Charles Dickens (1812 –1870) was born in Portsmouth, the second of eight children. His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. Soon after his birth, facing financial difficulties and living beyond their means, the family moved to Kent and then London in 1822. His father was incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in Southwark London in 1824. His wife and youngest children joined him there, and Charles, then 12 years old, boarded with several family friends. On Sundays he spent the day at the Marshalsea. To help pay for his board, Dickens’s mother insisted that he should leave school and work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse where he worked pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. This experience became the basis of his interest in socio-economic reform and his portraits of the working classes and the poor. A few months afterwards his paternal grandmother, gave them money to release the family from prison, but his mother did not immediately remove him from the factory, and this incident was a factor in his dissatisfaction towards women in general. Dickens was eventually sent to the Wellington House Academy in North London, but did not consider it to be a good school. He began to work at the law office of Ellis and Blackmore attorneys as a junior clerk for over a year (1827-1828) and gradually became a freelance reporter working with a distant relative. This experience informed some works on the machinations and bureaucracy of the legal system. In 1830, Dickens met his first love, but her parents disapproved of the courtship and ended the relationship by sending her to school in Paris.
At age 20 Dickens submitted his first story to the London periodical, Monthly Magazine and worked as a political journalist reporting on parliamentary debate, and travelling across Britain to cover election campaigns for the Morning Chronicle. His journalism, in the form of sketches in periodicals, formed his first collection of pieces Sketches by Boz (Boz nickname came from Moses pronounced ‘Boses’ by one his brothers). The success of these sketches led to a proposal from publishers Chapman and Hall for Dickens to supply text to match Robert Seymour’s engraved illustrations. Seymour committed suicide after the second instalment and Dickens, who wanted to write a connected series of sketches, hired “Phiz” to provide the engravings (which were reduced from four to two per instalment) for the story, The Pickwick Papers which was a huge success. In November 1836 he finished the last instalments of The Pickwick Papers he began writing the beginning instalments of Oliver Twist.
On 2 April 1836, after a one year engagement, he married Catherine Thomson Hogarth, the daughter of George Hogarth, editor of the Evening Chronicle. Dickens’s younger brother and Catherine’s 17-year-old sister Mary moved in with them. Dickens became very attached to Mary, and she died in his arms after a brief illness in 1837. Dickens idealised her and is thought to have drawn on memories of her for his later descriptions of young protagonists. His grief was so great that he was unable to make the deadline for the June instalment of Pickwick Papers.
His success continued with Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39), The Old Curiosity Shop and, Barnaby Rudge. In 1842, Dickens and his wife made their first trip to the United States and Canada while another of Catherine’s sisters looked after their children. She remained with them as housekeeper, organiser, adviser and friend until Dickens’s death in 1870. During his visit to New York City he gave lectures and raised the question of international copyright laws and the pirating of his work in America.
After his return to England, Dickens began work on the first of his Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol (1843), The Chimes (1844) and The Cricket on the Hearth (1845). During a trip to Manchester he witnessed the conditions of the manufacturing workers there and the idea for Hard Times. After living briefly in Italy (1844), Dickens travelled to Switzerland (1846) and there he began work on Dombey and Son (1846–48). This and David Copperfield (1849–50) mark a significant artistic break in Dickens’s career as his novels became more serious in theme and more carefully planned than his early works. In late November 1851, Dickens moved into Tavistock House where he wrote Bleak House (1852–53), Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1856). During this period he worked closely with the novelist and playwright Wilkie Collins.
In 1857, Dickens hired professional actresses for the play The Frozen Deep, which he and his Collins had written. Dickens fell deeply in love with one of the actresses, Ellen Ternan. Dickens was 45 and Ternan 18 when he made the decision,
which went strongly against Victorian convention, to separate from his wife, who took with her one child, leaving the other children to be raised by her sister Georgina who stayed at the Dickens’s household. During this period, he became philanthropically involved in several projects, such as raising funds for a hospital. His trips and public readings took a lot of his time and he one wrote two more novels during the next decade, A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861). During this time 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). He edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote 15 novels, five novellas and hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed extensively, was an indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms. In early September 1860, Dickens burnt his entire correspondence so that the extent of his affair with Ternan remains speculative. On his death, Dickens settled an annuity on her. On 8 June 1870, Dickens suffered another stroke at his home after a full day’s work on Edwin Drood. He died days later at 58.
Dickens loved the style of the 18th century picaresque novels which he found in abundance on his father’s shelves. According to Peter Ackroyd, perhaps the most important literary influence on him was derived from the fables of The Arabian Nights (1990: 201, 278–279). 1 Dickens’ gift for caricature and his acclaimed mastery of varieties of class idioms resemble the tradition of popular theatre. His mixture of fantasy and realism, satire and melodrama, were also very successful. Serialization helped him to work closely with his public and his characters are amongst the most memorable in English literature. Often, they took a life on their own in illustrations and advertisements. The city of London was often Dickens’ stage, described thoroughly in his stories. Many of his stories are drawn from real life: his characters, as well as some autobiographical details and a lot of social commentary and criticism of Victorian Society. Although extremely popular in his time, Dickens has encouraged very different critical positions among other writers, some of who have accused him of sentimentalism and commonplace style while praising his ability to create compelling storylines and unforgettable characters.
1. Ackroyd, Peter (1990). Dickens. London: Sinclar-Stevenson