CHARLES DICKENS (February 7, 1812 – June 9, 1870)
English novelist and the single most influential author of the Victorian era.
- Author of over 50 novels, short story collections, plays, and nonfiction works, including A Christmas Carol (1843), Hard Times (1854), and Great Expectations (1860).
- Used his work to vocalize his criticisms of English, social inequality, and the treatment of the poor.
- Primarily responsible for the popularity of Christmas as a social holiday and for establishing many of the traditions associated with the day.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was the second of eight children born to Navy clerk John Dickens and his wife, Elizabeth. He was born in Hampshire (England), but moved first to Kent and then to London when he was 10. It is London that looms large in his work, the London of the Industrial Revolution during which he lived. When he was young, his family was very well off, but throughout his life, he carried many poignant memories of his childhood. These memories would later be reflected in his work, which often lingers on the upbringing of his protagonists. Unfortunately, the elder Mr. Dickens spent money beyond his means in the interest of keeping up appearances, and wound up in debtors’ prison. Charles, like many other poor children of the era, was forced to go to work at the age of 12.
He worked in a factory, endlessly affixing labels on jars of boot polish. The factory was owned by a relative of his mother’s, and he always resented her for keeping him at work, even once their financial troubles had eased. The resentment of working-class conditions would later spill over to much of Dickens’ work. Still, because of family connections, he was able to attain an education many of his workmates could not have hoped for, and after a few years, he left the factory for a job as a law clerk and then a court stenographer.
At 22, Dickens became a journalist, traveling throughout Britain to report on political campaigns for the Morning Chronicle newspaper. A collection of his short articles was published a couple of years later, and was popular enough for him to serialize his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Starting in March 1836, the newspapers would be responsible for much of his success, as a good part of his work was serialized there before later being collected in book form. Many modern readers note the episodic nature of his novels, designed to keep the audience riveted, waiting to see what will happen next.
A couple of weeks after The Pickwick Papers’ serialization began, Dickens married his editor’s daughter, Catherine Thomson Hogarth, with whom he had 10 children. More novels soon followed: Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, all serialized before he turned 30. He lectured, traveled, wrote travelogues, and saw his popularity take another rise with the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843. By 1856, he was successful enough to buy Gad’s Hill Place, the large manor in Kent, which he had walked past many times as a child (before the bad years in London) and had dreamed of living in.
WORKS AND STYLE
The most famous English author of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens entertained his audiences as a lecturer and novelist. His novels were serialized before being published as books, and so from his early 20s through most of his life, readers were kept on the edge of their seats from month to month or week to week, waiting for the next development. He indulged the impulses of popular entertainment while at the same time taking a firm and explicit stand on the social problems of his day (and to some extent, of all days).
Known for his episodic structures, his vivid characters, and their sometimes cartoonish traits and names, Dickens was also a harsh critic of the conditions forced upon the working class. Most of his novels reflect this. The social realism of his work is undercut—deliberately, to some extent—by the sentimentality of some of his scenes and the unwavering goodness of some characters. He was vehemently opposed to the law and society’s treatment of the poor, a theme that repeats throughout his catalogue of works.
Among his best-known, early novels are The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby. In his life, some of his most popular works were those that were serialized weekly, full of broad characters and cliffhangers: The Old Curiosity Shop, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations. The Old Curiosity Shop was so popular in the United States that when new shipments of Master Humphrey’s Clock (the periodical in which it was published) arrived on the docks, crowds would shout out, asking about the fate of Little Nell.
But Dickens is maybe best known for A Christmas Carol, an effective Christmas story with a supernatural element and a down-to-earth condemnation of the industrial London society and its effect on working-class families. Carol is cited by many as the source of much of Christmas’s popularity in the Western world today.
As Dickens’ success grew, his marriage suffered for it. He separated from his wife, providing a house for her for the next 20 years; divorce was rare in Victorian times, especially among public figures. In 1865, Dickens was one of the passengers in a train crash, and avoided an appearance at the inquest—the inquiry into the circumstances of the crash—because he was traveling with his female friend (and possible lover, though it’s uncertain) Ellen Ternan, and was legally still married. The crash ended the prolific stream of his writing, though he didn’t suffer any injury. He finished Our Mutual Friend, the novel he had been working on at the time of the crash, but never finished his next manuscript, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He died of a stroke five years to the day after the crash.