New Book Announcement: The Personal History of Charles Dickens by Michael Allen

The personal history of Charles Dickens by Michael Allen

Oxford-Stockley Publications. ISBN 9798866523627. hardback; 549pp; 250 illus; bibliography; index; 7 x 10 inches. date of publication: 9th November  2023. Price: £74.95

Essential for Dickens Studies – this is a book immaculately researched by the foremost Dickens scholar, Michael Allen. He has trawled resources at the National Archives, the British Library, the Charles Dickens Museum and the British Newspaper Archive to produce a book unlike any other biography of Dickens.  Like an artist filling out a huge canvas Allen has added depth and detail, particularly to the early life and family background of Dickens, that greatly helps describe and explain how he grew into one of the giants of English literature.  Anybody who teaches, studies or simply enjoys Dickens will find this essential reading. Every University, College and Library will want to hold copies, just as they did Allen’s earlier books.

This is a new sort of biography of Dickens.  It searches deep into his personal life: into his family’s background, his childhood, his schooldays, his emergence as a writer – all those aspects of his early life that turned him into the greatest novelist the world has known.  The book is not a retelling of an old story but a carefully layered construction built from new information.  Michael Allen has spent a lifetime searching museums, libraries and archive collections to put together an astonishing array of new material.From the Muniment Room at Westminster Abbey he presents inquest evidence of Grandfather Dickens, following his discovery of a drowned woman in the river at Chelsea Waterworks.  From the County Archives at Chester he analyses the accounts of the Crewe family and William Dickens’ work, firstly as a hall porter and then as a butler.  Through the National Archives at Kew he tracks the career and financial difficulties of John Dickens in the Navy Pay Office, uncovering a large loan and the fraud and suicide of the man who gave it to him, his senior clerk at Chatham.Also in the National Archives Allen discovered the fascinating details of the bankruptcy of John Dodd, the Dickens family’s landlord in Norfolk Street.  From contemporary newspapers he presents the horrific account of the murder of a neighbour of the Dickens family in Chatham.  There is a wonderful array of new information about life in Bayham Street, including the story of a man called Wolfe, who lived opposite the Dickens family in 1823 and was charged with taking “indecent liberties” with about 20 little girls, hopefully not Dickens’ sisters.  New details emerge about the Marshalsea period.  Dickens’ schoolfriends are brought to life and their careers tracked: their education at the Wellington House Academy was good enough to turn out doctors, writers, artists and a lawyer.  Harsh though Dickens was on his old school masters one was erudite enough to write a book on English Grammar and another moved on to the British Museum and became one of the world’s most accomplished linguists.   Three of his childhood friends stayed close to Dickens and worked with him for many years. Through judicious examination of a wide range of documents Allen is able to lay out details of Dickens’ work as a solicitor’s clerk.  And uncovers a rare example of Dickens’ early handwriting and signature.With precision Allen traces Dickens’ early career as a journalist and writer, his fascination with theatre and his friendship with William Harrison Ainsworth.  Allen gives much more importance than any previous biographer to Dickens’ lifelong friendship with Thomas Mitton.  A new and careful examination is made of Dickens’ first serious love affair, with Maria Beadnell. Together with the impressive work on documentary material, Allen has carefully researched and brought together more than 250 illustrations, many in colour, that light up this exceptional book.


Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature, Birkbeck College

Michael Allen has made a major contribution to our knowledge and understanding of Dickens’s early years.  His work is very much in the tradition of such outstanding scholars as Kathleen Tillotson and K.J. Fielding, and his highly readable and meticulously researched Charles Dickens’ Childhood is one of the few really indispensable books for researchers in the field today.


It is heartening that in the last few years scholarship rather than free association has become more evident …  Michael Allen’s account of Dickens’s childhood, for example, is exceptional for its reliance upon fact rather than upon moody conjecture…  and as a result he writes with conviction and authority.

RUTH RICHARDSON, Times Higher Education Supplement

Michael Allen’s astonishing new book – a truly fine new work: not a confection of gossip or a rehash of tired theories, but real data, unexpected and important.

DANIEL TYLER, Oxford University, Times Literary Supplement

[This] is a book intended for those who share Allen’s dedication to the details of Dickens’s life and a useful sourcebook for any future biographer of Dickens.

CATHERINE PETERS, The Literary Review

A rough nugget of important research… the information in it will be taken seriously by Dickens scholars.  I hope there is more to discover; Michael Allen is the person to do it.


There is for scholars an unholy glee in unearthing facts others have missed.  Michael Allen belongs to this body of devoted ferrets.  A librarian, he has burrowed to good purpose and his book will undoubtedly become a standard work for serious students.

MARGARET HEILBRUN, The Library Journal

Essential for all who love Dickens down to the bone, and for all serious academic collections.


Allen compresses a wealth of detail whose cumulative effect will have a significant impact on future biographical and critical studies of Dickens … he is a careful and painstaking builder, a foundation expert intent on answering a number of important questions.

The labors of Michael Allen have provided an impressive foundation on which to base his claims and reveal facts long concealed behind those “hard experiences” first practically exposed to public scrutiny by Forster.