Charles Dickens

British novelist
Alternative Title: Charles John Huffam Dickens

Charles Dickens, in full Charles John Huffam Dickens, (born February 7, 1812, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England—died June 9, 1870, Gad’s Hill, near Chatham, Kent), English novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian era. His many volumes include such works as A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend.

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Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity during his lifetime than had any previous author. Much in his work could appeal to the simple and the sophisticated, to the poor and to the queen, and technological developments as well as the qualities of his work enabled his fame to spread worldwide very quickly. His long career saw fluctuations in the reception and sales of individual novels, but none of them was negligible or uncharacteristic or disregarded, and, though he is now admired for aspects and phases of his work that were given less weight by his contemporaries, his popularity has never ceased. The most abundantly comic of English authors, he was much more than a great entertainer. The range, compassion, and intelligence of his apprehension of his society and its shortcomings enriched his novels and made him both one of the great forces in 19th-century literature and an influential spokesman of the conscience of his age.

Early years

Dickens left Portsmouth in infancy. His happiest childhood years were spent in Chatham (1817–22), an area to which he often reverted in his fiction. From 1822 he lived in London, until, in 1860, he moved permanently to a country house, Gad’s Hill, near Chatham. His origins were middle class, if of a newfound and precarious respectability; one grandfather had been a domestic servant, and the other an embezzler. His father, a clerk in the navy pay office, was well paid, but his extravagance and ineptitude often brought the family to financial embarrassment or disaster. (Some of his failings and his ebullience are dramatized in Mr. Micawber in the partly autobiographical David Copperfield.)

In 1824 the family reached bottom. Charles, the eldest son, had been withdrawn from school and was now set to manual work in a factory, and his father went to prison for debt. These shocks deeply affected Charles. Though abhorring this brief descent into the working class, he began to gain that sympathetic knowledge of its life and privations that informed his writings. Also, the images of the prison and of the lost, oppressed, or bewildered child recur in many novels. Much else in his character and art stemmed from this period, including, as the 20th-century novelist Angus Wilson has argued, his later difficulty, as man and author, in understanding women: this may be traced to his bitter resentment against his mother, who had, he felt, failed disastrously at this time to appreciate his sufferings. She had wanted him to stay at work when his father’s release from prison and an improvement in the family’s fortunes made the boy’s return to school possible. Happily, the father’s view prevailed.

His schooling, interrupted and unimpressive, ended at 15. He became a clerk in a solicitor’s office, then a shorthand reporter in the lawcourts (thus gaining a knowledge of the legal world often used in the novels), and finally, like other members of his family, a parliamentary and newspaper reporter. These years left him with a lasting affection for journalism and contempt both for the law and for Parliament. His coming to manhood in the reformist 1830s, and particularly his working on the Liberal Benthamite Morning Chronicle (1834–36), greatly affected his political outlook. Another influential event now was his rejection as suitor to Maria Beadnell because his family and prospects were unsatisfactory; his hopes of gaining and chagrin at losing her sharpened his determination to succeed. His feelings about Beadnell then and at her later brief and disillusioning reentry into his life are reflected in David Copperfield’s adoration of Dora Spenlow and in the middle-aged Arthur Clennam’s discovery (in Little Dorrit) that Flora Finching, who had seemed enchanting years ago, was “diffuse and silly,” that Flora, “whom he had left a lily, had become a peony.”

Beginning of a literary career

Much drawn to the theatre, Dickens nearly became a professional actor in 1832. In 1833 he began contributing stories and descriptive essays to magazines and newspapers; these attracted attention and were reprinted as Sketches by “Boz” (February 1836). The same month, he was invited to provide a comic serial narrative to accompany engravings by a well-known artist; seven weeks later the first installment of The Pickwick Papers appeared. Within a few months Pickwick was the rage and Dickens the most popular author of the day. During 1836 he also wrote two plays and a pamphlet on a topical issue (how the poor should be allowed to enjoy the Sabbath) and, resigning from his newspaper job, undertook to edit a monthly magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, in which he serialized Oliver Twist (1837–39). Thus, he had two serial installments to write every month. Already the first of his nine surviving children had been born; he had married (in April 1836) Catherine, eldest daughter of a respected Scottish journalist and man of letters, George Hogarth.

For several years his life continued at this intensity. Finding serialization congenial and profitable, he repeated the Pickwick pattern of 20 monthly parts in Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39); then he experimented with shorter weekly installments for The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41) and Barnaby Rudge (1841). Exhausted at last, he then took a five-month vacation in America, touring strenuously and receiving quasi-royal honours as a literary celebrity but offending national sensibilities by protesting against the absence of copyright protection. A radical critic of British institutions, he had expected more from “the republic of my imagination,” but he found more vulgarity and sharp practice to detest than social arrangements to admire. Some of these feelings appear in American Notes (1842) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44).

Novels from Pickwick to Chuzzlewit

His writing during these prolific years was remarkably various and, except for his plays, resourceful. Pickwick began as high-spirited farce and contained many conventional comic butts and traditional jokes; like other early works, it was manifestly indebted to the contemporary theatre, the 18th-century English novelists, and a few foreign classics, notably Don Quixote. But, besides giving new life to old stereotypes, Pickwick displayed, if sometimes in embryo, many of the features that were to be blended in varying proportions throughout his fiction: attacks, satirical or denunciatory, on social evils and inadequate institutions; topical references; an encyclopaedic knowledge of London (always his predominant fictional locale); pathos; a vein of the macabre; a delight in the demotic joys of Christmas; a pervasive spirit of benevolence and geniality; inexhaustible powers of character creation; a wonderful ear for characteristic speech, often imaginatively heightened; a strong narrative impulse; and a prose style that, if here overdependent on a few comic mannerisms, was highly individual and inventive. Rapidly improvised and written only weeks or days ahead of its serial publication, Pickwick contains weak and jejune passages and is an unsatisfactory whole—partly because Dickens was rapidly developing his craft as a novelist while writing and publishing it. What is remarkable is that a first novel, written in such circumstances, not only established him overnight and created a new tradition of popular literature but also survived, despite its crudities, as one of the best-known novels in the world.

His self-assurance and artistic ambitiousness appeared in Oliver Twist, where he rejected the temptation to repeat the successful Pickwick formula. Though containing much comedy still, Oliver Twist is more centrally concerned with social and moral evil (the workhouse and the criminal world); it culminates in Bill Sikes’s murdering Nancy and Fagin’s last night in the condemned cell at Newgate. The latter episode was memorably depicted in an engraving by George Cruikshank; the imaginative potency of Dickens’s characters and settings owes much, indeed, to his original illustrators (Cruikshank for Sketches by “Boz” and Oliver Twist, “Phiz” [Hablot K. Browne] for most of the other novels until the 1860s). The currency of his fiction owed much, too, to its being so easy to adapt into effective stage versions. Sometimes 20 London theatres simultaneously were producing adaptations of his latest story, so even nonreaders became acquainted with simplified versions of his works. The theatre was often a subject of his fiction, too, as in the Crummles troupe in Nicholas Nickleby. This novel reverted to the Pickwick shape and atmosphere, though the indictment of the brutal Yorkshire schools (Dotheboys Hall) continued the important innovation in English fiction seen in Oliver Twist—the spectacle of the lost or oppressed child as an occasion for pathos and social criticism. This was amplified in The Old Curiosity Shop, where the death of Little Nell was found overwhelmingly powerful at the time, though a few decades later it became a byword for what would be referred to, broadly, as “Victorian sentimentality.” In Barnaby Rudge he attempted another genre, the historical novel. Like his later attempt in this kind, A Tale of Two Cities, it was set in the late 18th century and presented with great vigour and understanding (and some ambivalence of attitude) the spectacle of large-scale mob violence.

To create an artistic unity out of the wide range of moods and materials included in every novel, with often several complicated plots involving scores of characters, was made even more difficult by Dickens’s writing and publishing them serially. In Martin Chuzzlewit he tried “to resist the temptation of the current Monthly Number, and to keep a steadier eye upon the general purpose and design” (1844 Preface). Its American episodes had, however, been unpremeditated (he suddenly decided to boost the disappointing sales by some America-baiting and to revenge himself against insults and injuries from the American press). A concentration on “the general purpose and design” was more effective in the next novel, Dombey and Son (1846–48), though the experience of writing the shorter, and unserialized, Christmas books had helped him obtain greater coherence.

Charles Dickens
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