Charles Dickens

Charles John Huffam Dickens (February 7, 1812 - June 9, 1870), pen-name "Boz", was a British novelist of the Victorian era. The popularity of his books during his lifetime and in present days is demonstrated by the fact that none of his novels has ever gone out of print.

Early Life

Charles was born in Portsmouth, England, to John Dickens, a naval pay clerk, and his wife Elizabeth Barrow. When Charles was five, the family moved to Chatham, Kent. When he was ten, the family relocated to Camden Town in London.

He received some education at a private school but when his father was imprisoned for debt, Charles wound up working 10-hours a day in a London boot-blacking factory located near to the present day Charing Cross railway station, when he was twelve. Resentment of his situation and the conditions working-class people lived under became major themes of his works. Dickens wrote, "No advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support from anyone that I can call to mind, so help me God!"

Dickens became a journalist, reporting parliamentary debate and travelling Britain by stagecoach to cover election campaigns. His journalism informed 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 April 2, 1836 Charles married Catherine Hogarth with whom he was to have ten children. In 1842 they traveled together to the United States, the trip is described in the short travelog American Notes and is also used as the basis of some of the episodes in Martin Chuzzlewit.

Later Life

On the 9th of April 1865 Dickens, while returning from France, 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 Dickens was in. Dickens spent some time tending the wounded and 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 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 had been Dickens' companion since the break-up of his marriage and she was implicated in that break-up.

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. The shows were incredibly 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.

Exactly five years to the day after the Staplehurst crash, on June 9, 1870, he died. 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."

In the 1980s the historic Eastgate House in Rochester, Kent was converted into a Charles Dickens museum, and an annual Dickens Festival is held in the city. The house in Portsmouth in which Dickens was born has also be made into a museum.


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 sum up situations better then any simple description could.

The characters themselves are amongst some of the most memorable in English literature, certainly their names are. The likes of Scrooge, Fagin, Mrs Gamp, Micawber, Pecksniff, Miss Havisham, Wackford Squeers and many others are so well known they can easily be believed to be living a life outside the novels but their eccentricities do not overshadow the stories. Some of these characters are grotesques; he loved the style of 18th century gothic romance though it had already become a bit of a joke (see Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey for a parodic example). One character most vividly drawn throughout his novels is London itself. From The coaching inns on the out-skirts 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 Household Words and later collected into the full novels we are familiar with today. These instalments made the stories cheap and more accessible and the series of cliff-hangers every month made each new episode more 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, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and A Christmas Carol. David Copperfield is argued by some to be his best novel it is certainly his most autobiographical. However, Little Dorrit, a masterpiece of acerbic satire masquerading as a rags-to-riches story, is on a par with the very best of Jonathan Swift and should not be overlooked.

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.

Dickens was fascinated by the theatre as an escape from the world, and theatres and theatrical people appear in Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens himself had a flourishing career as a performer, reading scenes from his works. He travelled widely in Britain and America on stage tours.

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 many other colorful characters and events, the satire and subplots, reward the reader.

All authors incorporate autobiographical elements in their fiction, but with Dickens this is very noticeable, particularly as he took pains to cover up what he considered his shameful, lowly past. 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 is certainly Dickens' own father and the snobbish nature of Pip from Great Expectations is similar to the author himself.

At least 180 movies and TV adaptations have been based on Dickens' works.


Like those of several of his contemporaries, some of his works, in today's context, are perceived as being marred by anti-Semitism. For example, the character Fagin in Oliver Twist is depicted as a stereotypical Jew, with passages describing his hooked nose and greedy eyes. Dickens, it should be remembered, lived in a time which preceded the Holocaust, and it can be argued that he was writing for dramatic effect: Fagin, when all is said and done, is a caricature, one of the great pantomime villains of fiction.

Dickens had few dealings with flesh and blood Jews until 1860 when he sold his home, Tavistock House, to a Mr. Davis, a Jewish banker. His journal entries are initially deprecatory; the subsequent conduct of the banker and the ease with which the transaction was effected caused him to rethink and revise his whole position in this area.

Dickens' response to the (mild) criticism of Fagin emanating from the Mrs. Davis (the wife of the self-same banker), writing in the Jewish Chronicle, is revealing:

"Fagin, in Oliver Twist, is a Jew, because it unfortunately was true of the time to which the story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew ... and secondly, that he is called 'the Jew' not because of his religion but because of his race."

It should be noted that in an 1867 revision of the text, most of the Jewish references were excised. Fagin should also be balanced against the sympathetic portrayal of the Jew Riah in Our Mutual Friend, his last complete novel. It has been argued by some that this represents a process of change in Dickens' approach to issues relating to ethnicity.

Mrs. Davis was pleased with Dickens' creation of a good Jew and sent him a copy of a new translation of the Hebrew Bible. Dickens was gratitude personified in his response, asserting:

"There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not wilfully have given an offence or done an injustice for any worldly consideration. Believe me, Very faithfully yours, Charles Dickens."


"Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

"Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail." -- "A Christmas Carol"

Major novels
  • The Pickwick Papers (1836)
  • Oliver Twist (1837-1839)
  • Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839)
  • The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841)
  • Barnaby Rudge (1841)
  • The Christmas Books:
    • A Christmas Carol (1843)
    • ()
  • 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 (July 11, 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)
  • A Child's History of England (1851-1853)
Short Stories
  • A Christmas Tree
  • A Message From The Sea
  • Doctor Marigold
  • George Silverman's Explanation
  • Going Into Society
  • Holiday Romance
  • Hunted Down
  • Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy
  • Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings
  • Mugby Junction
  • Perils of Certain English Prisoners
  • Somebody's Luggage
  • Sunday Under Three Heads
  • The Child's Story
  • The Haunted House
  • The Haunted Man And The Ghost's Bargain
  • The Holly-Tree
  • The Lamplighter
  • The Poor Relation's Story
  • The Schoolboy's Story
  • The Seven Poor Travellers
  • The Signal-Man
  • The Trial For Murder
  • Tom Tiddler's Ground
  • What Christmas Is As We Grow Older
  • Wreck Of The Golden Mary

This biography was taken verbatim from the Wikipedia. We're providing a snapshot just in case the Wikipedia servers were temporarily unreacheable. The original page is not only much more up-to-date, it also features links to other pages and sites. This snapshot was last updated: 08/06/2004. (mm/dd/yyyy)

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