The Shadow of the Prison and the Novelist's Heart: The Personal Story Behind A Christmas Carol

Michael Paller

When Charles Dickens was 12, his father’s tenuous hold on the middle class collapsed in a heap of mounting debt. John Dickens was incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, where he was joined a few weeks later by his wife and four of their six children. Charles was put to work in a Thames warehouse that manufactured boot-blacking. The boy found himself alone in a world without comfort or security, living in a run-down rooming house in Camden Town. At night he played on coal barges or wandered the streets. So began his lifelong acquaintance with the meanest quarters and poorest people of London.

Although Charles’ time in the warehouse lasted at most five months, the sudden descent into the desperate world of London’s poor left a lifelong mark. Beginning at 15, he held a series of jobs that kept him in close contact with that world. The first, as an office boy in a law firm, introduced him to the workings of the legal system and its effects on the middle class and the poor. He saw how it might work for people on occasion, but that more often it benefited the lawyers, who never seemed to lack clients. His opinion of the law did not improve when he became a court reporter at an obscure institution, the Consistory Court of Doctors’ Commons. At 20, he became a journalist, covering Parliament. He observed the operation of a government controlled by aristocrats, industrialists, and wealthy merchants that blocked every attempt to aid the poor. 

Sketch of Dickens in 1842 during his American tour (

Once Dickens saw the legal system at work, it did not take him long to find his true vocation. By the time he took a seat in the Visitors’ Gallery of the Houses of Parliament, he was turning the scenes he had witnessed in the law offices and courts into fiction. Two years later he was famous, thanks to a collection of short pieces called
Sketches by Boz. One described a visit to the Court of Doctors’ Commons, where a “hard-featured old man” with a “deeply wrinkled face,” whose every look and gesture “told of wealth, and penury, and avarice,” was busily planning to rob a poor man of a long-awaited inheritance.

By 1840, only about 20 percent of London’s children had any schooling. Education for all children regardless of class became another issue about which Dickens developed passionate feelings. He founded and edited two weekly newspapers in which he wrote about the need for universal education, sanitation laws, labor laws, and prison reform.

As potent as his speeches and journalism were, it is his fiction that made Dickens famous, and where he created the images that caused the world to take notice. In Oliver Twist, he attacked the workhouse system. In Nicholas Nickleby, he exposed the exploitation of children by ruthless schoolmasters more interested in profit than education. The Marshalsea became the primary setting and symbol of Little Dorrit, and John Dickens the model for William Dorrit.

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens created an image of children who lived without hope, food, or education. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two desperate, starving children. He tells Scrooge, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all their kind, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow is written ‘Doom.’” Dickens came to believe that the privileges and priorities of the wealthy men who controlled Parliament would obstruct all attempts to solve the national problems of poverty, poor working conditions, and substandard education. This only made his vision of British society more uncompromising. His work evolved from melodramas of good characters beset by evil ones to complex tapestries of good people victimized by a system of corruption.

Through 15 novels, the work of his imagination was an attempt to understand a world in which debtors’ prisons and workhouses could exist. Through a public spirit forged from private pain, he found a purpose for his life, giving voice to those whom society ignored. The journey of Charles Dickens’s life was from concern for self to dedication to others—just as it is for Ebenezer Scrooge.

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