Biography of Charles Dickens

Portrait of Charles Dickens
Portrait of Charles Dickens. Danita Delimont / Getty Images

The British author Charles Dickens was the most popular Victorian novelist, and to this day he remains a giant in British literature. He wrote books now considered classics, including David CopperfieldOliver TwistA Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations.

Dickens first gained fame for creating comic characters, such as in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. But later in his career he tackled serious subjects, which were inspired by severe difficulties he faced in childhood as well as his involvement in various social causes related to economic problems in Victorian Britain.

Early Life and the Beginning of His Career

Charles Dickens as a young man
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Charles Dickens was born February 7, 1812 in Portsea (now part of Portsmouth), England. His father had a job working as a pay clerk for the British Navy, and the Dickens family, by the standards of the day, should have enjoyed a comfortable life. But his father's spending habits got them into constant financial difficulties.

The Dickens family moved to London, and when Charles was 12 his father's debts got out of control. When his father was sent to Marshalsea debtors' prison, Charles was forced to take a job in a factory that made shoe polish, known as blacking.

Life in the blacking factory for the bright 12-year-old was an ordeal. He felt humiliated and ashamed, and the year or so he spent sticking labels on jars of blacking would be a profound influence on his life.

Children who are put into horrible circumstances would often turn up in his writings. Dickens was obviously scarred by the experience of dismal work at such a young age, though he apparently only ever told his wife and one close friend about the experience. His countless fans had no idea that some of the misery portrayed in his writing was rooted in his own childhood.

When his father managed to get out of debtors' prison, Charles Dickens was able to resume his sporadic schooling. But he was forced to take a job as an office boy at the age of 15.

By his late teens he had learned stenography and landed a job as a reporter in the London courts. And by the early 1830s he began reporting for two London newspapers.

Early Career of Charles Dickens

Dickens aspired to break away from newspapers and become an independent writer, and he began writing sketches of life in London. In 1833 he began submitting them to a magazine, The Monthly.

He would later recall how he submitted his first manuscript, which he said was "dropped stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling, into a dark letter box, in a dark office, up a dark court in Fleet Street."

When the sketch he'd written, titled "A Dinner at Poplar Walk" appeared in print, Dickens was overjoyed. The sketch appeared with no byline, but soon he began publishing items with the pen name "Boz."

The witty and insightful articles Dickens wrote became popular, and he was given the chance to collect them in a book. Sketches By Boz first appeared in early 1836, when Dickens had just turned 24. Buoyed by the success of his first book, he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a newspaper editor. And he settled into a new life as a family man and an author.

Charles Dickens Achieved Enormous Fame as a Novelist

Charles Dickens
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The first book published by Charles Dickens, Sketches By Boz was popular enough that the publisher commissioned a second series, which appeared in 1837. Dickens was also approached to write the text to accompany a set of illustrations, and that project turned into his first novel.

The essentially comical adventures of Samuel Pickwick and his companions were published in serial format in 1836 and 1837 under the original title, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. The installments of the novel were so popular that Dickens was contracted to write another novel, Oliver Twist

Dickens had taken on the job of editing a magazine, Bentley's Miscellany, and in February 1837 installments of Oliver Twist began appearing there.

Dickens Became Extremely Productive in the Late 1830s

In an amazing feat of writing, Dickens, for much of 1837, was actually writing both Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. The monthly installments of each novel were about 7,500 words, and Dickens would spend two weeks every month working on one before switching to the other.

Dickens kept writing novels. Nicholas Nickleby was written in 1839, and The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841. In addition to the novels, Dickens was turning out a steady stream of articles for magazines.

His writing became incredibly popular. He was able to create remarkable characters, and his writing often combined comic touches with tragic elements. His empathy for working people and for those caught in unfortunate circumstances made readers feel a bond with him.

And as his novels appeared in serial form, the reading public was often gripped with anticipation. The popularity of Dickens spread to America, and there were stories told about how Americans would greet British ships at the docks in New York to find out what had happened next in one of Dicken's serialized novels.

Dickens Visited America in 1842

Capitalizing on his international fame, Dickens visited the United States in 1842, when he was 30 years old. The American public was eager to greet him, and he was treated to banquets and celebrations during his travels.

In New England Dickens visited the factories of Lowell, Massachusetts, and in New York City he was taken to the see the Five Points, the notorious and dangerous slum on the Lower East Side. There was talk of him visiting the South, but as he was horrified by the idea of slavery he never went south of Virginia.

Upon returning to England, Dickens wrote an account of his American travels which offended many Americans.

Dickens Wrote More Serious Novels in the 1840s

In 1842 Dickens wrote another novel, Barnaby Rudge. The following year, while writing the novel Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens visited the industrial city of Manchester, England. He addressed a gathering of workers, and later he took a long walk and began to think about writing a Christmas book that would be a protest against the profound economic inequality he saw in Victorian England.

Dickens published A Christmas Carol in December 1843, and it became one of his most enduring works.

Dickens traveled in Europe for a year in the mid-1840s, and returned to England to write more novels:

  • 1848 Dombey and Son
  • 1850 David Copperfield
  • 1853 Bleak House
  • 1854 Hard Times
  • 1857 Little Dorrit

By the late 1850s, Dickens began to spend more time giving public readings. His income was enormous, but so were expenses, and he often feared he would be plunged back into the sort of poverty he had known as a child.

The Reputation of Charles Dickens Endures

Engraved illustration of Charlies Dickens at his desk.
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Charles Dickens, in middle age, appeared to be on top of the world. He was able to travel as he wished, and spent summers in Italy. In the late 1850s he purchased a mansion, Gad's Hill, which he had first seen and admired as a child.

Despite his worldly success, Dickens was beset by problems. He and his wife had a large family of ten children, but the marriage was often troubled. And in 1858, when Dickens was 46, a personal crisis turned into a public scandal.

He left his wife and apparently began a secretive affair with an actress, Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, who was only 19 years old. Rumors about his private life spread. And against the advice of friends, Dickens wrote a letter defending himself which was printed in newspapers in New York and London.

For the last ten years of Dicken's life he was often estranged from his children, and also not on good terms with old friends.

The Work Habits of Charles Dickens Caused Him Considerable Stress

Dickens had always pushed himself to work very hard, putting in enormous amounts of time at his writing. When he was in his 50s he appeared much older, and distressed by his appearance, he often avoided being photographed.

Despite his haggard appearance and a number of health problems, Dickens continued to write. His later novels were:

  • 1859 A Tale of Two Cities
  • 1861 Great Expectations
  • 1865 Our Mutual Friend
  • 1870 The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished at the time of his death)

Despite his personal troubles, Dickens began appearing in public fairly often in the 1860s, giving readings from his works. He had always been interested in the theater, and when he was young he had seriously thought of being an actor. His readings were lauded as dramatic performances, as Dickens would act out the dialogue of his characters.

Dickens Returned to American With a Triumphant Tour

Though he hadn't enjoyed his tour of America in 1842, he returned in late 1867. He was again welcomed warmly, and large crowds flocked to his public appearances. He toured the East Coast of the United States for five months.

He returned to England exhausted, yet he embarked on more reading tours. Though his health was failing, the tours were lucrative, and he pushed himself to keep appearing onstage.

Dickens planned a new novel for publication in serial form. The Mystery of Edwin Drood began appearing in April 1870. On June 8, 1870, Dickens spent the afternoon working on the novel before suffering a stroke at dinner. He died the next day.

The funeral for Dickens was modest, which was praised, according to a New York Times article at the time, as being in keeping with the "democratic spirit of the age." He was accorded a high honor, however, as he was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, near other literary figures including Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Legacy of Charles Dickens

The importance of Charles Dickens in English literature remains enormous. His books have never gone out of print, and they are widely read to this day.

And as the works of Dickens lend themselves to dramatic interpretation, plays, television programs, and feature films based on the novels of Dickens continue to appear. Indeed, entire books have been written on the subject of Dicken's works adapted to the screen.

And as the world marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, there are numerous commemorations of Charles Dickens being held in Britain, America, and other nations.