Charles John Huffam Dickens
(February 7, 1812-June 9, 1870), pen-name
"Boz", was an English novelist. During his lifetime, Dickens was viewed as a
popular entertainer of fecund imagination, while later critics championed his
mastery of prose, his endless invention of memorable characters and his powerful
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 played a major role in popularising the serialised novel.
He is remembered by many as the greatest writer of his time. He is frequently
referred to by his last name only, even on first reference (ΰ la
Dickens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, 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. 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
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 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
support his family who were incarcerated in the nearby Marshalsea debtors'
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 under which
working-class people lived became major themes of his works. Dickens told his
biographer John Forster, "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 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 Hogarth, with whom he was to have ten
children, and set up home in Bloomsbury.
- His ten children by Catherine Thompson Hogarth were:
- Charles Culliford Boz Dickens (6 January 18371896).
- Mary Angela Dickens (6 March 18381896).
- Kate Macready Dickens (29 October 18391929).
- Walter Landor Dickens (8 February 18411861).
- Francis Jeffrey Dickens (15 January 18441886).
- Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson Dickens (28 October 18451912).
- Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens (18 April 18471872).
- Henry Fielding Dickens (15 January 18491933).
- Dora Annie Dickens (16 August 1850April 1851).
- Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (13 March 1852 1902).
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.
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
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
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 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
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.
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.
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 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.
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."
Portrait of Charles Dickens
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 can sum up situations better than any simple
The characters are among 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 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
instalments 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. 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.
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 peripheral events offer a different
style. Little Dorrit which appears to be a simply rags-to-riches story
was written as an acerbic satire on debtor's prisons. 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 such stories are not necessarily
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, 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. 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. 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.
'Dickens' Dream' by R.W. Buss portraying Dickens at his desk at Gad's Hill surrounded by many of his characters
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 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 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 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. 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, most versions dating from the early years of
cinema. This simple morality tale with humour and pathos, for many, sums up the
true meaning of Christmas and eclipses all his other yuletide 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 on 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 that 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 only his great-granddaughter,
Monica Dickens, would follow in his footsteps as a novelist.
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 owe
much to Dickens but their works are grittier and less sentimental. Writers
continue to be influenced by his books and, although his faults are criticised,
few writers can match his characterisation, gripping plots, social commentary,
popular, critical, and financial success, and his sense of humour.
Adaptations of Dickens 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
Dickens museums and festivals
There are museums and festivals celebrating Dickens' life and works in many
of the towns with which he was associated.
- The Charles Dickens Museum, London is the only one of Dickens' London homes
to survive. He lived there only two years but in this time wrote The Pickwick
Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. It contains a
major collection of manuscripts, original furniture and memorabilia.
- Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum, Portsmouth is the house in which
Dickens was born. It has been re-furnished in the likely style of 1812 and
contains Dickens memorabilia.
- Dickens House Museum, Broadstairs, Kent is the house of Miss Mary
Pearson Strong, the basis for Miss Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield.
It is visible across the bay from the original Bleak House (also a museum until
2005) where David Copperfield was written. The museum contains
memorabilia, general Victoriana and some of Dickens' letters. Broadstairs has
held a Dickens Festival annually since 1937.
- A Dickens World theme park covering 71 500 square feet, and including
a cinema and restaurants, is scheduled to open in Chatham in 2007. It will be on
the site of the formal naval dockyard where Dickens' father once worked in the
Navy Pay Office.
- The Charles Dickens Centre in Eastgate House, Rochester, closed in
2004, but the garden containing the author's Swiss chalet is still open. The
16th-Century house, which appeared as Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers
and the Nun's House in Edwin Drood, will probably re-open under a related
use. The city's annual Dickens Festival (summer) and Dickensian Christmas
celebrations continue unaffected.
There also Dickens festivals across the world.
- The Riverside Dickens Festival in Riverside, California, USA includes
literary studies as well as entertainments.
- The Great Dickens Christmas Fair has been held in San Francisco since
the 1970s. During the four or five weekends before Christmas, over 300 costumed
performers mingle with and entertain thousands of visitors amidst the recreated
full-scale blocks of Dickensian London. This is the oldest, largest, and most
successful of the modern Dickens festivals outside of England.
- The Pickwick Papers (1836)
- Oliver Twist (18371839)
- Nicholas Nickleby (18381839)
- The Old Curiosity Shop (18401841)
- Barnaby Rudge (1841)
- Martin Chuzzlewit (18431844)
- Dombey and Son (18461848)
- David Copperfield (18491850)
- Bleak House (18521853)
- Hard Times (1854)
- Little Dorrit (18551857)
- A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
- Great Expectations (18601861)
- Our Mutual Friend (18641865)
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished) (1870)
Selected other books
- Sketches by Boz (1836)
- American Notes (1842)
- Pictures from Italy (1846)
- The Life of Our Lord (1846, published in 1934)
- A Child's History of England (18511853)
- "Captain Murderer"
- "The Child's Story"
- The Christmas writings:
- A Christmas Carol (1843)
- The Chimes (1844)
- The Cricket on the Hearth (1845)
- The Battle of Life (1846)
- The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain" (1848)
- "A Christmas Tree"
- The Poor Relation's Story
- The Child's Story
- The Schoolboy's Story
- Nobody's Story
- "The Seven Poor Travellers"
- "What Christmas Is As We Grow Older"
- "Doctor Marigold"
- "George Silverman's Explanation"
- "Going into Society"
- "The Haunted House"
- "Holiday Romance"
- "The Holly-Tree"
- "Hunted Down"
- "The Lamplighter"
- "A Message from the Sea"
- "Mrs Lirriper's Legacy"
- "Mrs Lirriper's Lodgings"
- "Mugby Junction"
- "Perils of Certain English Prisoners"
- "The Signalman"
- "Somebody's Luggage"
- "Sunday Under Three Heads"
- "Tom Tiddler's Ground"
- "The Trial for Murder"
- "Wreck of the Golden Mary"
- In Memoriam W. M. Thackeray