Charles John Huffam Dickens (7 February 1812–9 June 1870), pen-name "Boz", was an English novelist. During his career Dickens achieved massive worldwide popularity, winning acclaim for his rich storytelling and memorable characters. Considered one of the English language's greatest writers, he was the foremost novelist of the Victorian era as well as a vigorous social campaigner.
Later critics, beginning with George Gissing and G.K. Chesterton, championed his mastery of prose, his endless invention of memorable characters and his powerful social sensibilities. Yet he also received criticism from his more rarefied readers, including George Henry Lewes, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf, who list faults such as sentimentality, unrealistic events and grotesque characters.
The popularity of his novels and short stories during his lifetime and to the present is demonstrated by the fact that none has ever gone out of print. Dickens wrote serialised novels, which was the usual format for fiction at the time, and each new part of his stories would be eagerly anticipated by the reading public. He is regarded by many as the greatest writer of his time.
Dickens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, to John Dickens (1786–1851), a naval pay clerk, and his wife Elizabeth Dickens née Barrow (1789–1863). When he was five, the family moved to Chatham, Kent. When he was ten, the family relocated to 16 Bayham Street, Camden Town in London. His early years were an idyllic time. He thought himself then as a "very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy". He spent his time outdoors, reading voraciously with a particular fondness for the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. He talked later in life of his extremely poignant 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 ten 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 to support his family, most of whom were living with his father, who was incarcerated in the nearby Marshalsea debtors' prison.
After a few months his family was able to leave the Marshalsea but their financial situation only improved some time later, partly due to money inherited from his father's family. His mother did not immediately remove Charles 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 under which working-class people lived became major themes of his works. As Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, judged to be his most clearly autobiographical novel, "I had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone, that I can call to mind, as I hope to go to heaven!" 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 formed 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 2 April 1836, he married Catherine Thompson Hogarth (1816–1879), with whom he was to have ten children, and set up home in Bloomsbury. Their children were:
In the same year, he accepted the job of editor of Bentley's Miscellany, a position he would hold until 1839 when he fell out with the owner. Two other journals in which Dickens would be a major contributor were Household Words and All the Year Round. In 1842, he travelled together with his wife 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. Shortly thereafter, he began to show interest in Unitarian Christianity, although he remained an Anglican, at least nominally, for the rest of his life. Dickens' writings were extremely popular in their day and were read extensively. In 1856, his popularity allowed him to buy Gad's Hill Place. This large house in Higham, Kent, was very special to the author 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 seemed to have fallen short of Dickens' romantic memory of her.
On 9 June 1865, while returning from France to see Ellen Ternan, Dickens was involved in the Staplehurst rail 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 in which Dickens was berthed. Dickens spent some time tending the wounded and the 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. Typical of Dickens, he later used the terrible experience to write his short ghost story The Signal-Man in which the protagonist has a premonition of a rail crash.
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 likely mistress, until his death. The dimensions of the affair were unknown until the publication of Dickens and Daughter, a book about Dickens' relationship with his daughter Kate, in 1939. Kate Dickens worked with author Gladys Storey on the book prior to her death in 1929, and alleged that Dickens and Ternan had a son who died in infancy, though no contemporary evidence exists.
Dickens, though unharmed, never really recovered from the Staplehurst crash, and 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. Dickens was fascinated by the theatre as an escape from the world, and theatres and theatrical people appear in Nicholas Nickleby. The travelling shows were extremely popular, and on 2 December 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.
In 1869 Dickens accepted the Presidency of the Birmingham and Midland Institute and became its 16th President
Five years to the day after the Staplehurst crash, on 9 June 1870, he died after suffering a stroke. Contrary to his wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, 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." Dickens' will stipulated that no memorial be erected to honour him. The only life-size bronze statue of Dickens, cast in 1891 by Francis Edwin Elwell, is located in Clark Park, Philadelphia, in the United States.
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 often popular. Comparing orphans to stocks and shares, people to tug boats, or dinner-party guests to furniture are just some of Dickens' acclaimed flights of fancy.
The characters are among the most memorable in English literature; certainly their names are. The likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, Fagin, Mrs Gamp, Charles Darnay, Oliver Twist, Micawber, Pecksniff, Miss Havisham, Wackford Squeers and many others are so well known and can be believed to be living a life outside the novels that their stories have been continued by other authors. Dickens loved the style of 18th Century gothic romance, though it had already become a bit of a joke—Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey being a well known parody—and while some are grotesques, their eccentricities do not usually overshadow the stories. One 'character' most vividly drawn throughout his novels is London itself. From the coaching inns on the outskirts 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 instalments made the stories cheap, accessible and the series of regular cliff-hangers made each new episode widely anticipated. American fans even waited at the docks in New York, shouting out to the crew of an incoming ship, "Is Little Nell dead?" 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.
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 scepticism for the fine folk. Dickens' second novel, Oliver Twist (1839), was responsible for the clearing of the actual London slum that was the basis of the story's Jacob's Island. In addition, with the character of the tragic prostitute, Nancy, Dickens "humanised" such women for the reading public; women who were regarded as "unfortunates," inherently immoral casualties of the Victorian class/economic system. Bleak House and Little Dorrit elaborated expansive critiques of the Victorian institutional apparatus: the interminable lawsuits of the Court of Chancery that destroyed people's lives in Bleak House and a dual attack in Little Dorrit on inefficient, corrupt patent offices and unregulated market speculation.
Dickens often uses idealised characters and highly sentimental scenes to contrast with his caricatures and the ugly social truths he reveals. The extended death scene of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) was received as incredibly moving by contemporary readers, but viewed as ludicrously sentimental by Oscar Wilde . In 1903 Chesterton says, on the same topic, "It is not the death of Little Nell, but the life of Little Nell, that I object to."
In Oliver Twist, Dickens provides readers with an idealised portrait of a young boy so inherently and unrealistically "good" that his values are never subverted by either brutal orphanages or coerced involvement in a gang of young pickpockets. While later novels also centre on idealised characters (Esther Summerson in Bleak House and Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit), this idealism serves only to highlight Dickens' goal of poignant social commentary. Many of his novels are concerned with social realism, focusing on mechanisms of social control that direct people's lives (e.g., factory networks in Hard Times and hypocritical, exclusionary class codes in Our Mutual Friend).
Dickens also employs incredible coincidences (for example, Oliver Twist turns out to be the lost nephew of the upper class family that randomly rescues him from the dangers of the pickpocket group). Such coincidences are a staple of the eighteenth-century picaresque novels (such as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones) that Dickens enjoyed so much. So there is an intertextual aspect to this convention. However, to Dickens these were not just plot devices but an index of a Christian humanism that led him to believe that "good" wins out in the endcitation needed, often in unexpected ways. Looking at this theme from a biographical context, Dickens' life, against many odds, led him from a disconsolate child forced to work long hours in a boot-blacking factory at age 12 (his father was in the Marshalsea debtor's prison) to his status as the most popular novelist in England by the age of 27.
All authors incorporate autobiographical elements in their fiction, but with Dickens this is very noticeable, even though he took pains to cover up what he considered his shameful, lowly past. David Copperfield is one of the most clearly autobiographical but 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, and the detailed depiction of life in the Marshalsea prison in Little Dorrit is due to Dickens' own experiences of the institution. 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, just as Mrs Nickleby and Mrs Micawber are similar to his mother. The snobbish nature of Pip from Great Expectations also has some affinity to the author himself. Dickens may have drawn on his childhood experiences, but he was also ashamed of them and would not reveal that this was where he got his realistic accounts of squalor. Very few knew the details of his early life until six years after his death when John Forster published a biography on which Dickens had collaborated. A shameful past in Victorian times could taint reputations, just as it did for some of his characters, and this may have been Dickens' own fear.
Charles Dickens was a well known personality and his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime. His first full novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837), brought him immediate fame and this continued right through his career. He maintained a high quality in all his writings and, although rarely departing greatly from his typical "Dickensian" method of always attempting to write a great "story" in a somewhat conventional manner (the dual narrators of Bleak House are a notable exception), he experimented with varied themes, characterisations and genres. Some of these experiments were more successful than others and the public's taste and appreciation of his many 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 motion pictures 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 dictionaries due to Dickens' original portraits of such characters who were quixotic, hypocritical or emotionlessly logical. Sam Weller, the carefree and irreverent valet of The Pickwick Papers, was an early superstar, perhaps better known than his author at first. It is likely that A Christmas Carol is his best-known story, with new adaptations almost every year. It is also the most-filmed of Dickens' stories, many versions dating from the early years of cinema. This simple morality tale with both pathos and its theme of redemption, for many, sums up the true meaning of Christmas and eclipses all other Yuletide stories in not only popularity, but in adding archetypal figures (Scrooge, Tiny Tim, the Christmas ghosts) to the Western cultural consciousness.
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 on specific issues—such as sanitation and the workhouse—but his fiction was probably all the more powerful in changing public opinion in regard to class inequalities. He often depicted the exploitation and repression of the poor and condemned the public officials and institutions that allowed such abuses to exist. His most strident indictment of this condition is in Hard Times (1854), Dickens' only novel-length treatment of the industrial working class. In that work, he uses both vitriol and satire to illustrate how this marginalised social stratum was termed "Hands" by the factory owners, that is, not really "people" but rather only appendages of the machines that they operated. His writings inspired others, in particular journalists and political figures, to address such problems of class oppression. For example, the prison scenes in Little Dorrit and The Pickwick Papers were prime movers in having the Marshalsea and Fleet Prisons shut down. As Karl Marx said, Dickens, and the other novelists of Victorian England, "…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together…". The exceptional popularity of his novels, even those with socially oppositional themes (Bleak House, 1853; Little Dorrit, 1857; Our Mutual Friend, 1865) underscored not only his almost preternatural ability to create compelling storylines and unforgettable characters, but also insured that the Victorian public confronted issues of social justice that had commonly been ignored.
His fiction, with often vivid descriptions of life in nineteenth-century England, has inaccurately and anachronistically come to globally symbolise Victorian society (1837–1901) as uniformly "Dickensian," when in fact, his novels' time span is from the 1770s to the 1860s. In the decade following his death in 1870, a more intense degree of socially and philosophically pessimistic perspectives invested British fiction; such themes were in contrast to the religious faith that ultimately held together even the bleakest of Dickens' novels. Later Victorian novelists such as Thomas Hardy and George Gissing were influenced by Dickens, but their works display a lack or absence of religious belief and portray characters caught up by social forces (primarily via lower-class conditions) that steer them to tragic ends beyond their control. Samuel Butler (1835–1902), most notably in The Way of All Flesh (1885; pub. 1903), also questioned religious faith but in a more upper-class milieu.
Novelists continue to be influenced by his books; for example, such disparate current writers as Anne Rice, Tom Wolfe and John Irving evidence direct Dickensian connections. Humorist James Finn Garner even wrote a tongue-in-cheek "politically correct" version of A Christmas Carol. Ultimately, Dickens stands today as a brilliant, innovative and sometimes flawed novelist whose stories and characters have become not only literary archetypes but also part of the public imagination.
Adaptations of readings
There have been several performances of Dickens readings by Emlyn Williams, Bransby Williams and also Simon Callow in the Mystery of Charles Dickens by Peter Ackroyd.
Museums and festivals
There are museums and festivals celebrating Dickens' life and works in many of the towns with which he was associated.
There are also Dickens festivals across the world. Three notable ones from the United States are:
Selected other books
"An Ideal home"