Charles Dickens Biography

Charles Dickens Biography

Charles Dickens was described by G. K. Chesterton as a man who possessed the qualities of a young boy with no boundaries—mischievous and irresponsible, yet passionately alive and relentlessly hopeful. Indeed, this prolific (he wrote novels, novellas, plays, short stories, fiction, and nonfiction) and popular (he was the most requested after-dinner speaker of his time) nineteenth-century author transformed his own life into vibrant, imaginative fiction; he wrote about everything he saw, and because his experiences led him from the depths of the poorhouse to the heights of popularity, his writing established universal appeal. By championing social causes in his works, creating vivid, unforgettable characters, and caring for his audience as much as he did for his pen, Dickens established himself as the immortal author of Victorian England.

Facts and Trivia

  • Dickens’ father would make young Charles stand upon a tall stool, sing songs, and create stories for the entertainment of other clerks in the office.
  • Dickens admitted that David Copperfield was his favorite work. It was also his most autobiographical.
  • In Boston, four thousand people gathered at the dock to await the ship that carried chapter seventy-one of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. When the ship arrived, they asked the captain about a beloved character from the novel: “Is Nell dead?” When the affirmative response came back, a collective groan rose up from the massive crowd.
  • At the age of ten, Dickens was forced to work at a factory to pay off his father’s debts. Although Dickens himself spoke of this traumatizing experience only twice in his life, critics and readers agree that the two years he spent there forged much of the material for his later novels.
  • Edgar Allan Poe is said to be the only person who was ever able to predict the conclusion of the complex plots in Dickens’ novels.


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: The most popular novelist of his time, Dickens created a fictional world that reflects the social and technological changes of the Victorian era.

Early Life

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born at Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, the second of eight children. His father, John Dickens, a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, was always hard-pressed to support his family. Because his father’s work made it necessary for him to travel, Dickens spent his youth in several different places, including London and Chatham. When he was only twelve years old, his father’s financial difficulty made it necessary for the young Dickens to work in a shoeblacking warehouse while his father was placed in a debtor’s prison at Marshalsea—an event that was to have a powerful influence on Dickens throughout his life. Oliver Twist’s experience in the workhouse is one of the best-known results of what Dickens considered to be an act of desertion by his parents.

After his father was released from prison, Dickens was sent to school at an academy in London, where he was a good student. When he was fifteen, he worked as a solicitor’s clerk in law offices and two years later became a shorthand reporter of parliamentary proceedings and a free-lance reporter in the courts. In 1829, he fell in love with Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a banker, but broke with her in 1833. At age twenty-one, he began publishing his Sketches by Boz and joined the Morning Chronicle as a reporter. His first collection of Sketches by Boz appeared in 1836, the same year he began a series of sketches titled Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). Also in 1836, he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a journalist. As Pickwick Papers became a striking popular success in serial publication, the Dickens phenomenon began, and Dickens was on his way to becoming the most powerful and widely read author in nineteenth century England.

Life’s Work

With Dickens’ sudden fame came offers of more literary work. He began editing a new monthly magazine for which he contracted to write another serial story, which he called Oliver Twist (1837-1839) and which began to appear while Pickwick Papers was still running. Thus, Dickens started the breakneck speed of writing which was to characterize the energy of his work throughout his life. While Oliver Twist was still running in serial form, Dickens also began publishing Nicholas Nickleby, another great success, first in serial form (1838) and then as a book (1839). Immediately thereafter, he began the serialization of The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841) in a weekly publication, followed soon after by Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’80 (1841).

Dickens paused from his writing between 1836 and 1841 to travel in the United States, the result of which was American Notes (1842) and, more important, the serialization of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), outraging many American readers with its caricature of life in the United States. During the Christmas season of 1843, Dickens achieved one of his most memorable successes with A Christmas Carol, which gave the world the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. The poor circulation of Martin Chuzzlewit was cause enough for Dickens to cease his writing once again for an extended visit to the Continent. Yet the poor reception of A Christmas Carol was not enough to prevent Dickens from publishing two more Christmas stories—The Chimes (1845) and A Cricket on the Hearth (1845).

Returning from Italy in 1845, Dickens began editing a new daily newspaper, The Daily News, but resigned from that job after only three weeks. He began instead the serialization of Dombey and Son (1846-1848), only to begin the serialization of David Copperfield (1849-1850) the following year. During this time, Dickens began working with amateur theatricals as an actor and a director, mostly to benefit literature and the arts. He then began editing the periodical Household Words and writing what many call his most ambitious work, Bleak House, in 1852, which ran for a year and a half.

In 1854, Hard Times was published serially in order to boost the failing circulation of Household Words, and soon thereafter, Dickens began serialization of Little Dorrit (1855-1857). At this time, Dickens purchased a home at Gad’s Hill, on the road between London and Dover, but his home life was not to be that of country tranquillity. In 1858, he separated from his wife amid much bad publicity.

Also in 1858, Dickens began another major aspect of his professional life—a series of public readings from his own work. Although he published A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, the public readings in London did not abate. In 1860, he began writing Great Expectations (1860-1861) to increase the circulation of a new weekly, All the Year Round. London readings continued through 1863, when he went to Paris for another series of readings there. Although he was experiencing poor health, Dickens wrote Our Mutual Friend (1864-1866) and performed public readings in London until 1868, when he made his last trip to the United States for a tour of readings which brought him much money but which taxed his already failing health.

When Dickens returned to England after several months in the United States, he took up readings again in London, Scotland, and Ireland, in addition to beginning his last work (which he did not live to finish), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). In 1870, on June 8, after working all day, Dickens suffered a stroke while at his Gad’s Hill home and died the next day. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.


As any account of his life makes clear, what most characterizes Charles Dickens is the amount of work he produced and the fact that all of it was originally written for serial publication—a demanding way to publish. To keep up with the demand, Dickens was writing constantly. Although audiences followed Dickens’ work as closely as they follow television soap operas today, identifying with his characters as if they were real people and eagerly awaiting each new installment, the fact that Dickens had to keep writing continuously to meet the demands of serialization has made many academic critics scorn his work as popular melodrama catering to the tastes of the masses.

Yet the widespread popularity of Dickens, which continues unabated into the late twentieth century, cannot be accounted for so simply. In spite of the fact that Dickens cranked out novel after novel, as if he were a one-man literary factory, he impresses even skeptics as a masterful storyteller and a genius at characterization.

Many critics have tried to account for what might be called the mystery of Dickens: his amazing aptitude for visualizing scenes in concrete detail, his ability to control and develop highly elaborate plots, and most of all, his puzzling method of creating characters that, even as they are obviously caricatures, seem somehow more real in their fictionality than most realistic characters are. Simply to name such characters as Mr. Pickwick, Scrooge, Fagin, and Mr. Micawber is to conjure up images that are destined to remain memorable.

The fact that Dickens’ novels have been so easily adapted to film has added to the almost hallucinatory way with which his works are imprinted on the mind of twentieth century readers and viewers. Such scenes as Oliver in the workhouse asking for more gruel, Sydney Carton on the scaffold in A Tale of Two Cities, saying what a far, far better thing he does, and Miss Havisham in her decayed wedding dress in Great Expectations, have become part of the mind and memory of millions of Dickens’ admirers.

Dickens drew his inspiration primarily from three sources. First, much of his writing is autobiographical. One can see the deserted, poverty-stricken child in Oliver Twist, the aspiring young writer in David Copperfield, and the misguided young man in Pip. Second, Dickens wrote about the many social and technological elements of Victorian society. Bleak House is a compendium of Dickens’ knowledge about the complexities of the law courts, just as Martin Chuzzlewit is a satiric overview of Victorian (and American) social absurdities. In such works as Hard Times, Dickens focused on the deficiencies of Utilitarian philosophy of the period, and in Little Dorrit, he turned his attention to the bureaucracy of the business world. Finally, Dickens’ fiction developed out of the same source from which all fiction ultimately springs, that is, the many conventions of fiction itself. In spite of the fact that Dickens was not highly educated, he was well-read, especially in the wellspring works of storytelling and character-making such as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), as well as the masterworks of the novel’s beginning in the eighteenth century, such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), and Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748). Thus, in spite of the fact that Dickens’ characters seem so very real when the reader remembers them, they seem real precisely because they are so artificial; that is, they are pure fictional creations who can exist only in Dickens’ imaginative world.

The number of Dickens’ admirers seems to grow each year. Such adaptations of Dickens’ work as the highly popular musical version of Oliver Twist, the ambitious (day-long) and masterful Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage presentation of Nicholas Nickleby, and the yearly tradition of countless presentations of A Christmas Carol, introduce new readers to Dickens’ works over and over again. There is little doubt that he will continue to be the most popular and influential spokesman of Victorian England, for, in the minds of the majority, Victorian England is Dickens’ England.


Coolidge, Archibald C., Jr. Charles Dickens as Serial Novelist. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1967. A helpful study of a very important aspect of Dickens’ work: The fact that his writing first appeared in serialization had a great influence on the nature of his narrative.

Fielding, K. J. Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction. London: Longmans, 1958, 2d ed. 1965. One of the best brief studies of both the life and work of Dickens.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman and Hall, 1872-1874, rev. ed. 1876. The first authoritative biography, in three volumes (two in the revised edition), written by a friend and literary adviser of Dickens, and valuable for the many factual details and anecdotes which it includes.

House, Humphrey. The Dickens World. London: Oxford University Press, 1941. An important book which helped to initiate the revival of the study of Dickens as a serious novelist; focuses on Victorian social issues in Dickens’ work.

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. Rev. ed. New York: Viking Press, 1977. The definitive biography; also contains much very good criticism of Dickens’ work.

Leavis, F. R., and Q. D. Leavis. Dickens the Novelist. London: Chatto and Windus, 1970. Focuses on the novels from Dombey and Son through Great Expectations; excellent criticism by two highly respected British critics.

Marcus, Steven. Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey. New York: Basic Books, 1965. A study of Dickens’ early work, focusing on Victorian cultural life; a stimulating study by a well-known critic of Victorian literature and life.

Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. A stimulating study of the creative universe fashioned by Dickens, by one of America’s best-known and most controversial phenomenological critics.

Nelson, Harland S. Charles Dickens. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981. Not the usual introductory survey, this study focuses on the way Dickens wrote and published and how the basic elements of his novels engage the reader.

Wilson, Angus. The World of Charles Dickens. New York: Viking Press, 1970. Perhaps the best single-volume study of Dickens’ life as well as his work as a popular novelist.

Charles Dickens Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Dickens is generally considered to be the preeminent novelist of Victorian England. His novels include Oliver Twist (1838), A Christmas Carol (1843), Bleak House (1852-1853), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859). His novel Oliver Twist, about an orphaned boy who runs away from a workhouse and falls under the influence of an unscupulous Jewish thief named Fagin, was the subject of a censorship effort in New York in 1949. The case of Rosenberg v. Board of Education of the City of New York involved a complaint made in the New York courts against the reading and study of Oliver Twist—as well as William Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice—in New York City secondary schools. Charging that both works contained offensive portrayals of Jews, the complainants urged the court that the works would prompt hatred of Jews as individuals and as a race. However, the court determined that because no school officials or instructors had selected the works in order to promote anti- Semitism their censorship would be inappropriate.

Charles Dickens Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Born into a large, lower-middle-class family whose fortunes were perennially unsettled, Charles Dickens grew up amid the scenes of his novels, in London and various provincial towns in southeastern England. Two traumatic events of his youth, his father’s imprisonment for debt and his own humiliating apprenticeship at a shoe-blacking factory, gave Dickens a lifelong sympathy for the poor and a fear of poverty. When the family finances improved, Dickens went to school and eventually became a reporter of court proceedings and parliamentary debates. His superior reporting soon won for him a job with the Morning Chronicle. A collection of his journalistic pieces, Sketches by Boz, soon gained favorable attention, and the publishers Chapman and Hall engaged him to write an accompaniment for a series of sporting sketches. In his own words, Dickens “thought of Mr. Pickwick,” and with this inspired creation won the wide and devoted readership he was not to relinquish throughout his long writing career.

Although he completed fourteen novels and many short pieces, Dickens did not exhaust his great energies in writing. He campaigned actively for social reform; edited journals; traveled widely, frequently, and profitably on public reading tours in England and America; participated in amateur theatricals; and played the Victorian paterfamilias to a large household. However successful Dickens the public man may have seemed, his personal life was often troubled. In 1858, his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, never an entirely compatible union, failed, and he turned to a considerably younger woman, the actress Ellen Ternan, for affection and companionship. In 1870, while working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which to all appearances would have been the gloomiest of his novels, Dickens suffered a fatal stroke. The one-time apprentice died an eminent Victorian, mourned by the world.

Charles Dickens Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, on Portsea Island, England, Charles John Huffam Dickens was the son of John Dickens, a Naval Pay Office employee, and Elizabeth Barrow, the daughter of the Naval Conductor of Moneys. John Dickens’s largely unsuccessful struggle to gain middle-class respectability was hampered not only by his parents’ career in domestic service but also by the disgrace of his father-in-law, who left the country to avoid the consequences of a petty embezzlement. John Dickens’s seaport life left a lasting impression on his son, to be recorded partly in Rogue Riderhood’s river activities in Our Mutual Friend and partly in metaphor, as in Dombey and Son, where the running of the river into the ocean represents the passage of life into immortality. John Dickens’s improvidence and inevitable bankruptcy is reflected in the impecunious but absurdly hopeful Mr. Micawber and, more abstractly, in Dickens’s ambiguous attitude toward wealth, which he viewed as a highly desirable tool but worthless as a gauge of human value, as in Our Mutual Friend, in which money is equated with an excremental dust heap. An inordinate number of Dickens’s deserving characters acquire wealth fortuitously: Oliver Twist, the parish boy, finds his near relatives; Nicholas Nickleby becomes clerk to the generous Cheerybles; and Esther Summerson comes under the protection of the well-to-do Jarndyce.

Childhood associations were incorporated into Dickens’s stories as well. His nurse, Mary Weller, by her own dogmatic adherence, inculcated in him a distaste for Chapel Christianity; his childhood taste for theatricals blossomed into a lifelong fascination. (In fact, in 1832, only illness prevented him from auditioning at Covent Garden.) Perhaps no other circumstance, however, had so profound an effect on Dickens as his father’s incarceration in the Marshalsea (a London prison) for bankruptcy, well chronicled in David Copperfield. John Forster, Dickens’s friend and biographer, records the author’s bitterness at being put to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory. Even worse than the degradation of the job for the young Dickens was the feeling that he had been abandoned. Although his period of employment in the factory could be measured in months, the psychological scars lasted for the rest of Dickens’s life, as witnessed by his novelistic preoccupation with orphans and adopted families: Oliver Twist, Amy Dorrit, Pip, Little Nell—all abandoned in some sense and forced into precocity, some, in effect, reversing roles with their parents or guardians to become their protectors.

At the age of fifteen, Dickens was apprenticed as a law clerk in Doctor’s Commons, certainly the source of his profound dislike for the pettifoggery exhibited in the Jarndyce case in Bleak House. He then became a reporter in Parliament and, at the age of seventeen, fell in love with Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a banking family who discouraged the attentions of the impoverished young man. This experience, as well as his unsuccessful marriage to Catherine Hogarth, daughter of the editor of the Morning Chronicle, contributed much to his alternate idealization of women (such as Dora in David Copperfield) and mockery of feminine foibles.

At the time of his marriage, Dickens had been writing a serial for Robert Seymour’s sporting drawings—a work that became Pickwick Papers upon Seymour’s suicide. Dickens’s success came quickly: He became editor of Bentley’s Miscellany (1836), and in February, 1837, Oliver Twist began to appear, one month after the birth of the first of his ten children. Before Oliver Twist had finished its serial run, Dickens had begun Nicholas Nickleby, in which he drew on his dramatic interests to create the Crummles provincial acting company. Then, in 1840, Dickens arranged to edit Master Humphrey’s Clock, which became a vehicle for both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge (the story of the 1780 Gordon riots). Some of his immense creative energy came from the early happiness of his marriage, but some also came from an effort to forget the death of his beloved sister-in-law Mary, who died in his arms when she was seventeen.

This period of activity ended in 1842 with a six-month visit to the United States. In letters, in American Notes, and in Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens reveals his double vision of America. Welcomed in Boston by such literati as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dickens moved from the cultivated bluestocking milieu into a furious newspaper war that was waged over the lack of an international copyright agreement. Dickens came to believe that while democracy did exist in such model factory towns as Lowell, Massachusetts, America’s much-vaunted freedom was an excuse for vulgarity on one hand and hypocrisy on the other. He was appalled at the conditions of slavery in St. Louis and dismayed by the flat stretches of the Great Plains and by the ever-present concern for partisan politics, money, and power. All of these he satirized bitterly in the American section of Martin Chuzzlewit.

At home again, Dickens installed his sister-in-law Georgina in her lifelong role of housekeeper to counter what he judged to be Catherine’s growing indolence, surely symptomatic of his and his wife’s growing disillusionment with each other. Two years later, he began publication of Dombey and Son, his first planned novel. His next, the autobiographical David Copperfield, contains advice by the novel’s heroine, Agnes, that he applied to his own life: “Your growing power and success enlarge your power of doing good.” In March, 1850, Dickens founded Household Words, a periodical that featured short stories, serialized novels, poetry, and essays. Dickens and his writers published exposés of hospitals, sanitary conditions, political affairs, education, law, and religion, all expressed in a characteristically fanciful style. In these years, Dickens was engaged in amateur theatricals, partly to raise money to endow an impoverished actors’ home.

Between 1852 and 1857, he wrote three novels: Bleak House, his experiment in first-person narration; Hard Times, an attack on utilitarianism; and Little Dorrit, a semiautobiographical work. Becoming more and more estranged from his wife, he engaged in a strenuous and highly popular series of readings from his works, again bringing his dramatic talent into play. In June, 1858, he published a much-criticized apologia for his marital separation; then, chafing at the restrictions imposed on Household Words by the publishers, Edward Chapman and William Hall, Dickens severed the connection and began All the Year Round, a new periodical of the same type.

His liaison with the actor Ellen Ternan continued in this period, during which he wrote A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel. He undertook another exhausting series of public readings, his reenactment of Nancy’s murder in Oliver Twist proving the most demanding. In 1867, he left for a successful tour of the United States. He continued public readings until the end of his life.

Dickens died at Gad’s Hill, near Rochester, on June 9, 1870, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. His last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, appeared posthumously.

Charles Dickens Biography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, the second of eight children of John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow Dickens. Because his father’s job as clerk in the Naval Pay Office paid very little and made it necessary for him to travel, Dickens spent a penurious youth in many different places. At the age of twelve, he faced the traumatic experience of being put to work in a shoeblack warehouse while his father was imprisoned for debt. Oliver Twist’s hard young life is the best-known fictional result of what Dickens considered to be an act of desertion by his parents.

After his father was released from prison, Dickens went to school at a London academy. At the age of fifteen, he worked as a solicitor’s clerk in law offices and two years later became a freelance reporter for the courts—experiences that he later put to good use in his fiction. At the age of twenty-one, he began publishing “Sketches by Boz” and joined The Morning Chronicle as a newspaper reporter. The year 1836 was important for Dickens, for he published the Boz sketches as a book; married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a journalist; and began Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), a serialized work so phenomenally popular that he was on the way to becoming the most widely read author in England.

While Pickwick Papers was still running in serial form, Dickens began Oliver Twist (1837-1839) and shortly thereafter Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), both popular successes. He seldom took time off, writing novel after novel at an astonishingly prolific rate; his serial fictions ran in London magazines or newspapers almost constantly. The high point of his career was between 1850 and 1860; during that period, he published his most respected novels—David Copperfield (1849-1850), Bleak House, Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860-1861).

When he was not writing novels, Dickens was touring the United States or the Continent, editing various journals and newspapers, working with amateur theatrical groups, and giving public readings from his works. This extremely heavy work load finally took its toll on his health. On June 8, 1870, after working all day, he suffered a stroke at his Gad’s Hill home; he died the next day. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Charles Dickens Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, the second child of John and Elizabeth Dickens. Following his father’s work as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, the family moved to the port town of Chatham in 1817, where for a time Dickens enjoyed an idyllic middle-class childhood—fresh country air, decent schooling, and books to read in the attic on sunny afternoons.

It was a short idyll. By 1822, improvident John Dickens’s fortunes were waning. Recalled to London by his office, he placed his wife and six children in a cheap and smelly little house in the ugly new suburb of Camden Town. In late January or early February, 1824, the seminal event of Dickens’s life occurred: He was sent to work sticking labels on bottles of boot polish alongside a group of ragged urchins in Warren’s Blacking Factory, a tottering and rat-infested building next to the Thames River in old central London. Passersby could see him at work in the window. His degradation seemed complete.

To make matters worse, there was the loneliness. Within a month, in February, 1824, John Dickens was arrested for debt. His family joined him in the Marshalsea Prison—all, that is, except twelve-year-old Charles, who was left to survive on his own in London.

Buoyed by an inheritance, Dickens’s father was released after only a few months in prison. Charles’s mother, however, kept her son at the blacking factory—something he never forgot. Only after John Dickens had retired from the office and turned to freelance journalism in March, 1825, was Charles sent back to school. The nightmare had lasted little more than a year, but a year is a long time to a sensitive, brilliant, and ambitious boy; such an experience, in the class-conscious society of Victorian England, was for Dickens a deep source of shame. The adult Dickens told it only once, to his best friend and first biographer John Forster. His wife never knew.

In 1827, Dickens left school for a dull job as a lawyer’s clerk. Two years later, he followed his father into journalism, first as a law reporter, then as the fastest shorthand reporter in the houses of Parliament, moving in 1834 to one of the best newspapers in the country, the Morning Chronicle. Meanwhile, he was rejected in love, dabbled in amateur theatricals, and, in 1833, had his first short story published.

Success came fast. Under the pen name of Boz, Dickens rapidly published a series of London “Street Sketches” over the next two years. These were collected together as his first book, Sketches by Boz (1836). Original, brilliantly illustrated, and intensely observant of the new phenomena of urban life, it captured the public fancy, and Dickens was invited to collaborate on another project with top cartoonist George Cruikshank. Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) followed, in twenty monthly serial parts; its resounding success was assured when Dickens invented Sam Weller, the archetypal streetwise low-life, and teamed him with genial, portly, gentlemanly Mr. Pickwick.

Dickens needed quick success. His craving for middle-class respectability led him rapidly into marriage to kindly and unassuming Catherine Hogarth in 1836, into a growing family, and into the solid comforts of a “proper” home. This situation was also graced by his teenage sister-in-law Mary, whose sudden death in his arms in May, 1837, profoundly shook him. That same year, keen to exercise control over his own writing and thereby to maximize his profits, he first tried his hand at magazine editing. The periodical Bentley’s Miscellany seemed to need rejuvenating, and although he was still in the middle of Pickwick Papers, he began serialization in the magazine of his Oliver Twist (1837-1839). That in turn overlapped with his next novel, Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839). When Bentley’s Miscellany folded in 1839, he launched his own magazine, the short-lived Master Humphry’s Clock (1840-1841), and serialized in it, in forty weekly parts, The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), which was both a pinnacle of Victorian sentimentality and a nightmare of threatened and dying childhood. He also published his historical novel Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’80 (1841).

The year 1842 saw Dickens’s first visit to America. His experiences produced a controversial travel book, American Notes (1842), and his picture of a failed utopia, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844). At thirty, he was already a figure of towering importance in Victorian society: Every one of his novels addressed a pressing social issue; he was heavily involved with charities and pressure groups and was increasingly attracted by the stage. Meanwhile, his wife was pregnant with their fifth child. In 1843, he wrote A Christmas Carol, following its success with another holiday offering every year.

The writing of his next big novel, Dombey and Son (1846-1848), in Italy (which was also the site of another travel book, Pictures from Italy, in 1846), went slowly: Dickens missed the direct inspiration of late-night walks in the London streets. His major autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, was published in 1849-1850. In 1850, his ninth child was born and he began his most successful venture into magazine editorship, the weekly Household Words (1849-1859), which mixed entertainment with useful information. It ran until arguments with his publishers caused Dickens to shut it down and start again under the title All the Year Round (1859-1870); in this magazine, Dickens helped launch such important fellow novelists as pioneer “sensation” and detective-fiction writer Wilkie Collins.

Dickens’s other career as a semiprofessional actor-director first started to merge with his career as a writer in December, 1853, when he gave his first public reading from his own works—a seasonal offering, not for profit, of A Christmas Carol. Bleak House (1852-1853) had been published the year before, and Hard Times (1854), his exposé of industrial inhumanity, was published the year after. In 1855, Dickens again met the first love of his life, the capricious and ornamental banker’s daughter Maria Beadnell, who had toyed with him in the early 1830’s. She was now fat, forty, and silly. He had his revenge on her, and on the march of time, whose ravages he was himself starting to feel, in the character of garrulous Flora Finching in Little Dorrit (1855-1857).

In 1856, Dickens bought Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, the gentleman’s country house that he had once admired, as a boy, from the dusty highroad. In 1857, while directing and acting in a play, he met the young actress Ellen Ternan. The following year, he separated from his plump and aging wife, trumpeting his self-justification in Household Words and point-blank denying the obvious implications of his new liaison. The same year, he gave another, better performance, as the dramatic public reader of his own works: Eyewitness accounts testify to his extraordinary, almost hypnotic power over his audience and his ability to transform himself into each of his own characters. Several weeks of London engagements were followed by a three-and-a-half-month reading tour of the provinces, Scotland, and Ireland.

The first issues of All the Year Round in 1859 contained the first installment of Dickens’s romantic fable of revolutionary France, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Great Expectations (1860-1861) began serialization in 1860, the year of Dickens’s second season of public readings. The deaths of his mother and (in India) of his son Walter perhaps colored his shadowy last finished novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865), a tale of deceit, betrayals, and violence.

By 1865, Dickens, at fifty-three, looked twenty years older; he had lived too intensely. Death was hastened when, against doctors’ orders and family pleas, he added to his public reading repertoire an adaptation of the scene in Oliver Twist, where villain Bill Sikes murders the prostitute Nancy. What brought him back to this gory scene, after nearly thirty years—acting ambition, an obsession with sex, blood, and violence, or murky impulses toward self-destruction—will never be satisfactorily explained. He died of heart failure on June 9, 1870, in Kent, England, leaving on his desk an unfinished tale of perversity and murder, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).

Charles Dickens Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Charles Dickens did not create novels: He created a world. Since his death in 1870, a semantic slippage has taken place, whereby he has become identified with the Victorian age and with Englishness; this is not altogether inappropriate. His fictions have frustrated and inspired writers as different as Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, and Graham Greene, to name but a few; they have also profoundly influenced early filmmakers and theorists such as D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein.

Dickens was a well of creativity. Through his erratic and eccentric fiction, he probed some of the mysteries of the human heart and human society; he allows readers to experience the world over again through the eyes of his child-narrators. As a result, Scrooge, Micawber, Pickwick, Fagin, Miss Havisham, and their companions have attained a life beyond the texts that gave them birth.

Charles Dickens Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Charles Dickens was born at Landport, near Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, the son of a minor government clerk. An unfortunate turn in the family’s financial status occurred shortly after the family moved to London when Charles was ten; as a result, Charles went to work in Warren’s blacking warehouse. Critics point to this event above all others for its traumatic effect on the emotional and creative life of the novelist. It has been said that Dickens experienced a “deep sense of abandonment” when his parents complacently relegated him to the sordid drudgery of work in the warehouse and that this is reflected in his work. At or near the center of so many of his novels, one finds a suffering, neglected child. The warehouse episode was brief, and he returned to school. He left school at fifteen, however, his real education having been gained from the novels of Miguel de Cervantes, Alain-René Lesage, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett, and his exposure to the London scene during his “abandonment.” He became first a lawyer’s clerk and then a shorthand reporter in the courts and the House of Commons.

His first book, Sketches by Boz, stemmed from his work as a journalist; it led to his being commissioned to write the text accompanying a collection of comic drawings of Cockney sportsmen, which was to be published in monthly installments. With the appearance of Sam Weller in Chapter X, the success of Pickwick Papers was not merely assured but sensational. From then on, Dickens was the most popular of all English novelists in his lifetime.

Even while Pickwick Papers was appearing, Oliver Twist was being published as a serial in a magazine. These two novels show the two sides of Dickens’s genius. Pickwick Papers is a work of pure humor, in which the crudities and miseries of the real world are sterilized by laughter and the vicious are objects of comedy, without reference to moral judgment. The world of Pickwick Papers is almost fairyland. In Oliver Twist, however, fairyland has become the country of nightmare, and the bad fairies have become ogres. There is still laughter, but it has become savage, satirical; the appeal is to derision. On the surface, Oliver Twist is an exposure novel, an attack on the working of the poor law of the day, but its underlying theme is the fate of innocence and weakness. The savage comedy, seen in a character like Bumble, is accompanied by equally savage melodrama, the melodrama of the Jew Fagin and the robber Bill Sikes.

Fairyland and nightmare exist side by side in Dickens’s subsequent novels. During the first part of his career, these novels are naïve in form, based on eighteenth century picaresque fiction, in which readers follow the fortunes of the hero who gives his name to the book, as in Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit. The weaknesses of structure inherent in picaresque fiction were accentuated by Dickens’s practice of writing for serialization and by his lack of what today might be called the artistic conscience. For example, Martin Chuzzlewit was sent to America not because the pattern of the novel demanded it but because sales were falling off and an element of novelty seemed appropriate to revive interest. Today the earlier novels are read for their incidentals, not for their plots. They are read for the scenes at Dotheboys Hall and the character of Mrs. Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, for the wonderful Pecksniff and the sublime Mrs. Gamp—as a comic creation second only to Falstaff in English literature—in Martin Chuzzlewit.

The masterpiece of this first part of Dickens’s career is the semiautobiographical David Copperfield, the most varied of the earlier works and the best proportioned, containing, too, some of his most delightful characters, among them Mr. Micawber, modeled on his father. The darkening of his vision is already apparent, however, in Dombey and Son (published before David Copperfield), and henceforth his criticism of the age, which up to then had largely dealt with specific abuses, becomes general, focusing on the themes of money and class conflict. The humor is no longer that of delighted appreciation of the absurd, but bitterly sardonic, as in the rendering of Mr. Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s last completed novel. Plot becomes much more highly organized; at the same time, a rich symbolism enters his fiction, sometimes as an extraordinary intensification of atmosphere, as in the description of Dombey’s house in Dombey and Son, sometimes as a feature of the London scene, such as the dust-piles (trash heaps) that dominate Our Mutual Friend, sometimes even as an atmospheric condition, as in the fog that enshrouds the beginning of Bleak House. Symbolism of this kind was something almost entirely new in English fiction, and while his contemporaries preferred the earlier books, in which he portrayed comical eccentrics and stressed high spirits and the gospel of kindliness, critics in our time have tended more to admire the later novels, with their dark poetic sweep, the passionate intensity of their symbolism. Outstanding also among the later works are Little Dorrit, which is partly autobiographical in inspiration, and Great Expectations. He wrote two historical novels, Barnaby Rudge, based on the Gordon Riots of eighteenth century London, and A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution. His mystery story, Edwin Drood, was unfinished at Dickens’s death, and many critics believe that the completed part suggests a level of accomplishment not yet realized in Dickens’s previous work. A Christmas Carol is the most famous of his shorter pieces.

Dickens married in 1836 and separated from his wife in 1858. His first visit to the United States, in 1841, resulted in American Notes, a work which, together with the American chapters in Martin Chuzzlewit, was extremely resented in the United States. A second visit, in 1867, was a triumphant success. He died at his home at Gadshill on June 9, 1870.

Charles Dickens Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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(Novels for Students)

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(Novels for Students)

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(Novels for Students)
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