Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812-June 9, 1870) was the second of eight children born to Elizabeth and John Dickens, improvident and irresponsible parents who (without deep regret, it seems) gave their offspring poor starts in the world. Without actually hating his parents, Dickens early saw them for what they were. He was particularly critical of his mother, a self-centered woman short on affection for Charles: For example, she wanted to prolong his stay at the shoe blacking warehouse where he had been sent, at the age of twelve, to help support the family. In later life, Charles’ own generosity and sense of decency prompted him to assist his parents, who continued in their improvident ways.
Partly from natural inclination and partly by way of taking refuge from an irregular and problematical family life, the young boy immersed himself in the world of imagination. He read Shakespeare, Addison, Fielding, Goldsmith, and several other authors avidly. He was also fond of reciting, acting, and theatre-going, activities in which his father encouraged him. He also wandered happily along the Thames and through the towns and nearby countryside of Kent (England’s warmest and most serene region), where the Dickenses resided from 1817 to 1822. Dickens’ affection for Chatham, Rochester, and other towns in Kent ripened over the years, and his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (left unfinished), is set in Rochester and contains some of the author’s most vivid and evocative writing.
Both his reading and his recitals, as well as his acting, served to educate Dickens for what would later become his career as a writer with a flair for the dramatic speech and dramatic incident. As most of his early reading was the works of eighteenth-century writers, it is not surprising that the values and attitudes expressed (by characters and author alike) in his own novels are essentially the same as those found in Fielding, Goldsmith, and Richardson. Those writers believed that human nature was essentially good and that this goodness was actually enhanced by the spontaneous and enthusiastic public expression of that very belief.
One day, as Charles and his father were walking just outside Rochester, his father pointed out the local mansion, Gad’s Hill Place, and suggested that if the boy made the most of his talents he might someday be able to live in such a house. This is a classic example of a small, seemingly inconsequential moment that later proves to be highly significant. Gad’s Hill Place became an ideal for the boy, and one that helped him associate talent with financial success. In 1856, when Dickens was forty-four, he was able to buy the house; he loved it and never moved again.
In 1822, John Dickens, then a senior clerk in the navy pay office, was transferred from Chatham to London. There, continuing to spend more than he earned, he soon became hopelessly insolvent. In 1824, Charles was taken out of school and sent to work, pasting labels on pots of shoe blacking. Two weeks later, John Dickens was jailed at Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison. The humiliation and despair of 1824 left permanent emotional scars. However, what English literature was to gain from this experience when Dickens became a writer was an unprecedentedly vivid and varied presentation of childhood as vulnerability. In fact, Dickens must be credited as the first serious English novelist to deal extensively with the victimized child, a theme that has continued to produce masterpieces in fiction and film.
Bleak House centers around children and very young people, and, at the same time, around the law and its courts. Dickens went directly from childhood into the world of law. In 1827, he obtained employment as an office boy for Charles Molloy, a London solicitor; several weeks later, he was hired as a clerk for the law office of Ellis and Blackmore. Dissatisfied with these dull and low-paid jobs, he learned shorthand and, late in 1828, he became a shorthand writer for Doctors’ Commons, another institution of the law. Intermittently, he also did law reporting for the Metropolitan Police Courts. In his spare time, he read widely and happily at the British Museum.
In 1829, Dickens fell in love with Maria Beadnell, an attractive and vivacious but rather snobbish and hard-hearted banker’s daughter. To better his chance with her, he began looking for a better paying and more prestigious position. In 1832, he went strongly into journalism, becoming a Parliamentary reporter for the Mirror of Parliament and a general reporter for the True Sun. Maria Beadnell found Dickens somewhat interesting but never took him seriously as a suitor. After four years, Dickens gave up on her, but the loss was a crushing and long-enduring sorrow. Dickens’ best biographer, Edgar Johnson, says that “All the imagination, romance, passion, and aspiration of his nature she had brought into flower and she would never be separated from.” Knowing that his failure to win Maria was largely due to his low social standing and poor financial prospects, Dickens became more determined than ever to make a name for himself and a fortune to go with it.
Prospects brightened almost at once. He had been writing some sketches of London life, and several of these were accepted and published by the Monthly Magazine and the Evening Chronicle. In March 1834, Dickens landed a job as a reporter for the important Whig (liberal) newspaper, the Morning Chronicle. Journalism kept him in practice with the written word and forced him to observe closely and report accurately; it was excellent training for a man who saw more and more clearly that he wanted to make his mark in literature. Early in 1836, Dickens’ collected pieces were published as Sketches by Boz. The book was very favorably reviewed, sold well, and went through three editions by 1837.
A month after the appearance of this book, Dickens published the initial part of his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Immensely successful, Pickwick established Dickens at once as the most popular writer in England. He left the Morning Chronicle and became the editor of Bentley’s Miscellany, a magazine in which Oliver Twist was published in installments beginning in February 1837. On April 2,1836, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth. Although the marriage produced ten children, it was never a love-match, and “Kate” never came close to meeting Dickens’ ideal of romantic femininity. In Victorian England, divorce was difficult, scandalous, and often socially and financially ruinous.
Eventually, however, Dickens did effect a permanent separation from Catherine. Quite early in the marriage, Dickens realized that it was Catherine’s sister Mary who embodied his ideal: “so perfect a creature never breathed.” Had Mary lived, it is virtually certain that Dickens would have become romantically involved with her. Her sudden death (apparently of unsuspected heart disease) at seventeen was the greatest loss that Dickens ever experienced. He made plans to be buried beside her and insisted that his first daughter be named Mary. Undoubtedly the loss of Mary Hogarth further strengthened Dickens’ inclination to center much of his story material around the pathos of children or young adults who were caught up in emotional or physical suffering. Mary is the prototype of many of the young heroines of Dickens novels. She is memorably portrayed by Lois Baxter in the British film Dickens of London, for which Wolf Mankowitz wrote the screenplay.
Oliver Twist was followed in 1839 by Nicholas Nickleby. This, Dickens’ third novel, illustrates the continuing influence of theater on Dickens’ approach to fiction. Individual scenes — usually of only minor importance — seem intended more for the stage than for the page and are so vivid and energetic that they often “steal the show,” disrupting the unity of the book. Many of his other novels show the same tendency, and, in fact, Dickens created stage versions of several of his books and stories; these were usually quite popular and financially successful. As well as remaining an inveterate theatergoer, Dickens continued all his life to stage private theatricals, usually at Gad’s Hill Place, for family and friends. A social art, theater appealed to the eminently sociable Dickens. A lover of energy, Dickens also found the vivacity, the dynamic projection of the stage irresistible.
Closely allied to his fondness for theater was his practice of giving highly dramatic readings from his works. These too were almost invariably well attended and highly remunerative. They began in 1853 and, from 1858, became very frequent. Unfortunately, they took a lot out of the author (he sometimes collapsed during or after a reading) and contributed to his premature aging.
His fourth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), was one of the most popular that Dickens ever penned. Its sales were spectacular, and it reached a world-wide audience. The story’s heroine, Little Nell, has long remained the archetype of the angelically pure and self-sacrificing, but also game and intrepid, child. Mary Hogarth was Dickens’ major inspiration.
Dickens perfectly illustrates the phenomenal energy and personal productivity seen in so many figures of the Victorian era. This novelist, playwright, theater habitue, socializer, charity benefit worker, lecturer, father of ten, and voluminous letter writer, was also the editor of several magazines. From 1841 onward, he had to meet deadlines, scout out talent, dream up projects, and promote sales — first for Master Humphrey’s Clock, then for Household Words, and finally for All the Year Round. These periodicals printed his own sketches and short stories and serialized several of his novels.
Fairly early in his career, 1842, Dickens went on a reading tour of the United States, then undertook another in 1866. Both were very successful but neither had any particular influence on his work or ideas, possibly because he found American life to be, on the whole, vulgar and shallow. He recorded his first impressions in the highly readable American Notes (1842).
Dickens was a socially conscious Whig but could not be called a political activist. He was genuinely sympathetic to the working class and highly critical of both the idle among the nobility and the newly rich class that was created by industrialization. For the most part, however, his efforts on behalf of social reform were limited to charitable donations and benefit readings and to the social message implied in works of fiction, whose primary aim was to provide pleasure for the imagination. In his later years, Dickens became less optimistic about social improvement and dropped his criticism of the aristocracy; in 1865-1866, he defected from the liberals and supported a conservative cause backed by Tennyson, Freud, and Carlyle. Even in his earlier years, he was devoted to Queen Victoria and to British institutions and customs in general. He was an opponent of revolution and even of the right of workers to strike.
In 1857, Dickens met and became strongly attracted to Ellen Lawless Ternan, a young actress. In 1858, he separated from Catherine and took Ellen as his mistress. The two were as discreet as possible and never lived together, but met frequently. Dickens never regretted the break with Catherine or the choice of Ellen. Returning to London from a brief vacation in France, the two were survivors of the wreck of their train at Staplehurst on June 9,1865. Dickens was able to help several of the injured passengers but the incident drained some of his own strength, perhaps permanently, and haunted him with nightmares for some time. He died five years to the day after the wreck. The crash inspired one of his best pieces of short fiction, “The Signal-Man.” The only novel completed after the Staplehurst accident was the long and involved but impressive Our Mutual Friend. In rapidly deteriorating health in 1870, Dickens worked intensely on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but collapsed on June 8, leaving the work half finished. He died the following day.
Dickens’ own favorite novel was his autobiographical David Copperfield (1850); it has remained one of posterity’s favorites. In addition to David Copperfield, the novels that have stood up best under the scrutiny of the years are Pickwick Papers and several of the later books: Bleak House (1853), Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1865). Of Dickens’ short fiction, “The Signal-Man” (1866), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), and A Christmas Carol (1843) have remained the best known.