Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. He was the second of eight children. His mother had been in service to Lord Crew, and his father worked as a clerk for the Naval Pay office. John Dickens was imprisoned for debt when Charles was young. Charles Dickens went to work at a blacking warehouse, managed by a relative of his mother, when he was twelve, and his brush with hard times and poverty affected him deeply. He later recounted these experiences in the semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield. Similarly, the concern for social justice and reform that surfaced later in his writings grew out of the harsh conditions he experienced in the warehouse.
As a young boy, Charles Dickens was exposed to many artistic and literary works that allowed his imagination to grow and develop considerably. He was greatly influenced by the stories his nursemaid used to tell him and by his many visits to the theater. Additionally, Dickens loved to read. Among his favorite works were Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, and Arabian Nights, all of which were picaresque novels composed of a series of loosely linked adventures. This format no doubt played a part in Dickens' idea to serialize his future works.
Dickens was able to leave the blacking factory after his father's release from prison, and he continued his education at the Wellington House Academy. Although he had little formal schooling, Dickens was able to teach himself shorthand and launch a career as a journalist. At the age of sixteen, Dickens got himself a job as a court reporter, and shortly thereafter he joined the staff of A Mirror of Parliament, a newspaper that reported on the decisions of Parliament. During this time, Charles continued to read voraciously at the British Library, and he experimented with acting and stage-managing amateur theatricals. His experience acting would affect his work throughout his life--he was known to act out characters he was writing in the mirror and then describe himself as the character in prose in his novels.
Quickly becoming disillusioned with politics, Dickens developed an interest in social reform and began contributing to the True Sun, a radical newspaper. Although his main avenue of work would consist in writing novels, Dickens continued his journalistic work until the end of his life, editing The Daily News, Household Words, and All the Year Round. His connections to various magazines and newspapers as a political journalist gave him the opportunity to begin publishing his own fiction at the beginning of his career. He would go on to write fifteen novels. (A final one, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was left unfinished upon his death.)
While he published several sketches in magazines, it was not until he serialized The Pickwick Papers over 1836-37 that he experienced true success. A publishing phenomenon, The Pickwick Papers was published in monthly installments and sold over forty thousand copies of each issue. Dickens was the first person to make the serialization of novels profitable and was able to expand his audience to include those who could not normally afford such literary works.
Within a few years, Dickens was regarded as one of the most successful authors of his time, with approximately one out of every ten people in Victorian England avidly reading and following his writings. In 1836 Dickens also married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a co-worker at his newspaper. The couple had ten children before their separation in 1858. Catherine's younger sister Mary lived with the couple, and Dickens was very attached to her. He was deeply traumatized by her death at the age of seventeen, and she is believed to have provided inspiration for a number of his idealized, angelic heroines such as Little Nell and Florence Dombey.
Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby followed in monthly installments, and both reflected Dickens' understanding of the lower classes as well as his comic genius. In 1843, Dickens published one of his most famous works, A Christmas Carol. His disenchantment with the world's economic drives is clear in this work: he blames much of society's ills on people's obsession with earning money and acquiring status based on money.
His travels abroad in the 1840s, first to America and then through Europe, marked the beginning of a new stage in Dickens' life. His writings became longer and more serious. In David Copperfield (1849-50), readers find the same flawed world that Dickens discovered as a young boy. Dickens published some of his best-known novels, including A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, in his own weekly periodicals.
The inspiration to write a novel set during the French Revolution came from Dickens' faithful annual habit of reading Thomas Carlyle's book The French Revolution, first published in 1839. When Dickens acted in Wilkie Collins' play The Frozen Deep in 1857, he was inspired by his own role as a self-sacrificing lover. He eventually decided to place his own sacrificing lover in the revolutionary period, a period of great social upheaval. A year later, Dickens went through his own form of social change as he was writing A Tale of Two Cities: he separated from his wife, and he revitalized his career by making plans for a new weekly literary journal called All the Year Round. In 1859, A Tale of Two Cities premiered as a series in this journal. Its popularity was based not only on the fame of its author, but also on its short length and radical (for Dickens' time) subject matter.
Dickens became involved in theatrical collaborations with his friend, the novelist Wilkie Collins. In 1857, while interviewing actresses for a play the two had written together, Dickens met Ellen Ternan. Despite already being married, and the age difference between the two (Dickens was 45 and Ternan 18), the two fell in love. This meeting precipitated the end for Dickens of what was already an unhappy marriage. Dickens separated from his wife Catherine in 1858. While his relationship with Ellen was kept very discreet, especially considering Dickens's celebrity, the two travelled together regularly, and Dickens supported her financially until the time of his death.
Dickens' health began to deteriorate in the 1860s. In 1858, in response to his increasing fame, he had begun public readings of his works. These exacted a great physical toll on him. An immensely profitable but physically shattering series of readings in America in 1867-68 sped his decline, and he collapsed during a "farewell" series in England.
On June 9, 1870, Charles Dickens died. He was buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. Though he left The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished, he had already written fifteen substantial novels and countless shorter pieces. His legacy is clear. In a whimsical and unique fashion, Dickens pointed out society's flaws in terms of its blinding greed for money and its neglect of the lower classes of society. Through his books, we come to understand the virtues of a loving heart and the pleasures of home in a flawed, cruelly indifferent world. Among English writers, in terms of his fame and of the public's recognition of his characters and stories, many consider him second only to William Shakespeare.
Dickens, Charles 1812-1870
(Full name Charles John Huffam Dickens; also wrote under the pseudonym of Boz) English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist.
Although Dickens is perhaps best known for his novels, he wrote short fiction throughout his career, from the early Sketches by Boz to the acclaimed Christmas stories and the journalistic Uncommercial Traveller. Dickens's short stories, like his longer works, mix humor with macabre imagery to create vivid illustrations of the lives of ordinary people. Designed to uncover social injustices and promote reform in his own time, the endearing characterizations and moving situations presented in Dickens's shorter pieces have appealed to audiences up to the present day; indeed, his short story A Christmas Carol is one of his most enduring works. For much of the Englishspeaking world, this tale has played an important role in defining the Yule spirit; according to May Lamberton Becker, "every year at Christmas time, thousands of families wherever the English language is known would scarcely think Christmas really Christmas without listening to this story read aloud."
Dickens was the son of John Dickens, a minor government official who, because he continually lived beyond his means, was briefly imprisoned for debt. During his father's confinement, the twelve-year-old Dickens was forced to leave home and work in dreadful conditions in a blacking (shoe polish) warehouse. This experience left an indelible impression on Dickens, who portrayed the difficulties of the poor in most of his writings. Late in his teens, Dickens learned shorthand and worked as a reporter. In 1833 he began contributing sketches and short stories to various periodicals. These were eventually compiled into two volumes under the title Sketches by Boz. He continued to use serial publication for all of his works, including his novels, for he cherished the constant contact with his readers the method provided. Throughout his career, Dickens gave numerous public readings from his works in both England and America, an activity that left him exhausted. Many believe that increasing physical and mental strain led to the stroke Dickens suffered while working on the novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he left unfinished at his death.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In his short fiction, Dickens variously combines humor, sentiment, autobiography, spirituality, and both Gothic and realistic elements. Sketches by Boz, provides comic and closely observed characterizations drawn from Victorian London's lower and middle classes. Celebrated stories from this compilation include: "A Visit to Newgate," which details a criminal's final hours before his execution; "The Black Veil," a tale about a woman whose life is evaluated according to the worth of her husband; and "Mr. Minns and His Cousin," which shows that adherence to social conventions can cause misery. Continuing to focus on the lives of ordinary people, Dickens began writing Christmas stories, which include A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain. His intention for these tales was, he wrote, "a whimsical kind of masque which the good humor of the season justified, to waken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land." Generally, these books feature fallen protagonists who, through a chain of remarkable, even otherworldly, events, realize the mistakes they have made in life. For example, A Christmas Carol chronicles the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge (Dickens's most famous character) from a miser to a generous being after he receives startling visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. In The Chimes Toby Veck represents members of the lower class who have acceded to society's opinion that the poor are inferior; his conversion involves restoring faith in himself and his class. The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain—the most sophisticated version of the common theme in the estimation of many critics—portrays Mr. Redlaw's realization that his new-found ability to erase memories is harmful to others. After writing these holiday tales, Dickens, using material from his own life, penned the more journalistic The Uncommercial Traveller. One story in this collection, "Dullborough Town," describes the setting of Dickens's childhood, and another, "City of London Churches," recounts a love affair similar to the writer's first relationship.
Hailed for his comic and journalistic abilities, powerful and provoking depictions of the poor, unforgettable characters, and the moral-filled Christmas stories, Dickens was one of the most successful writers of his time. Enormously popular in England, he was, before he turned thirty, honorably received in America as well. Dickens wrote of the reception: "There never was a king or emperor upon the earth so cheered and followed by crowds, and entertained in public at splendid halls and dinners, and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds." Although some critics have asserted that Sketches by Boz focuses too heavily on the lower class and that the author's stories are at times too sentimental and laden with exaggeration, many have extolled them for their expressions of a fundamental faith in humanity and their unflagging censure of social injustice. A. Edward Newton perhaps best summarized the high esteem in which countless readers hold Dickens when he declared that "in the resplendent firmament of English literature there is only one name I would rank above his for sheer genius: Shakespeare."