Charles Dickens was a nineteenth-century novelist who was and still is very popular. He was born in Landport, a region of Portsmouth, on February 7, 1812 (Kyle 1).
Charles Dickens was the son of John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow. John
Dickens was a minor government official who worked in the Navy Pay Office. Through
his work there, he met Elizabeth and eventually married her. By 1821, when Charles was
four months old, John Dickens could no longer afford the rent on his house. John
Dickens loved to entertain his friends with drinks and conversation. Throughout his life,
he was very short of money and in debt. He often had to borrow money to pay off the
debt and borrow more money to pay off the people he borrowed the money from. Later
on, John Dickens was transferred again to work in the naval dockyard at Chatman. It was
here that Charles Dickens' earliest and clearest memories were formed (Mankowitz
Charles' education included being taught at home by his mother, attending a
Dame School at Chatman for a short time, and Wellington Academy in London. He was
further educated by reading widely in the British Museum (Huffam).
In late 1822, John was needed back at the London office, so they had to move to
London. This gave Charles opportunities to walk around the town with his father and
take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the area. This gave him early inspiration that he
would use later on in his life when he started to write (Mankowitz 13-14).
James Lamert, the owner of a boot-blacking factory, saw the conditions that the
Dickens family was going through. He offered Charles a job there and he was paid six
shillings a week which was reasonable at that time. Soon, he was moved downstairs in
the sweatshop-like room. Charles had been working at the factory for less than two
weeks when his father was arrested for debt. He was sent to debtors prison where he did
work to pay off his debt. John paid for Charles' lodging, but Charles had to pay for his
food and everything else with the six shillings he earned every week. The details of
London and of prison life were imprinting themselves into Dickens' memory and would
one day help him in the novels he wrote. After John was in prison for three months, his
mother died leaving him enough money to get out of debtors prison (Mankowitz 20-22).
Late in Charles' teens, he became a court reporter. This introduced him to
journalism, and he also became interested in politics. Some of his early short stories and
sketches, which were published in various London newspapers and magazines, were
compiled in 1836 to form his first book, Sketches by Boz. This book sold well (Huffam).
In 1837, he wrote another book called Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.
It was written in monthly installments. Dickens had become the most popular author in
England by the time the fourth installment was done. This period is now known as
Dickens' "early period" because of the interest he was gaining for his novels. During this
period, he wrote Sketches by Boz, Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Oliver
Twist (1838), The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839), and The Old
Curiosity Shop (1841) (Huffam).
In 1842, Dickens traveled to the US hoping to gain support for his liberal political
ideas. He returned to England deeply disappointed. He wrote two books expressing how
he felt about the US. These books mainly criticized the US for not having a copyright
law, the acceptance of slavery, and the vulgarity of the people. These books were
American Notes for General Circulation (1842) and The Life and Adventures of Martin
Chuzzlewit (1844). Chuzzlewit was a big failure, but many critics believed it was a
critical turning point in his career because he realized that greed corrupted the human
soul. This is known as his "middle period". During this period, he became more
concerned with human life (Huffam).
The first book that would start Dickens' "middle period" would be A
Christmas Carol (1843). During his "middle period", he wrote two more Christmas
books. They were The Chimes (1844) and The Cricket on the Hearth (1845). Dealings
with the Firm of Dombey and Son (1848) was his next novel. In this novel, he tries to
show the dehumanizing effects of wealth, pride, and commercial values. He would write
another novel during this period called The Personal History of David Copperfield in
1850. This novel was inspired by his childhood and was the first of his novels to be
written entirely from the first person (Huffam).
In Dickens' "late period", he wrote four more books. They were Bleak House
(1853), Little Dorrit (1857), Great Expectations (1861), and his last novel to be
completely finished, Our Mutual Friend (1865) (Huffam).
His last works, were A Tale of Two Cities (1859), The Uncommercial Traveler
(1861), and No Thoroughfare (1867). In 1858, he separated from his wife and entered
into a close relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan. Dickens suffered a fatal stroke in
1870 leaving an unfinished novel behind. That novel was The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Many people in England mourned his death. The inscription on his tombstone reads: "He
was a sympathizer with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one
of England's greatest writers is lost to the world." (Huffam)
Huffam, John. "Dickens, Charles" MS Encarta, 3.0a. Gale Research Inc., 1993.
Kyle, Elisabeth. Great Ambitions, a Story of the Early Years of Charles Dickens, New
York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966. pp. 1 - 13.
Mankowitz, Wolf. Dickens of London, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1976.
pp. 7 - 25.