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What The Dickens? 11 Surprising Facts About Charles Dickens

When you think of Charles Dickens, you probably picture a grim scene of poverty, orphans, and despair. Yet Dickens was not only a great writer of very long books about depressing things, he also knew how to have fun. To celebrate his birthday (he would be two hundred two), here are eleven highlights from Fred Kaplan’s biography Dickens.

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2. He Had Girl Issues

At his coming-of-age party, Dickens’s crush, Maria, apparently insulted him, though without being aware of how deeply, by telling him that he was a boy. Her words “scorched [his] brain.”

4. He Broke Up Fights between Victorian Literary Heavyweights

When Thackeray and biographer John Forster wouldn’t talk to each other after Forster called Thackeray’s book “wicked,” Dickens agreed to carry letters back and forth between the two to keep the peace.

5. He Was More Than a Little Intrigued By Death

Dickens considered death “the ultimate, most threatening mystery,” according to Kaplan. He could often be found visiting the morgue, curiously looking at corpses. Dickens wrote: “Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue.”

6. He May Have Had Too Many Children

Dickens’s wife, Catherine, may have been a bigger fan of children than her husband was. When his ninth child was born, Dickens was working on David Copperfield and became obsessed with killing his new daughter’s fictional namesake: “I have still Dora to kill—I mean the Copperfieldian Dora.” A little creepy, Charles.

7. He Liked to Indulge a Little

According to Kaplan, “At the office, he smoked cigarettes insatiably. At home or with friends, he smoked cigars. Alcohol appealed to him in the form of wine with dinner, champagne at celebrations, and, after dinner, port, sherry, or brandy to punctuate good fellowship.”

8. He Was Not Easily Impressed by Foreign Places

Discussing his dissatisfaction with the Isle of Wight, Dickens ranted: “Naples is hot and dirty, New York feverish, Washington bilious, Genoa exciting, Paris rainy—but Bonchurch, smashing. I am quite convinced that I should die here, in a year. It’s not hot, it’s not close, I don’t know what it is, but the prostration of it is awful.”

9. He Was Courageous under Pressure

When his train ran off the tracks between Dover and London, Dickens heroically evacuated the train car he had been riding in, and tirelessly worked for three hours to try to rescue the injured and dying in the ravine below.