What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us In 2012

charles dickens in 2012

February 7th, 2012 will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens and this comes at a time when the famous nineteenth century novelist seems more and more contemporary.

Why am I writing about him when I’m in no way a Dickens expert? Well, like me, he spent most of his life in London and the English county of Kent and, having found out about his charitable nature, he’s turning into a major hero of mine.


Charles Dickens, the son of a Navy pay-office clerk who was to spend time in prison for insolvency, is considered one of the best writers of the 19th century. Whilst his father was in jail, Dickens was forced to leave school and work ten-hour days pasting labels on bottles.

The experience at an early age, both of his father’s incarceration and the necessity to leave education for menial work, shaped his later life and work.

Dicken’s was entertaining, generous, and liked a drink. His life and work concerned the affairs of the impoverished and disadvantaged. He supported and educated the orphaned children of acquaintances and was involved in a number of philanthropic works.


The mid-eighteen hundreds was a period of great turmoil in Europe, characterized by huge technological advances but by an ever increasing gap between rich and poor. In Britain, the people were cold and hungry whilst the country was at the peak of its political and technological power.

Whilst money must have been of primary importance to the young Charles Dickens, he certainly didn’t hoard it once he’d started earning.

In one of his most famous and cinematized works, A Christmas Carol, Dickens warns us against penny pinching and meanness.


Early on in the novel a couple of gentlemen visit Scrooge in his shop asking for “some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time”. Scrooge declines:

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

Scrooge dismisses the gentlemen by saying: “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.”

Later that night, as we all know, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts. One of them reveals to Scrooge two shockingly emaciated children by the names of Ignorance and Want. Scrooge asks if the grotesque children have “no refuge, no resource,” and the spirit repeats Scrooge’s unkind words from earlier that day, “Are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?”

Scrooge is a lesson to us all. Although he is a good businessman, he is a poor man in terms of spirit, appreciation and kindliness.

People are more important than money.


Writing did not come naturally to Dickens. Unlike other writers, Trollope for instance, he couldn’t rattle off 6,000 words before breakfast. He had to exert himself to master his craft. After a long day’s writing, he would fetch a bucket of cold water, emerse his head in it, dry himself off and start working again.

Successful people work hard.

Changing and adapting

Dickens was eager to give the readers what they wanted. The episodic publication of his books meant that his plots could change in response to lower than normal sales of earlier chapters.

Test your products and tweak them according to what your customers want.


As a journalist, Dickens travelled the entire country, which would have been rare at his time. And, as soon as his income from book sales allowed, he travelled to America twice and extensively throughout Europe.

His experiences of different parts of his country and of different cultures in the world broadened his mind and improved his writing.

Travel broadens the mind.

Taking exercise/walking

Scarcely a day would pass without Dickens leaving his desk and walking the streets of London. He could routinely walk 20 miles a day, and once left at 2am to walk from his house in London to his country residence in Kent, 30 miles away.

Walking not only served to inspire Dickens’s great descriptions of nineteenth century London but, more importantly, it gave him respite from his desk and helped to clear his mind so that he could return to his work refreshed. Whilst out and about, he could often be heard muttering or shouting to himself as he grappled with his characters’ dialogues.

Exercise increases productivity.

Modern Technology

To Dickens, the electric telegraph – the world’s first instantaneous means of long-distance communication – was ‘the most wonderful’ of ‘all our modern wonders’. There was obviously something about instantaneous mass communication that interested Dickens and interests us all greatly now.

What would Dickens be doing if he were alive today? He would, of course, have a blog.

Always keep your eyes open to the next advancement in communication technology.

Making money from small purchases

Dickens’s wealth didn’t come from the sale of expensive items; it was instead, as a contemporary put it, the result of “thousands and thousands of individuals, putting down their shillings month after month in exchange for another 32 pages of tightly packed letterpress”.

Selling multiple items of negligible cost is a sound business model.


The effects of his father having to go to debtor’s prison left an indelible mark on the young Charles. He put these words into the mouth of David Copperfield‘s Mr Micawber: “if a man had twenty pounds a year, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched”.

Dickens’s estate on his death was £93,000, comfortably making him a millionaire by today’s standards. And this despite being known for his generosity.

Always spend less than you earn.

Avoiding bubbles

In 1825, in a climate of feverish speculation, a nervous Bank of England refused to lend money cheaply to British banks and companies. 80 banks failed, and almost 500 companies went bankrupt almost overnight.

This Victorian economic crisis is depicted in Nicholas Nickleby, when Mr and Mrs Nickleby speculate with their joint assets of £2,000 and a farm. “A mania prevailed, a bubble burst … four hundred nobodies were ruined”. Mr Nickleby dies soon afterwards.

Avoid speculation and the “something for nothing” economy.

What can Charles Dickens teach you in 2012?

Charles Dickens certainly learned from the mistakes of others, dragged himself and his extended family from poverty and still found extra time and cash to do good deeds and help others.

Whereas with every financial crisis, politicians and bankers seem to have to learn the same lessons over and over again.

But, hopefully, we only have to make mistakes once to learn from them.

What mistakes have you learned from and what principles will you be applying to your life and work in 2012?

Did this help you? If so, please share!

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  1. says

    Really interesting post Rob. I’ve been reflecting on a lot of these themes recently as the year ends. The biggest mistake I’ve learned from in 2011 is to wait at least 12 hours before replying to an email that made me angry. We all know the consequences of being hasty! Other than that, I’m going to read more fiction and less code books. Happy Christmas to you.

    • says

      Hello Martin. I totally agree with your cooling down period rule. I apply that myself occasionally and I should do it more.

      As for reading, I’m reading a lot of factual, non-fiction books at the moment, although there have been times where I read only fiction! But you’re absolutely right, it’s good to break up your heavy reading with a good novel. You could try Hard Times or Tale of Two Cities! Sometimes I think you can actually learn more from fiction than non-fiction, paradoxically.

      Happy Christmas :)

  2. Alexandra says

    An excellent way to show that though times change, people don’t. Some great life lessons from Dickens!

  3. Megan Norton says

    I appreciate the time you took to compare Charles Dickens to our way of living. The evaluation of his life has reminded us how we should be, and you captured them beautifully in your blog. Thank you.

  4. says

    Well hello Rob and what a great post, I can certainly vouch for the power of the daily walk, when I was working in Stevenage I had the pleasure of walking a 5 mile round trip to work everyday. This allowed me to clarify my thoughts and experience the wonders around me, unfortunately my current post is in a rural area and thus I have to drive a 40 mile round trip isolated from these wonders.

    The hype surrounds the big tickets but as you point out the miracle comes from making those little sales frequently.

    Looking forwards to putting this into practise next year.

    igor Griffiths

    • says

      Hello again, Igor. Glad to see you enjoyed the post. It really is great to get out a walk everyday – especially if the scenery and ambience are good! Have an excellent and successful year! :)

  5. says

    Enlightening! I am determined to read some Dickens novels or perhaps find out more about this man who wasn’t the best but become the best!

    Really enjoyed this post! retweeting for sure!

    • says

      Thanks Rebecca. There are number of great Dickens biographies out there because he lead a very interesting life and there were a number of great stories about him (as well as by him!) Claire Tomalin’s book is meant to be very good but I’ve not read it.

  6. says

    Thanks for the post, Rob – made my day, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Is it possible, as so much of society has to reinvent itself, that we could become more engaged with each other?

    As more people venture into small business/self employment, they are often forced to take stock of their passions and engage more with the people around them. Since my layoff and first timid steps into freelancing, I’ve been enriched by the people I’ve met and the generosity of spirit I encounter on a daily basis.

    • says

      I think it might be something to do with “going it alone” (which Dickens would have understood) that puts you in touch with the fragility of life and causes a more philanthropic or thoughtful approach.

      There certainly seems a desire to do good and to pass around quality information amongst the internet entrepreneurs – and it’s good to see!