142] A prominent phrase from the tale, "Merry Christmas", was popularized following the appearance of the story.

In addition to this revival of the Christmas holiday season, Henry Cole created the first ever Christmas card in 1843, not at all coincidentally the date of the publication of Dickens’ novella. This helped make Christmas more a time for family and friends, laughter and joy rather than cold religious observance as it had been up to then.

A man, then, who may not have invented Christmas per se, but certainly shaped it into what we now recognise it as, and who was extremely instrumental in making it a holiday for all, not just the rich or the religious. Charles Dickens truly brought the real spirit of Christmas to the streets of London, Birmingham, Liverpool and all over England, and thence to Europe and the rest of the world, through his magical tale and its theme of redemption and forgiveness and change, so I think we can honestly say that without Dickens, and without A Christmas Carol” we would in all likelihood not celebrate Christmas as we do today.

Mind you, we might also not have all the crappy Christmas films and all the overpriced gifts we have to purchase, but then you can’t have everything.

So let’s hear it for the man who saved Christmas, the man who brought Christmas back, the man who, to all intents and purposes, invented Christmas, at least, the Christmas we know today.

Thank you, Charles Dickens. And in a weird, off-key way, thank you Mister Scrooge…
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Old 05-14-2022, 09:41 AM   #2 (permalink)
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“His novels shaped his life as much as his life shaped his novels” - Jane Smiley: Charles Dickens (Penguin Lives)

Chapter One: A Child’s Christmas in London

Timeline: 1812 - 1822

It’s probably no real surprise that Dickens would identify so readily with the poor and the downtrodden, and the ordinary folk of England, as he came from a family of servants. His grandfather, William Dickens (d. 1785) was a butler to a wealthy family, the Crewes, who had several properties in London, the northwest and Midlands, and his wife, Elizabeth (nee. Ball) had been in service with Lady Blandford of Grosvenor Square, later finding employment with her new husband at the Crewes. Popular with her new employers, she was kept on after her husband’s death, a gesture that shows how valued she was, especially considering she had two small children to care for. She was even elevated to the position of housekeeper, a post which carried with it great responsibility and trust.

It’s also clear where the young Charles inherited his love of stories and the English language, as his grandmother would be remembered by “Lady Houghton, [who] used to tell that when she was a child the greatest treat that could be given to her brother and herself and sister was an afternoon in the housekeeper's room at Crewe, for Mrs. Dickens was an inimitable story-teller, and she loved to have the children around her, and to beguile them, not only with fairy tales, but with reminiscences of her own, and stories from the pages of history.” Elizabeth was not short of cash, having been left £450 in her husband’s will, but it had been invested (I don’t know whether as a condition of the will, or whether she had this done, but I suspect the former) in what were known as consols, bonds issued by the Bank of England, so I assume they would be untouchable, more a nest egg than money she could draw on.

When her second son, John, was born, he grew up in the environs of the Crewe household and was more than likely put into service there alongside his mother, but at age nineteen he joined the Royal Navy Treasury Office in 1805 as a clerk, and it’s even been suggested (though never proven) that the young man’s appointment was sponsored by Lord Crewe himself, who was a friend of George Canning, the Navy Treasurer. An interesting premise laid out by Clare Tomalin in her Dickens: A Life is that John may in fact not have been the son of William. The grandfather of Charles Dickens had been in the ground when John was born; only a few months, it’s true, but given what was known to go on in the houses of the landed gentry, and Elizabeth Dickens’ beauty and indeed vulnerability (a woman just widowed, with a young child to care for could hardly refuse the advances of someone who could have her sacked on trumped-up charges) it is possible - again, no way to prove it - that she could have attracted the romantic, or just sexual attentions of other, higher-placed servants in the Crewe household, even Lord Crewe himself.

John is said to have certainly carried on as if he was the son of a nobleman and not that of a servant, lazy and indolent, rude and feckless, leading to his mother “grumbling about ‘that lazy fellow John … who used to come hanging about the house’ and how she had given him ‘many a sound cuff on the ear’. So perhaps John was headed for a bad end, in which case the job at the Navy came just in time. He did well, rising through the ranks and in 1805 he met the sister of his friend and workmate Thomas Barrow, Elizabeth, and though stationed in Portsmouth was sufficiently enamoured of her to carry on a long-distance relationship with her in London. They married in 1809, and she then became essentially the second Mrs. Dickens, the first, his mother, passing away in 1824. John had been a spendthrift, a gambler and a man who lived way beyond his means, possibly due to as intimated above, his belief (real or imagined) that he was a cut above the servants, and had of course got into serious debt. The bequest his mother left him did help to deal with that, but financial troubles of his own making would dog him through the rest of his life, even when his son became rich and famous.

Money problems would dog the Dickens family from the start. Elizabeth’s father, now John’s father-in-law, was forced to flee to France when it became obvious that he had been embezzling from the Navy for seven years. Elizabeth’s second son would be named after her troubled father, whom he would never meet, growing up without a grandfather on either side. After the marriage ceremony, Elizabeth moved to Portsmouth with her new husband, where they rented a house in Mile End Terrace, and just over a year later Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, a girl, whom she and her husband named Frances Elizabeth (the Frances possibly, though not provable, for her mother’s employer, Frances Crewe) who would become known as Fanny. Her brothers, all good men and quite artistic, helped the young family out and would be regular figures in the lives of their children. John was a poet and writer, and his brother Edward a musician who had married an artist; in addition to this he was a reporter for parliament.

Charles was born on February 7 1812, his mother quoted as saying she was out dancing the previous night, and her son’s birth was triumphantly announced by his father in the local newspapers: BIRTHS - On Friday, at Mile-end Terrace, the Lady of John Dickens, Esq. a son. No doubt John was relieved; at that time a female offspring was of little use to a man, as she could inherit no property, had few rights and could only hold certain jobs. And of course, when she married she would take the name of her husband. For a man’s legacy and name to be carried on, he needed a son. His high living was catching up with him though, and with the money left to him by his mother running out, John found that he had occasion to move from the house to a smaller one in a poorer area. The announcement in the Hampshire Courier trumpeted:

FOR SALE, with immediate Possession, all that
modem well built DWELLING-HOUSE, situate as
above, late in the occupation of Mr. John Dickens. The
House comprises, in the basement, a good kitchen and cellar;
ground floor, two excellent parlours; first floor, two good
bed chambers, and two garrets in the attic. The whole replete
with fixtures. The Premises are 18 feet in width, and
120 feet in depth.
For further Particulars apply to Mr. WM. PEARCE,
Mile End.

Their new house in Hawke Street, Portsea, and the proximity to the Royal Docks, where “there were superior lodging-houses for naval officers who desired to be within easy reach of their ships in the royal dockyard, distant about five minutes walk” may have begun the young Charles’ fascination with ships and the sea, brought to life in many of his books, and often used in his imagery when describing towns and cities. By Christmas of 1813 they were on the move again though, this time to the more well-to-do area of Southsea, and the appropriately-named Wish Street, where their third child, Alfred, was born in March of 1814, and where, too, Elizabeth’s sister, Mary Allen, recently widowed, came to stay and help with the care of the baby. But she would not be pressed into service for long, as tragedy struck only six months later, and before baby Alfred could see out his first year, he was dead. Wish Street may have given John Dickens his wish for a second heir, but like the capricious and malevolent djinn in the tales of the Arabian Nights which would so enthrall and influence his eldest son years later, that wish had been snatched away almost before he could even appreciate its having been granted.

On the first day of the following year John was called to London and, leaving painful memories of the loss of his second son behind, took his family with him. Charles is reported to have noted that it was snowing as they left. It would be his last sight of Portsmouth, as he would spend the rest of his childhood in the capital.
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Old 05-18-2022, 05:56 AM   #3 (permalink)
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My uncle gifted me a Dickens novel every Christmas from the age of eight. OK, I was precocious but for years I couldn’t untangle some of his long sentences. When I did manage to I was addicted. In my dotage I’ve started re-reading him although I’ve avoided A Christmas Carol as I’ve always found it trite , treacly and moralistic.
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Old 05-18-2022, 11:36 AM   #4 (permalink)
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First off, welcome to the forum.
Second, welcome to my journal.
As I said in the intro, initially I was a little dismissive of Dickens' style, thinking it overly wordy, until someone pointed out that at the time most of his stuff was written much of England couldn't read, and so the descriptive prose was more suited to being read out, either in performance or by one person to a group, the one in a number perhaps who could not read. I recognised his genius - always did; I could pick it out of a lineup easily - but didn't particularly like his style. Since reading his novels (all of them bar Chuzzelwit, which we both agreed was boring and seemed to be going nowhere, and which seems to have been the prevailing wisdom at the time too, as it sold poorly) I've become a real fan.

I still think ACC is a masterpiece. Viewed through the lens of nearly two centuries later, yes, it may seem as you describe, but for its time it was pretty ground-breaking.
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Old 05-18-2022, 05:56 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Trollheart View Post
I still think ACC is a masterpiece. Viewed through the lens of nearly two centuries later, yes, it may seem as you describe, but for its time it was pretty ground-breaking.
Maybe my view of A Christmas Carol is distorted by the painful experience of having been nagged into playing a minor role in a staged version?
My only line was “Thank your sir, a Merry Christmas sir”. That and the mean staging with a table and a few chairs as the only props made the entire exercise pathetic.
I’ve taken it down off my shelf and will see if I can stomach it in my dotage.
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Old 05-21-2022, 10:53 AM   #6 (permalink)
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I: Sketches in the fog

With their arrival in London the Dickens family increased again, Elizabeth’s fourth child born in 1816, Letitia Mary. Charles was now four years old, and beginning to form impressions of the world around him. Though he maintained he had memories from age two, they are rather vague and a little confused, such as his supposed recollection of a New Year’s (Eve?) Party where everyone seemed to be frozen in time:

“New Year's Day. What Party can that have been, and what New Year's Day can that have been, which first rooted the phrase, 'A New Year's Day Party,' in my mind? So far back do my recollections of childhood extend, that I have a vivid remembrance of the sensation of being carried down-stairs in a woman's arms, and holding tight to her, in the terror of seeing the steep perspective below. Hence, I may have been carried into this Party, for anything I know; but, somehow or other, I most certainly got there, and was in a doorway looking on; and in that look a New Year's Party revealed itself to me, as a very long row of ladies and gentlemen sitting against a wall, all drinking at once out of little glass cups with handles, like custard-cups.

What can this Party have been! I am afraid it must have been a dull one, but I know it came off. Where can this Party have been! I have not the faintest notion where, but I am absolutely certain it was somewhere. Why the company should all have been drinking at once, and especially why they should all have been drinking out of custard-cups, are points of fact over which the Waters of Oblivion have long rolled. I doubt if they can have been drinking the Old Year out and the New One in, because they were not at supper and had no table before them. There was no speech-making, no quick movement and change of action, no demonstration of any kind. They were all sitting in a long row against the wall - very like my first idea of the good people in Heaven, as I derived it from a wretched picture in a Prayer-book - and they had all got their heads a little thrown back, and were all drinking at once.

It is possible enough that I, the baby, may have been caught up out of bed to have a peep at the company, and that the company may happen to have been thus occupied for the flash and space of a moment only. But, it has always seemed to me as if I looked at them for a long time - hours - during which they did nothing else; and to this present time, a casual mention in my hearing, of a Party on a New Year's Day, always revives that picture.

His first proper memory of a person though (at least, the first he speaks of) comes at this time, when the family have moved to London, and he is being read to by his grandmother, Elizabeth’s mother, also called Elizabeth. Her stories are not of the fluffy bunny happy ever after type you would expect an ageing dame to regale her grandchild with, but tales of macabre terror and horror, calculated to chill the blood, and no doubt firing, if only subconsciously, the waking imagination of the young boy in that direction.

“My first impressions of an Inn, dated from the Nursery; consequently, I went back to the Nursery for a starting-point, and found myself at the knee of a sallow woman with a fishy eye, an aquiline nose, and a green gown, whose speciality was a dismal narrative of a landlord by the roadside, whose visitors unaccountably disappeared, for many years, until it was discovered that the pursuit of his life had been to convert them into pies . . . I had no sooner disposed of this criminal than there started up another of the same period, whose profession was, originally, housebreaking; in the pursuit of which art he had his right ear chopped off one night as he was burglariously getting in at a window, by a brave and lovely servant-maid (whom the aquiline-nosed woman, though not at all answering the description, always mysteriously implied to be herself).

After several years, this brave and lovely servantmaid was married to the landlord of a country Inn: which landlord had this remarkable characteristic, that he always wore a silk nightcap, and never would, on any consideration, take it off. At last, one night, when he was fast asleep, the brave and lovely woman lifted up his silk nightcap on the right side, and found that he had no ear there; upon which, she sagaciously perceived that he was the clipped housebreaker, who had married her with the intention of putting her to death. She immediately heated the poker and terminated his career, for which she was taken to King George upon his throne, and received the compliments of royalty on her great discretion and valour.

This same narrator, who had a Ghoulish pleasure, I have long been persuaded, in terrifying me to the utmost confines of my reason, had another authentic anecdote within her own experience, founded, I now believe, upon Raymond and Agnes or the Bleeding Nun. She said it happened to her brother-in-law, who was immensely rich- which my father was not; and immensely tall - which my father was not. It was always a point with this Ghoule to present my dearest relations and friends to my youthful mind, under circumstances of disparaging contrast.”

This account is written in 1855, for a compilation of ghost stories called The Holly Tree Inn, so Dickens would have had plenty of time to remember and refine his experiences at his grandmother’s knee, but the fact that he even remembers in such detail at such a tender age is pretty remarkable, and shows even then the kind of man he would grow into, a keen observer of humanity and of his surroundings, a man who completely exemplified the old adage, a writer writes always. I seriously doubt, had he for some reason really tried to, that he could have not written. It was just in his blood, it was part of him; it was his life.

This second description gives us a little more insight into the fearful woman whom he did not even recognise at the time as his dread grandmother, and whom in fairness it can’t be absolutely confirmed was that person, though various biographers agree the chances are that it was:

I remember to have been taken, upon a New Year's Day, to the
Bazaar in Soho Square, London, to have a present bought for
me. A distinct impression yet lingers in my soul that a grim and
unsympathetic old personage of the female gender, flavoured
with musty dry lavender, dressed in black crape, and wearing a
pocket in which something clinked at my ear as we went along,
conducted me on this occasion to the World of Toys. I remember
to have been incidentally escorted a little way down some
conveniently retired street diverging from Oxford Street, for the
purpose of being shaken; and nothing has ever slaked the
burning thirst for vengeance awakened in me by this female's
manner of insisting upon wiping my nose herself (I had a cold
and a pocket-handkerchief), on the screw principle. For many
years I was unable to excogitate the reason why she should
have undertaken to make me a present. In the exercise of a
something bad in her youth, and that she took me out as an act
of expiation.

Nearly lifted off my legs by this adamantine woman's grasp
of my glove (another fearful invention of those dark ages - a
muffler, and fastened at the wrist like a handcuff), I was haled
through the Bazaar. My tender imagination (or conscience)
represented certain small apartments in corners, resembling
wooden cages, wherein I have since seen reason to suppose
that ladies' collars and the like are tried on, as being, either
dark places of confinement for refractory youth, or dens in
which the lions were kept who fattened on boys who said they
didn't care. Suffering tremendous terrors from the vicinity of
these avenging mysteries, I was put before the expanse of toys,
apparently about a hundred and twenty acres in extent, and
was asked what I would have to the value of half-a-crown?
Having first selected every object at half-a-guinea, and then
staked all the aspirations of my nature on every object at five
shillings, I hit, as a last resource, upon a Harlequin's Wand -
painted particoloured, like the Harlequin himself.

Although of a highly hopeful and imaginative temperament,
I had no fond belief that the possession of this talisman would
enable me to change Mrs. Pipchin at my side into anything
agreeable. When I tried the effect of the wand upon her, behind
her bonnet, it was rather as a desperate experiment founded on
the conviction that she could change into nothing worse, than
with any latent hope that she would change into something
better. Howbeit, I clung to the delusion that when I got home I
should do something magical with this wand; and I did not
resign all hope of it until I had, by many trials, proved the
wand's total incapacity. It had no effect on the staring obstinacy
of a rocking-horse; it produced no live Clown out of the hot
beefsteak-pie at dinner; it could not even influence the minds of
my honoured parents to the extent of suggesting the decency
and propriety of their giving me an invitation to sit up at

The interesting word here - apart from the colourful description and exceptionally affecting picture of the terror a tiny child feels when taken to a place meant to be fun, but which is turned into a dark, forbidding realm of unseen and unspoken horrors when escorted there by a figure of dread, is his appellation of “Mrs. Pipchin” for the dark, mysterious figure, affording her the name of the cantankerous, cruel and spiteful keeper of a boarding house in Blackpool who would feature so heavily in the fortunes of poor young Paul Dombey Jr. in his Dombey and Son, and later come to represent a figure of opposition and an enemy to Mrs. Dombey. Of course, here Dickens is recounting as an adult, and can reference the character, but the point is that Elizabeth Dickens Sr. seems to have had so powerful an effect upon him that he remembered the experience when he was writing the novel, and looked back to those terrified days and that awful, at the time anonymous figure for inspiration.

There doesn’t seem to be all that much recorded about the Dickenses’ time in London, and in fact they only stayed there for two years before, as the Napoleonic Wars came to an end in victory for Britain, and navy work began to dry up, John was moved again, this time south to Kent, first to Sheerness for a few weeks but then to Chatham a few weeks later. Nevertheless, while at the former the Dickens family are said to have lived next door to the Sheerness Theatre, and it can hardly have escaped their attention and attendance, helping to further fire the imagination of the now five-year-old Charles and kindle his love of acting, plays and music, and of course, of writing. On moving to the larger, more bustling Chatham, also in the county of Kent, Charles and his family were introduced to a lively town bursting with interest, and made the subject of one of the many excursions undertaken by the title character and his friends in Charles’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers.

Another world was opening itself to the young boy, a world he had until then not really been aware of, but which was to drive and inform his life up until his death, and make him a famous and legendary figure long after he was dust. Charles began to learn to read, and with the help of his mother progressed to tackling the novels of DeFoe, Fielding and Goldsmith, as well as lighter, more fanciful fare such as The Arabian Nights, many of which would find their way into his own writings, in particular the latter in his recollections of Ebenezer Scrooge’s past as shown to him by the first spirit as the boy sits alone in the school at Christmas, with all his friends gone home for the holidays.

Charles had also begun to make his first friends, these being George and Lucy, the children of the neighbouring plumber, Mr. Stroughill, and inevitably, as a boy of five years faced with a pretty young girl, Charles fell in love with Lucy. He and his siblings and friends would also put on performances at this time, plays and comedies and farces, with all the seriousness and attention to detail as if they were to be played on the stage at the Royal Theatre, Charles giving the home-made amateur production as much attention as he would later afford his own professional writing. However all was not happiness in his world, and Charles had at this time begun to be assailed by pains and spasms in his side, which prevented him from being able to join in on the more boisterous games played by his friends and the local children, and being reduced to watching - and no doubt, observing - them as he lay on the grass, almost always with a book in his hand.

Performances of their little comic operas soon progressed to the small stage of the local tavern, the Mitre, where he and Fanny would sing and dance, their father having befriended the owner and their act no doubt drawing amused and admiring punters to the place to spend their money. Fanny outdid Charles in everything, being older and more versed in music and singing, but trips to the theatre and twice to London to see the great clown Grimaldi no doubt sent her brother looking in a different direction, that of authorship of plays. At eight years old, he wrote his first play, Misnar, the Sultan of India. No copies survive. His love of ships and the sea was heightened and helped when his father would take both he and Fanny aboard the Navy yacht named for the town, and they would see the workings of sailors as well as feel the deck roll and pitch beneath their young feet, smell the sea air and learn all about shipcraft.

But the dark spectre of John Dickens’ borrowings persisted and grew. While his friends the Newnhams, from whom he borrowed but as usual never repaid, did not seem to mind, even keeping in touch when the family moved away (with the debt, of course, still owing), Elizabeth’s brother was not so forgiving. Well, his new brother-in-law had stood, at Dickens’ request, guarantor and essentially borrowed a large sum - £200 - on behalf of the man, who then failed as ever to make the payments, leaving Thomas Barrow on the hook for even more than he had guaranteed. Thomas was so angry he cut off all communications with John. Debt would continue to control and all but ruin John Dickens’ life, and that of his family, ending for him - and them - in the cold, uncaring stone walls of a debtors’ prison.
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