Facial Hair Friday: Charles Dickens

Today we’re celebrating both Facial Hair Friday and #ArchivesBackToSchool on Twitter. Today’s post comes from Paige Weaver from the National Archives History Office.

Charles Dickens, ca. 186165. (National Archives Identifier 526411)

As summer draws to an end and students go back to school, you may recall some of your favorite novels from English class. One name that is almost certainly familiar to students, both young and old, is Charles Dickens.

Dickens was an English writer and social critic who is often regarded as the most important novelist to write during the Victorian era. He fabricated famous fictional characters and infused his writing with realism, suspense, and a prose style that made him popular throughout the world, both in his own time and today.

Charles Dickens is the author of numerous novels and short stories that have stood the test of time and offer themes and lessons that remain relevant even today. A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations are just a few notable mentions in the long list of his works.

Perhaps his widespread popularity, fame, and success gave him the confidence to flaunt such flamboyant facial hair, which included a scraggly beard and an intense mustache.

While his stories may be extensively read and analyzed in classrooms all over the world today, Dickens himself received only a sporadic and informal education. He was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. During the formative years of his youth, Charles enjoyed spending much of his time outdoors and found solace in his family’s many moves through books.

Charles’s father had a bad habit of living beyond the family’s means, which, combined with the stress of a growing family, allowed his debts to overwhelm him and eventually led to debtors’ prison. As a result, Charles was compelled to leave school at the age of 12 and go to work at a boot-blacking factory. He was briefly permitted to return to school after his father paid off his debts with money from an inheritance, but by the age of 15, Charles was again put to work, this time as an office boy, to help sustain the family.

Although his educational experience was irregular and at times substandard, his legacy is a testament to the power of grit, determination, and self-confidence. While Dickens himself was able to overcome the disadvantage of receiving only a limited education, he took advantage of his popularity as a writer to critique unfair educational practices. One’s access to a proper education was very inconsistent, largely dependent upon social status, gender, and location. Through his journalism and writing, Dickens actively commented on contemporary education, criticizing the elements which he found to be corrupting and promoting his own ideas for reform.

American soldiers and sailors in London observed the birthday of Charles Dickens by placing a wreath on his grave in Westminster Abbey. In the center of the group is Mr. Edwin Drew, the founder and sole survivor of the Dickens Society, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 23922311)

While his stories are read today for their literary merit, at the time, Dickens used his writing to facilitate and encourage self-education. Not only did he write in an easily comprehensible prose that appealed to a wide audience, but he also often published much of his work as monthly installments, which kept readers in suspense and continuously wanting more.

Dickens also helped found and edit two different weekly journals that contained educational articles on topics such as history, science, and politics, as well as short stories, humorous pieces, and novels.

As another new school year begins, perhaps you will recall your favorite Dickens character or a scene from his brutally honest portrayal of society. Maybe you will be inspired to pick up one of his novels, recalling as you read that humble educational beginnings can lead to great success, and that the words of an author with some robust facial hair helped pave the way for educational reform.


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