The Life and Work of Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens is one of the most popular and beloved writers who ever lived. His novels and tales catered to a vast and intensely loyal audience. More than just an entertainer, Dickens used his enormous popularity to attack injustice and strengthen the sympathies of his readers for the poor and the helpless, for orphans and outcast persons.
Charles John Huffham Dickens was born in 1812, near Portsmouth, England, to a family in the middle-class. His father was a minor government official, a clerk in the navy’s pay office; his paternal grandmother had been in domestic service, as a housekeeper. In his boyhood, Dickens’ family experienced money troubles. For a time, his father was even imprisoned for debt in London’s Marshalsea Prison. His wife and younger children accompanied him to the prison. But Dickens, the second eldest of eight children, was expected to work to help the family. He was pulled out of school, and, at the age of 12, sent to work in a factory warehouse, pasting labels on bottles of blacking (shoe polish) for six shillings a week.
Dickens’ father was eventually released and Dickens resumed his schooling. For the proud, sensitive boy, who had dreamed of becoming a distinguished gentleman, the whole experience had been a terrible, humiliating, lonely ordeal. It profoundly affected him, haunted his writing (most notably in the autobiographical David Copperfield), and colored his view of the world.
At 15, Dickens left school to become a clerk in a law office. After teaching himself shorthand, he became a legal reporter, and covered debates in Parliament for the newspapers. His skepticism about organized politics and established institutions probably dates from this time in his life.
In 1837, when he was only 25, Pickwick Papers was published. His first novel, it was an enormous success with the public. It was issued in installments, as a serial, as were the rest of his novels, including Hard Times, which appeared in 1854. Writing his novels in this way, in cheap monthly or weekly parts (called “numbers”) was somewhat confining to Dickens’ creative freedom. But it also allowed for an extraordinary closeness between Dickens and his readers and made him into an expert at “cliff-hanger” endings. His audience (which, of course, had no movies or TV soap operas to distract it) was kept in suspense, impatient to discover what happened to the characters in the next “number.”
Dickens’ fame came early and never left him. He worked tirelessly to sustain it, and to support the 10 children given him by his wife, Catherine Hogarth, the genteel daughter of one of Dickens’ newspaper editors. In early years riches eluded him, but in later life his novels paid handsomely, and he was able to purchase a mansion in the country, Gads Hill Place. This was the very house that in his childhood his father had often pointed out to him on their walks together, telling him that if he worked hard he might hope to live there one day.
The glittering success Dickens had made of his life, its seeming vindication of his society’s beliefs about the value of perseverance and hard work, still left him in many ways unsatisfied and restless within himself. In 1858 his marriage to Catherine, never entirely happy, ended in a separation, and he began a relationship with an actress, Ellen Lawless Ternan, who was many years his junior. The happy marriages with which so many of his novels end are offset by acute descriptions, notably in evidence in Hard Times, of bad marriages and unhappy homes.
Dickens often spoke out on public affairs and became involved with a variety of causes such as prison reform and the abolition of the death penalty. In 1842 he visited America, and although sympathetic to the young republic, was forthright in criticizing its failings, particularly the evil of slavery. In England he lent his active support to a variety of philanthropic endeavors. The problem of the education of the poor, and of children particularly, engaged his attention. Along with its focus on the evils of the industrial system, education is a major theme of Hard Times.
Hard Times sold well, significantly boosting the circulation of the weekly magazine (founded and edited by Dickens himself), in which it first appeared. The critical reception was mixed. Dickens’ accounts of industrial life and his satirical treatment of political economists were attacked by critics with a stake in the debate; the popular journalist and adherent of laissez-faire economics Harriet Martineau, for example, found it “unlike life…master and man are as unlike life in England, at present, as Ogre and Tom Thumb.” But John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic and sage, thought Hard Times the greatest of Dickens’ works, and wrote that it “should be studied with close and earnest care by persons interested in social questions.” Nearer to our own time, figures as different as George Bernard Shaw and Sigmund Freud have testified to its power. In his book The Great Tradition, the influential English critic F. R. Leavis asserted that Hard Times is “a masterpiece,” which (according to Leavis) unlike any of his other novels has the strength of a “completely serious work of art.”
Toward the end of his life, Dickens threw himself into a series of highly dramatic public readings of his works. While remunerative, these were emotionally draining and contributed to his declining health. He died in 1870. Universally mourned, he was buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
After Shakespeare, Dickens is the most written about author in English literature. Dickens’ 14 major novels, and numerous shorter works such as A Christmas Carol, brim with humor, satire, and pathos; they teem with a fantastic array of entertaining characters and convey vividly and memorably a sense of the author’s times: its hopes and sorrows, follies and pleasures, houses and streets, factories and schools, manners and people. In one way or another they all also show Dickens’ intense concern with the injustices of his society. Some of these continue to beset us in our own, very different, time; this is one of the reasons why Dickens’ work still speaks to us to this day.