From the time he was twenty-one Charles Dickens knew he would not be the great actor he had imagined, nor even the journalist he next attempted to be. Instead, he felt he was destined to become a great novelist. He not only had experiences with the same joys and tragedies his characters would have, but he also had the great talent to make his readers feel and see all these experiences in detail. The second of eight children of John and Elizabeth Dickens, Charles was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England. His early childhood was a happy one. Though plagued by frequent illnesses, his first years were also filled with exciting stories told to him by his parents and his nurse.
However, when Dickens was twelve, his family moved to London, where his father was imprisoned for debts he could not pay. Charles was forced to go to work pasting labels on bottles at a bootblack factory. Although this job lasted less than a year, he often felt hungry and abandoned, especially compared to his sister Frances, who continued studying at the Royal Academy of Music, where she was winning awards. For Dickens, the injustice was almost more than he could stand, and his suffering was multiplied by his mother's delight about the job that he always remembered with hatred.
Although his critics are the first to say that Great Expectations is not directly autobiographical, Dickens' own words tell us that he resented having to work in the factory, where he dreamed of the better life he felt he deserved, much as Pip is eager to leave Joe's forge. Also, Dickens' essay "Travelling Abroad" describes a small boy who rides in a coach with Dickens past his grand house, Gad's Hill. Although the boy in the essay does not know Dickens or that this is the great author's house, he remarks that his father has told him that hard work will earn him this house, which Dickens had also admired for years before finally being able to afford it in 1856. Dickens' familiarity with youthful expectations and later-life remembrances of them are clear in this reflection.
Likewise, Dickens' first love for Maria Beadnell so impressed him by its horrible failure that even years later he could barely speak of it to his friend and biographer, John Forster. All that Dickens had written about her he later burned. He believed that Maria had rejected him because of social class differences, since Dickens had not yet established his writing career at the time and Maria's father was a banker. Decades later, his character Miss Havisham would burn, shooting up flames twice her size, in compensation for her cold heart.
Dickens' marriage to Catherine (Kate) Hogarth, the daughter of a newspaper editor, in 1836 produced ten children. Their union ended in separation in 1858, however. By the time Great Expectations was published in 1860, Dickens had known his mistress Ellen Ternan—an actress he had met when he became interested in the stage—for several years, and he established a separate household in which he lived with Ternan. It would not be until after the author's death, however, that Dickens' daughter would make the affair public. Ternan was twenty-seven years younger than Dickens, a fact that resembles the age difference between the happy, later-life couple Joe and Biddy in Great Expectations. Dickens protected his privacy because he was worried about his reputation as a respected writer and the editor of Household Words, a family magazine. Such turmoil and ecstasy in Dickens' intimate relationships have since been compared to the misery and bliss of couples in his novels.
If anything, Dickens' descriptions of suffering were and still are his chief endearing quality to readers who find them both realistic and empathetic. Beginning with Bleak House in 1852, Dickens is widely acknowledged to have entered a "Dark Period" of writing. Yet he seemed to enjoy his continuing popularity with readers and to ignore his critics' remarks that his stories were too melodramatic. While readers have long accepted that tendency, they have also warmed to Dickens' love of humor.
Critics suggest that the part of Dickens' life that is most reflected in A Tale of Two Cities is his personal relationships with his wife and Ellen Ternan. In 1855, he reestablished contact with his childhood sweetheart Maria Beadnell, but he was very disappointed with their meeting and depicted his disillusionment in the 1857 novel Little Dorrit. A quarrel with his publishers Bradbury & Evans over his mistress's reputation led Dickens to turn to a new publishing house, Chapman & Hall, to publish A Tale of Two Cities. Some critics suggest that Dickens' depiction of Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities and the behavior of the two principal characters, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, toward her, reflects his own attitude toward Ternan.
Dickens died of a brain aneurysm in June 1870. Although he had expressly wished to be buried at his country home, Gad's Hill, his request was disregarded, apparently owing to his fame. Instead, he was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, London.
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