Charles Dickens used his rich imagination, sense of humour and detailed memories, particularly of his childhood, to enliven his fiction.
Charles John Huffam Dickens (February 7, 1812 – June 9, 1870), pen-name “Boz”, was an English novelist of the Victorian era. The popularity of his novels and short stories during his lifetime and to the present is demonstrated by the fact that none of his novels have ever gone out of print.
Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, to John Dickens, a naval pay clerk, and his wife Elizabeth Barrow. When he was five, the family moved to Chatham, Kent. When he was ten, the family relocated to Camden Town in London.
His early years were an idyllic time for him. He described himself then as a “very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy”. He spent his time in the out-doors, reading voraciously with a particular fondness for the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. He talked later in life of his extremely strong memories of childhood and his continuing photographic memory of people and events that helped bring his fiction to life.
His family was moderately well off and he received some education at a private school but all that changed when his father, after spending too much money entertaining and retaining his social position, was imprisoned for debt. At the age of twelve Dickens was deemed old enough to work and began working for 10 hours a day in Warren’s boot-blacking factory located near the present Charing Cross railway station. He spent his time pasting labels on the jars of thick polish and earned six shillings a week. With this money he had to pay for his lodging and help support his family who were incarcerated in the nearby Marshalsea debtors’ prison.
After a few years his family's financial situation improved, partly due to money inherited from his father's family. His family was able to leave the Marshalsea but his mother did not immediately remove him from the boot-blacking factory which was owned by a relation of hers. Dickens never forgave his mother for this and resentment of his situation and the conditions working-class people lived under became major themes of his works. Dickens wrote, “No advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support from anyone that I can call to mind, so help me God!”
In May 1827 Dickens began work as a law clerk, a junior office position with potential to become a lawyer. He did not like the law as a profession and after a short time as a court stenographer he became a journalist, reporting parliamentary debate and travelling Britain by stagecoach to cover election campaigns. His journalism informed his first collection of pieces Sketches by Boz and he continued to contribute to and edit journals for much of his life. In his early twenties he made a name for himself with his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.
On April 2, 1836 he married Catherine Hogarth, with whom he had ten children. In 1842 they travelled together to the United States; the trip is described in the short travelogue American Notes and is also the basis of some of the episodes in Martin Chuzzlewit.
Dickens’ writings were extremely popular in their day and were read extensively. His popularity allowed him to buy Gad’s Hill Place, in 1856. This large house in Rochester, Kent was very special to Dickens as he had walked past it as a child and had dreamed of living in it. The area was also the scene of some of the events of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1 and this literary connection pleased Dickens.
Dickens separated from his wife in 1858. In Victorian times divorce was almost unthinkable, particularly for someone as famous as he was. He continued to maintain her in a house for the next twenty years until she died. Although they were initially happy together, Catherine did not seem to share quite the same boundless energy for life which Dickens had. Her job of looking after their ten children and the pressure of living with and keeping house for a world famous novelist certainly did not help. Catherine’s sister Georgina moved in to help her but there were rumours that Charles was romantically linked to his sister-in-law. An indication of his marital dissatisfaction was when in 1855 he went to meet his first love Maria Beadnell. Maria was by this time married as well but she seems to have fallen short of Dickens’ romantic memory of her.
On the 9th June, 1865 while returning from France to see Ellen Ternan, Dickens was involved in the Staplehurst train crash in which the first six carriages of the train plunged off of a bridge that was being repaired. The only first-class carriage to remain on the track was the one Dickens was in. Dickens spent some time tending the wounded and dying before rescuers arrived; before finally leaving he remembered the unfinished manuscript for Our Mutual Friend and he returned to his carriage to retrieve it.
Dickens managed to avoid an appearance at the inquiry into the crash, as it would have become known that he was travelling that day with Ellen Ternan and her mother, which could have caused a scandal. Ellen, an actress, had been Dickens’ companion since the break-up of his marriage and as he had met her in 1857 she was most likely the ultimate reason for that break-up. She continued to be his companion, and probably mistress, until his death.
Although unharmed he never really recovered from the crash, which is most evident in the fact that his normally prolific writing shrank to completing Our Mutual Friend and starting the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Much of his time was taken up with public readings from his best-loved novels. The shows were incredibly popular and on December 2, 1867 Dickens gave his first public reading in the United States at a New York City theatre. The effort and passion he put into these readings with individual character voices is also thought to have contributed to his death.
Exactly five years to the day after the Staplehurst crash, on June 9, 1870, he died. 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.”
In the 1980s the historic Eastgate House in Rochester, Kent was converted into a Charles Dickens museum, and an annual Dickens Festival is held in the city. The Eastgate House was closed in 2005 by Medway Council as an economy measure, but a "Dickens World" theme park is scheduled to open in nearby Chatham in 2007. The house in Portsmouth in which Dickens was born has also been made into a museum.
His ten children by Catherine Thompson Hogarth included:
- Charles Culliford Boz Dickens (6 January, 1837 - 1896).
- Mary Angela Dickens (6 March, 1838 - 1896).
- Kate Macready Dickens (29 October, 1839 - 1929).
- Walter Landor Dickens (8 February, 1841 - 1861).
- Francis Jeffrey Dickens (15 January, 1844 - 1886).
- Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson Dickens (28 October, 1845 - 1912).
- Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens (18 April, 1847 - 1872).
- Henry Fielding Dickens (15 January, 1849 - 1933).
- Dora Annie Dickens (16 August, 1850 - April, 1851).
- Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (13 March, 1852 - 1902).
Dickens' writing style is florid and poetic, with a strong comic touch. His satires of British aristocratic snobbery — he calls one character the “Noble Refrigerator” — are wickedly funny. Comparing orphans to stocks and shares, people to tug boats, or dinner party guests to furniture are just some of Dickens’ flights of fancy which sum up situations better than any simple description could.
The characters themselves are amongst some of the most memorable in English literature. Certainly their names are. The likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, Fagin, Mrs. Gamp, Micawber, Pecksniff, Miss Havisham, Wackford Squeers and many others are so well known they can easily be believed to be living a life outside the novels, but their eccentricities do not overshadow the stories. Some of these characters are grotesques; he loved the style of 18th century gothic romance, though it had already become a bit of a joke (see Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey for a parodic example). One character most vividly drawn throughout his novels is London itself. From the coaching inns on the out-skirts of the city to the lower reaches of the Thames, all aspects of the capital are described by someone who truly loved London and spent many hours walking its streets.
Most of Dickens' major novels were first written in monthly or weekly installments in journals such as Master Humphrey's Clock and Household Words, later reprinted in book form. These installments made the stories cheap and more accessible and the series of cliff-hangers every month made each new episode more widely anticipated. Part of Dickens’ great talent was to incorporate this episodic writing style but still end up with a coherent novel at the end. The monthly numbers were illustrated by, amongst others, “Phiz ” (a pseudonym for Hablot Browne ).
Among his best-known works are Great Expectations, David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol. David Copperfield is argued by some to be his best novel — it is certainly his most autobiographical. Lesser known, Little Dorrit is a masterpiece of acerbic satire masquerading as a rags-to-riches story.
Dickens' novels were, among other things, works of social commentary. He was a fierce critic of the poverty and social stratification of Victorian society. Throughout his works, Dickens retained an empathy for the common man and a skepticism for the fine folk.
Dickens was fascinated by the theatre as an escape from the world, and theatres and theatrical people appear in Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens himself had a flourishing career as a performer, reading scenes from his works. He travelled widely in Britain and America on stage tours.
Much of Dickens’ writing seems sentimental today, like the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. Even where the leading characters are sentimental, as in Bleak House, the many other colourful characters and events, the satire and subplots, reward the reader. Another criticism of his writing is the unrealistic and unlikeliness of his plots. This is true but much of the time he was not aiming for realism but for entertainment and to recapture the picaresque and gothic novels of his youth. When he did attempt realism his novels were often unsuccessful and unpopular. The fact that his own life story of happiness, then poverty, then an unexpected inheritance, and finally international fame was unlikely shows that unlikely stories are not necessarily unrealistic.
All authors incorporate autobiographical elements in their fiction, but with Dickens this is very noticeable, particularly as he took pains to cover up what he considered his shameful, lowly past. The scenes from Bleak House of interminable court cases and legal arguments could only come from a journalist who has had to report them. Dickens’ own family was sent to prison for poverty, a common theme in many of his books, in particular the Marshalsea in Little Dorrit. Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop is thought to represent Dickens’ sister-in-law, Nicholas Nickleby's father and Wilkins Micawber are certainly Dickens' own father and the snobbish nature of Pip from Great Expectations is similar to the author himself.
Charles Dickens was a well known personality and his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime. His first full novel The Pickwick Papers brought him immediate fame and this fame continued right through his career. He maintained a high quality in all his writings and although never departing greatly from his typical “Dickensian” style he did experiment with different themes, moods and genres. Some of these experiments were more successful than others and the public’s taste and appreciation of his various works have varied over time. He was usually keen to give his readers what they wanted and the monthly or weekly publication of his works in episodes meant that the books could change as the story proceeded at the whim of the public. A good example of this are the American episodes in Martin Chuzzlewit which were put in by Dickens in response to lower than normal sales of the earlier chapters. In Our Mutual Friend the inclusion of the character of Riah was a positive portrayal of a Jewish character after he was criticised for the depiction of Fagin in Oliver Twist.
His popularity has waned little since his death and he is still one of the best known and most read of English authors. At least 180 movies and TV adaptations based on Dickens’ works 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. His characters were often so memorable that they took on a life of their own outside his books. Gamp became a slang expression for an umbrella from the character Mrs Gamp and Pickwickian, Pecksniffian and Gradgrind all entered the dictionary owing to Dickens’ perfect portrayal of these kind of people. Sam Weller was an early superstar perhaps better known than his author at first and other characters have had their lives expanded upon by subsequent authors. It is likely that A Christmas Carol is his best known story with new adaptations almost every year. This simple morality tale with humour and pathos, for many, sums up the true meaning of Christmas and eclipses all his other Christmas stories.
At a time when Britain was the major economic and political power of the world Dickens highlighted the life of the forgotten poor and disadvantaged at the heart of empire. Through his journalism he campaigned of specific issues such as sanitation and the workhouse but his fiction was probably all the more powerful in changing opinion. He revealed the harsh lives of the poor and satirised the people who allowed abuses to continue, all in the context of a good-humoured, entertaining story which sold widely. His works seem to have inspired many more people to address problems and inequalities, even though he poked fun at these well meaning philanthropists, and his influence is often credited with having the Marshalsea and Fleet Prisons shut down.
Dickens may have hoped for the foundation of a literary dynasty through his ten children and he named some of them after past writers but it would have been difficult for them to be anywhere near as successful as their father and some of them seem to have inherited their grandfather’s lack of financial acumen. Several of his children wrote of their memories of their father or prepared his surviving correspondence for publication but his great-granddaughter, Monica Dickens, would follow in his footsteps as a writer of novels.
His works, with their vivid descriptions of life at the time, mean that the whole of Victorian society is often simply described as Dickensian. Following his death in 1870 a greater degree of realism entered literature probably in reaction to Dickens’ own tendency towards the picaresque and ridiculous. Late Victorian novelists such as Samuel Butler, Thomas Hardy and George Gissing all clearly owe much to Dickens but their works are usually much grittier and less sentimental. Writers continue to be influenced by his books and although his many faults are criticised few other writers can match his blend of characterisation, gripping plots, social commentary, popular, critical and financial success, and his sense of humour.
- “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.” — A Christmas Carol
- The word boredom first appeared in print in Bleak House.
- Since their initial publication, no Dickens novel has gone out of print in England.
- The expression “what the dickens” was used long before Charles was born and is a corruption of “what the devil.”
Selected other books
- “A Christmas Tree”
- “A Message from the Sea”
- “Doctor Marigold”
- “George Silverman’s Explanation”
- “Going into Society”
- “Holiday Romance”
- “Hunted Down”
- “Mrs. Lirriper’s Legacy”
- “Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings”
- “Mugby Junction”
- “Perils of Certain English Prisoners”
- “Somebody’s Luggage”
- “Sunday Under Three Heads”
- “The Child’s Story”
- “The Haunted House”
- “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain”
- “The Holly-Tree”
- “The Lamplighter”
- “The Seven Poor Travellers”
- “The Trial for Murder”
- “Tom Tiddler’s Ground”
- “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older”
- “Wreck of the Golden Mary”
Dickens Museum Situated in a former Dickens House, 48 Doughty St., London, W.C.1.
Charles Dickens's Themes An analysis of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, explaining its themes and allusions, and offering a solution to its mysteries, including the identity of Datchery and Jasper's split personality.