7 Strange Habits of Charles Dickens

The celebrated author of such literary classics as A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations lived a rich and uncommon life for a 19th century Londoner. In this article, we take a look at some of the more unusual traits and strange habits of Charles Dickens.


Charles Dickens was born February 7, 1812 in Portsmouth, England. He did not have an easy childhood. He grew up poor and often suffered physical ailments throughout his early years. Body spasms and pain prevented him from playing with other children. Instead he learned to sharpen his sense of insight through observation.

Dickens was a man of contradiction to family and friends. He had a fierce temper with those who crossed him or fell short of his expectations. But he also enjoyed close friendships, socializing, partying, dancing and games. He went out of his way to help the downtrodden and underprivileged, but held his own family to unachievable standards.

The odd and strange habits of Charles Dickens

Dickens was a peculiar man with peculiar tastes. He smoked cigars frequently from the age of 15 but disliked spittoons. Raspberries and dates were a few of his favorite snacks. He invented what he called the “Artful Sandwich”: A French roll with butter, parsley, hard-boiled egg and anchovies. He even preferred cold showers to hot ones.

A look at the life of the inimitable writer and social critic reveals more of his strange habits and quirky traits:

Charles Dickens in 1868
Charles Dickens in 1868

1. Compulsive behavior ruled his life.

“Of course I arranged both the room and my luggage before going to bed, and had everything very tidy.”
– Charles Dickens

Dickens obsessed about organizing all of his surroundings, even to the point of rearranging the hotel furniture to his liking when traveling. 

His obsessive-compulsive behavior exhibited itself in other ways too. He was a flamboyant dresser and was preoccupied with observing himself in the mirror. He would comb his hair hundreds of times each day. The bed he slept in always aligned in a north-south direction in accordance with his beliefs about magnetic fields and health. He felt compelled to touch certain objects three times in a row to bring good luck.

2. He was known as the “London Walker”.

“I think I must be the descendant, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp.”
“If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.”
– Charles Dickens

Dickens enjoyed taking long walks in the city and its suburbs to inspire his creative process. He would often walk at night, sometimes traveling 20 miles by foot.

The cold, damp air of London frequently made worse his chronic congestion and colds. Undeterred, he walked regularly throughout his life and was only slowed when the pain and swelling of gout made it impossible.

3. He was fascinated with society’s underprivileged and down-trodden.

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
– Charles Dickens
Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol
Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol

On many of his long walks, Dickens explored and watched the underbelly of society: prisons, asylums, the destitute and invalids. His notes and impressions of society’s rejects informed his writing and inspired his personal benevolence. 

Dickens felt great sympathy for the unfortunate. His help for the poor, lower-class citizens of London included the establishment of a home for “fallen women” (prostitutes) called Shepherd’s Bush.

4. He was drawn to the dark side.

“Death is a mighty, universal truth.”
– Charles Dickens
Holbein's Dance of Death
Holbein’s Dance of Death

Dickens felt the draw of dark influences even as a child. He became interested in the Hans Holbein’s woodcut allegorical series, the “Dance of Death”. The 15th century illustrations tell a dark tale of death’s cold hand on the lives of people from all levels of society.

As a young man, he became fascinated by mesmerism and began experimenting with family and friends after attending lectures on the subject. He employed the hypnotic effects of mesmerism to heal those close to him who were suffering. 

In 1840, he watched a public hanging. François Courvoisier, the Swiss valet, was convicted of cutting the throat of his employer Lord William Russell and was put to death. The memory and impact of the event haunted Dickens for many years, causing him to pen many opinions against capital punishment.

Dickens Top 10 Most Famous Novels:

Great Expectations
David Copperfield
Bleak House
Oliver Twist
Barnaby Rudge
Nicholas Nickleby
The Pickwick Papers
A Tale of Two Cities
Little Dorrit
Martin Chuzzlewit

5. He had an affinity for silly, unusual names.

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit

Dickens used the pen name “Boz” early in his writing career. The pseudonym came from “Moses,” the family nickname of the youngest son, Augustus. Mocking his often-congested condition, Dickens morphed the name into the nasally-pronounced “Boses” and eventually shortened it to Boz.

Dickens famously packed his novels full of creative and descriptive character names. Some were downright silly.

Examples include Scrooge, Mr. Bumble, Charity Pecksniff, Serjeant Buzfuz and Uriah Heep from David Copperfield—his favorite novel.

He also gave his children unusual nicknames. “Snodgering Blee” was his name for Charles, his first-born; he used the moniker “Lucifer Box“ for his daughter Katey (because of her fiery temper), and; he called his youngest son Edward “Plorn.”

6. His children’s lack of drive and accomplishment frustrated him.

“The universe, he observed, makes rather an indifferent parent, I am afraid.”
– Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens with his family
Charles Dickens with his family

His driven, achieving personality did not allow him to forgive his children’s shortcomings. 

The disappointment he felt in his family was clear; “You don’t know what it is to look round the table and see reflected from every seat at it (where they sit) some horribly well remembered expression of inadaptability to anything.”

7. He had a wife and 10 kids… and a mistress.

“Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other—What is now befalling I have seen steadily coming.
– Charles Dickens
The mistress of Charles Dickens, Ellen Ternan
The mistress of Charles Dickens, Ellen Ternan

Dickens grew apart from his wife Catherine in his later years. Scholars believe it was in this time period he began a long-term relationship with a younger woman. Ellen “Nelly” Ternan was an 18-year-old actress when they first met. Dickens was 45. He paid for her housing and expenses, keeping her away from his wife and family. Some biographers speculate he and his mistress had a child that died shortly after birth.


Charles Dickens performed A Christmas Carol for the last time on March 15, 1870 to an appreciative audience. It would be his last performance on stage, doing what he loved most. He died less than three months later of a stroke at age 58.

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