Five Fascinating Facts about Charles Dickens

Curious Dickens trivia relating to his life and work

1. Dickens’s house had a secret door in the form of a fake bookcase. The fake books included titles such as ‘The Life of a Cat’ in 9 volumes. This was at his home at Gad’s Hill, in Kent. He also reputedly had a series of fake titles called ‘The History of a Short Chancery Suit’ in 47 volumes (a reference to the very long Chancery case which inspired his novel, Bleak House).

Dickens22. In his courtship letters to her, Dickens addressed his future wife as ‘dearest Mouse’ and ‘dearest darling Pig’. These were almost certainly meant as terms of endearment, but it’s tempting to respond to them differently from our retrospective position: Dickens’s affection for his wife soon dwindled after they were married, and he seemed to harbour more romantic and sentimental interest in her sisters than in poor Catherine herself. When his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died suddenly, aged 17, in 1837 (in Dickens’s arms), he was devastated. But his grief appears to have been disproportionate: he kept her clothes in the house and wore her ring for the rest of his life.

3. On days when he gave public readings, Dickens had two tablespoons of rum with fresh cream for breakfast, and a pint of champagne for tea. Half an hour before the start of the reading itself, he would also drink a raw egg beaten into a tumbler of sherry. Dickens’s public readings (of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, among others) were hugely popular, both in Britain and America; when he gave his first public reading in America, the line of people in New York City queuing for tickets was almost a mile long.

4. The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with the first use of butter-fingers, crossfire, dustbin, fairy story, slow-coach, and whoosh. He also gets the credit for ‘boredom’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, coined in his novel Bleak House (1852-3), but this has since been traced back even earlier, to 1830.

5. In 2009, an ivory toothpick once used by Charles Dickens was sold at auction for $9,000. Made of ivory and gold, the implement is engraved with Dickens’s initials. It was originally expected to fetch $3,000-$5,000, but the final sale was for a whopping $9,150 (£5,625). An authentication letter written by Dickens’s sister-in-law indicates that Dickens used the toothpick up to his death in 1870.

We have more great Dickensian trivia in our book of literary facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History. Continue your Dickensian odyssey with our discussion of his forgotten children’s book, our pick of the best Dickens novels, and our selection of the best biographical and critical studies of Dickens’s life and work. You might also enjoy our favourite Robert Louis Stevenson facts.

If you’re looking for an authoritative and engaging biography of Dickens, we’d recommend Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens: Abridged.

Image: Young Charles Dickens, c. 1830s, 1905 (republication) after Robert Seymour, public domain.