Biography of Charles Dickens, English Novelist

Charles Dickens in his study
kreicher / Getty Images

Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was a popular English novelist of the Victorian era, and to this day he remains a giant in British literature. Dickens wrote numerous books that are now considered classics, including "David Copperfield," "Oliver Twist," "A Tale of Two Cities," and "Great Expectations." Much of his work was inspired by the difficulties he faced in childhood as well as social and economic problems in Victorian Britain.

Fast Facts: Charles Dickens

  • Known For: Dickens was the popular author of "Oliver Twist," "A Christmas Carol," and other classics.
  • Born: February 7, 1812 in Portsea, England
  • Parents: Elizabeth and John Dickens
  • Died: June 9, 1870 in Higham, England
  • Published Works: Oliver Twist (1839), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1850), Hard Times (1854), Great Expectations (1861)
  • Spouse: Catherine Hogarth (m. 1836–1870)
  • Children: 10

Early Life

Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsea, 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. When Charles was 12, his father was sent to debtors' prison, and 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 would be a profound influence on his life. When his father managed to get out of debtors' prison, Charles was able to resume his sporadic schooling. However, 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. By the early 1830s, he was reporting for two London newspapers.

Early Career

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 under the pen name "Boz."

The witty and insightful articles Dickens wrote became popular, and he was eventually 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. He settled into a new life as a family man and an author.

Rise to Fame

"Sketches by Boz" was so popular that the publisher commissioned a sequel, 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 Pickwick Papers," which was published in installments from 1836 to 1837. This book was followed by "Oliver Twist," which appeared in 1839.

Dickens became amazingly productive. "Nicholas Nickleby" was written in 1839, and "The Old Curiosity Shop" in 1841. In addition to these novels, Dickens was turning out a steady stream of articles for magazines. His work was incredibly popular. Dickens 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.

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 Dickens' latest novel.

Visit to America

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.

'A Christmas Carol'

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 around Europe during the mid-1840s. After returning to England, he published five new novels: "Dombey and Son," "David Copperfield," "Bleak House," "Hard Times," and "Little Dorrit."

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

Later Life

Engraved illustration of Charlies Dickens at his desk.
Epics/Getty Images

Charles Dickens, in middle age, appeared to be on top of the world. He was able to travel as he wished, and he 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, though, Dickens was beset by problems. He and his wife had a large family of 10 children, but the marriage was often troubled. In 1858, a personal crisis turned into a public scandal when Dickens left his wife and apparently began a secretive affair with actress Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, who was only 19 years old. Rumors about his private life spread. Against the advice of friends, Dickens wrote a letter defending himself, which was printed in newspapers in New York and London.

For the last 10 years of his life, Dickens was often estranged from his children, and his relationships with old friends suffered.

Though he hadn't enjoyed his tour of America in 1842, Dickens 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 continued to embark on more reading tours. Though his health was failing, the tours were lucrative, and he pushed himself to keep appearing onstage.

Death

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

Legacy

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. As the works lend themselves to dramatic interpretation, numerous plays, television programs, and feature films based on them continue to appear.

Sources

  • Kaplan, Fred. "Dickens: a Biography." Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
  • Tomalin, Claire. "Charles Dickens: a Life." Penguin Press, 2012.