Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
The Victorian Scene
The Victorian period was called so after Victoria of Hanover, who was Queen of Great Britain from 1837 until 1901 and who embodied the success of industrial England (see the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1815) and of its colonial expansion (Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877).
Queen Victoria set the pattern for a life of external conformity and dignified standard of fear of being rejected by society if one broke its strict moral codes.
In the second half of the century the technological an scientific discoveries and the theories on the origin of man (Charles Darwin, The origin of the Species) set a new mode of reasoning that challenged the role of religion and the authority of the Bible, offering a rational explanation for everything. Side by side with people conscious of the new atmosphere were authors who put themselves at the centre of their own world and called it beauty, making of Beauty their Goddess, their faith and their defence from the ugliness of Industrial England.
The Age of Reforms
Queen Victoria ascended the throne when the age of reforms had just begun, the turning point being the Reform Act of 1834 (regulating lections and constituencies). The industrial policy based on the division of labour and free trade (laissez faire) had not benefited the masses and had often exacerbated social problems such urbanization, the living conditions and exploitation of the workers. From 1833, on the wake of the Reform Act, a series of bills were passed in Parliament, intended to improve the standards of life and work of the majority of the population (Factory Laws, Education Bills, Dwelling and Health Acts). The ideas stated in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and in Das Capital (1867) by Karl Marx contributed to set the rights of the working classes and to see them recognised. Before the end of the century, the trade Unions (organisations of workers) were able to express their own party, the Labour Party, and to elect a representative in Parliament (1893).
In the second half of the century, during the Conservative Ministries (Disraeli), England became the foremost political power in the world and gradually consolidated her empire, which eventually extended from Canada to New Zealand, including South Africa, India, Australia and a number of islands in the Mediterranean, in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.
Involved in the Crimean War (1854-56) in defence of the Ottoman Empire against Russia, England was slightly touched by the American Civil War (1861-65). Fought in India and in Sudan (1863-82), and, at the close of the century, was still engaged in the Boer War, South Africa (1882-1902)
Art And Literature
Prose, both fictional (novels, short stories and serials) and non-fictional (newspapers and magazines) became the most popular instrument to awaken Victorian public opinion to the problems and social necessities of the time. The Victorians, as a whole, were not particularly interested in art or activities that had no utilitarian purpose. However, from the 5os to the 70s, some writers felt the need to return art to simplicity, emotional sincerity and above all beauty. Among them John Ruskin (1819-1900) who believed that the sources of art lie in the moral nature of the artist; the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including poets and painters like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and William Morris (1834-1894) whose main aim was to reproduce the emotional purity and the precision of detail typical of the Italian paintings of the Middle Ages (e.g. by Giotto and Leonardo Da Vinci); Algernon Swimburne (1837-1909) who expressed in his poems a kind of “paganism” indifferent to the moral issues of love and centred on pleasure and the joys of passion; Walter Pater 81839-1834) who stood for a form of Renaissance “paganism”, claiming that man’s happiness lies in the perfect and complete enjoyment of something beautiful, be it a work of art or any other experience of the senses.
By the 1880s the Aesthetic Movement came into being and Oscar Wilde was its recognised leader. The Motto “Art for Art’s Sake” implied that Art was to be the supreme aspiration, subject to no moral, didactic or practical purpose: is purpose was to exist only for the sake of its own beauty.
Life and works
1812: Charles Dickens was born at Landport, Hampshire. His father is a clerk in the Navy Pay Officer at Portsmouth. The family soon moves to live in London. Charles is unusually precocious child.
1821: His father debts become urgent and the family has to economise.
1823-24: Charles is going to school, but when his father is imprisoned the child has to earn his living in a blacking factory working from morning till night.
1824: Charles goes back to school because family affairs seem to improve, but soon he decides to go to work in a lawyer’s office. Then he begins to work as a parliamentary reporter.
1833: He publishes Dinner at poplar Walk and starts writing for the Monthly Magazine
1836: he publishes Sketches by Boz and joins the staff of the Morning Chronicle, a daily newspaper with a high reputation.
In the same year the publishers Chapman and Hall commission him a text to be published monthly. Dickens writes the first instalment of Pickwick Papers
He marries Catherine Hoggard, the daughter of his editor.
1838: Oliver Twist appears
1839: Nicholas Nickleby is published: it is about cruelties on children.
1841: He publishes Barnaby Rudge, an historical novel on crimes and violence and The Old Curiosity Shop.
1842: Dickens goes to America. When he returns he publishes American Notes.
1843: the writer begins a series of Christmas Books with A Christmas Carol (they will last till 1848)
1844: Martin Chuzzlewit appears. It is about slavery and materialism.
1844-45: He spends most of his time abroad, in Italy and France.
1846: he publishes Pictures from Italy
1848:The novel Dombey and Son appears. He publishes the first instalment of David Copperfield, an autobiographical work.
1853: Bleak House is published. It is a novel of social criticism. He starts helping the Italian refugees
1850-1865: the author writes hard Times, A tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. All of these novels are pervaded by a sense of depression and stress.
1850: Dickens In this same period, in fact, he stars suffering from lameness that is the first sign of the paralysis. His nervous strain becomes excessive and he never recovers from the shock of a railway accident.
However, he goes on travelling to Paris and America, giving lectures on his works.
1869: Dickens attempts his first mystery story, Edwin Drood, but does not finish it.
1870: the writer dies and is buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.