Charles Dickens was born in Landport, Portsmouth, Hampshire, the second of eight children to John Dickens (1786–1851), a clerk in the Navy Pay Office at Portsmouth. As a boy he spent his time outdoors, reading voraciously with a particular fondness for the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. His family was moderately wealthy, and he received some education at a private school in Chatham. However his father’ passion for gambling ruined the family and he was imprisoned for debt in 1824. Dickens was at the time 12-years-old and he began working 10 hours a day in a Warren’s boot-blacking factory. From this difficult and degrading experience he derived his life-long interest for neglected and ill-treated children. Fortunately after three months’ imprisonment, Mr. Dickens inherited some money, was able to pay his debts and was released. Dickens resumed his studies, then he worked as a clerk in a lawyer’s office and finally became a journalist, reporting parliamentary debates and travelling Britain by stagecoach to cover election campaigns for the Morning Chronicle. So he got acquainted with the criminal system and developed a good ear for dialectical and individual speech.
In 1836 he married Catherine Thompson Hogarth, they had ten children but he left her in 1858.
In 1842, he travelled with his wife to the United States, a journey which was successful despite his support for the abolition of slavery. In 1856, his popularity had allowed him to buy Gad’s Hill Place. This large house in Higham, Kent, had a particular meaning to Dickens as he had walked past it as a child and had dreamed of living in it. In 1857, in preparation for public performances of The Frozen Deep, a play on which he and his protégé Wilkie Collins had collaborated, Dickens hired professional actresses to play the female parts. With one of these, Ellen Ternan, Dickens formed a bond which was to last until his death.
Dickens’s popularity was immense, he devoted his life to writing as well as to a number of related activities such as the theatre, editing newspapers, doing philanthropic work, travelling to give public readings of his works. He died on 9th June 1870, after suffering a stroke. Contrary to his wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, he was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads: “He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.”
Dickens’s journalism, in the form of sketches, which appeared in periodicals from 1833, formed his first collection of pieces Sketches by Boz which were published in 1836 and led to the serialization of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers in March 1836. Here Dickens is a caricaturist who creates a gallery of humorous, eccentric figures and observes the amusing and paradoxical aspects of English social life.
His distrust of politics and politicians led him to see the novel as an instrument of social reform, as a means to make people aware of the problems of the time regarding the poverty of the masses, the horrors of the slums, the bad school system, the poor sanitation.
● Oliver Twist (1837-39) tells about the infamous conditions of children in the workhouses that were created by the Poor Law in 1833.
● Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), attacks the school system.
● The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), is about the ill-treatment of little Nell and her grandfather who are obliged to leave the old curiosity shop they keep.
● Barnaby Rudge (1841) is set during the anti-Catholic riots of 1780.
● Martin Chazzlewit (1843-44) expresses some of Dickens’ anti-American sentiments.
These works were still all being published in monthly instalments before being made into books.
As Dickens enjoyed a great success he went on writing novels, some of the most famous being:
● Dombey and Son (1848) about the fall of a greedy and proud head of the shipping house of Dombey and Son.
● David Copperfield (1849-50) contains extensive autobiographical material.
●Bleak House (1852-53) criticises the law and the self-interest of lawyers.
● Hard Times (1854) shows the effects of utilitarianism on the Midlands town of Coketown.
● Little Dorrit (1857) tells about the prison system and the absurdities of bureaucracy.
● A Tale of Two Cities (1859). “The two cities” are Paris, in the time of the French Revolution, and London.
● Great Expectations (1861) recounts the development of a village boy who, attracted by money and expectations of more money, returns to honest labour after a series of misfortunes.
Dickens’ characters and style
Dickens did not ask for radical social or political change, but for acts of generosity and benevolence towards the humble and the poor. He was also the publisher and editor of, and a major contributor to the journals Household Words (1850–1859) and All the Year Round (1858-1870).
Most of Dickens’s major novels were first written in monthly or weekly instalments in journals, and later reprinted in book form. These instalments made the stories cheap and accessible and people queued to obtain copies of the latest one. Another important impact of Dickens’s episodic writing style was his exposure to the opinions of his readers. Since Dickens did not write the chapters very far ahead of their publication, he was allowed to witness the public reaction and alter the story depending on those public reactions.
Dickens’s writing style is fluent and poetic, with a strong comic touch. He used his rich imagination, sense of humour and detailed memories, particularly of his childhood, to enliven his fiction. The characters are among the most memorable in English literature. He loved the style of 18th century gothic romance, though it had already become a target for parody (Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey being a well known example) and while some of his characters are grotesque, their eccentricities do not usually overshadow the stories. One ‘character’ most vividly drawn throughout his novels is London itself. From the coaching inns on the outskirts of the city to the lower reaches of the Thames, all aspects of the capital are described in his novels.
Dickens is often described as using ‘idealised’ characters and highly sentimental scenes to contrast with his caricatures and the ugly social truths he reveals. However to Dickens these were not just plot devices but an index of the humanism that led him to believe that good wins out in the end and often in unexpected ways. His fiction, with vivid descriptions of life in nineteenth-century England, has inaccurately and anachronistically come to globally symbolise Victorian society (1837–1901) as uniformly “Dickensian,” when in fact, his novels cover a period from the 1770s to the 1860s. His characters were often so memorable that they took on a life of their own outside his books. Pickwickian and Gradgrind all entered dictionaries due to Dickens’ original portraits of such characters who were quixotic, hypocritical or emotionlessly logical. Sam Weller, the carefree and irreverent valet of The Pickwick Papers, was an early superstar, perhaps better known than his author at first. Ultimately, Dickens stands today as a brilliant, innovative and sometimes flawed novelist whose stories and characters have become not only literary archetypes but also part of the public imagination.
At least 180 motion pictures and TV adaptations based on Dickens’s production help confirm his success. Many of his works were adapted for the stage during his own lifetime and as early as 1913 a silent film of The Pickwick Papers was made.