Elizabeth Barrett Browning's goal of complete self-revelation was a goal that Charles Dickens yearned for, feared, and never attained, for as Jean Carr points out “Despite...his fear of releasing too much of himself, Dickens had a pressing autobiographical urge. Friends wrote that his conversations and letters were full of self-revealing impulses, and that 'he was ever longing to express...recollections of his own childhood, which were his grand storehouse'" (Fitzgerald 108). (Carr 453) Dickens's “longing to express...recollections of his own childhood" is both typically Victorian and deeply personal. On a cultural level, “the single most pervasive set of autobiographical myths available to the Victorians concerns childhood" (Landow, Introduction, xxvi). On an individual level, Dickens's childhood experiences rended his consciousness into separate halves of fantasy and nightmare that would later manifest themselves in Great Expectations.

When Dickens's father was sent to debtor's prison in 1824, 12-year-old Dickens was forced to work in a blacking or shoe-polish factory. In “The Fictions of Autobiographical Fiction," Avrom Fleishman considers the negative afterimage of this experience, which rose to the surface in Dickens's nightmares:

I wish to focus on a phrase of his autobiographical fragment which Dickens leaves out of [David Copperfield] and which seems to me to be a clue to the way he regarded himself: “My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forgot in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life"...There is a sense in which Dickens the child is Dickens the man...Dickens drew on past experience in varied ways for much of his fiction, but it was his present sense of himself as a child that he established when creating his autobiographical novel. (Fleishman, “The Fictions of Autobiographical Fiction." (75)

Dickens sought to suppress this half of his consciousness. His shame at having to work in a blacking-factory while his father and family lived in jail was exacerbated by other factors:

We may look...to the social pretensions of the Dickens family and the skeletons in their closet — the grandparents in domestic service on one side, the fugitive embezzler Charles Darrow on the other...To Dickens, real criminality is lower-class, just as he himself is [as a child]....That this association of class and criminality — criminality not merely as adjudged in the court but as felt in the gut — was and remains a widespread prejudice is immaterial: Dickens was able to transcend other, similar prejudices. (Manning 73)

These self-convictions of criminal guilt will also surface in Great Expectations. Curiously enough, the fantastical half of Dickens's consciousness was shaped by the same blacking-factory experience and its aftermath.

Related Material

  1. Fictional Autobiography: Definitions and Descriptions
  2. Aurora Leigh and Fictional Autobiography (I): Fall from Paradise
  3. Aurora Leigh and Fictional Autobiography (II): The First Female Kunstlerroman
  4. Aurora Leigh and Fictional Autobiography (IV): Inadequacies of the Form
  5. Great Expectations and Fictional Autobiography (IV): The Beast and His Keeper


Carr, Jean F. “Autobiographical Narration in Dickens and Trollope." Dissertation Abstract International 40 (1980): 5449A.

_______. “Dickens and Autobiography: A Wild Beast And His Keeper." ELH 52 (1985): 447-469.

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Last modified 1996