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Charles Dickens

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 social sensibilities.

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 Shakespeare).

Photograph of Charles Dickens around 1867


Charles Dickens around 1867


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' 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 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 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).

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 pleased Dickens.

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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 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 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 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."

Charles Dickens Portrait


Portrait of Charles Dickens

Literary style

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 description.

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 unrealistic.

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.

Charles Dickens - Portrait - The Dream


'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 Peter Ackroyd.

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.


Major novels

  • The Pickwick Papers (1836)
  • Oliver Twist (1837–1839)
  • Nicholas Nickleby (1838–1839)
  • The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841)
  • Barnaby Rudge (1841)
  • Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–1844)
  • Dombey and Son (1846–1848)
  • David Copperfield (1849–1850)
  • Bleak House (1852–1853)
  • Hard Times (1854)
  • Little Dorrit (1855–1857)
  • A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  • Great Expectations (1860–1861)
  • Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865)
  • 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 (1851–1853)

Short stories

  • "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


  • A Coal Miner's Evidence

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