Authors: Charles Dickens

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist

February 7, 1812

Portsmouth, Hampshire, England

June 9, 1870

Gad's Hill, near Rochester, Kent, England

Biography

Charles Dickens was born at Landport, near Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, the son of a minor government clerk. An unfortunate turn in the family’s financial status occurred shortly after the family moved to London when Charles was ten; as a result, Charles went to work in Warren’s blacking warehouse. Critics point to this event above all others for its traumatic effect on the emotional and creative life of the novelist. It has been said that Dickens experienced a “deep sense of abandonment” when his parents complacently relegated him to the sordid drudgery of work in the warehouse and that this is reflected in his work. At or near the center of so many of his novels, one finds a suffering, neglected child. The warehouse episode was brief, and he returned to school. He left school at fifteen, however, his real education having been gained from the novels of Miguel de Cervantes, Alain-René Lesage, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett, and his exposure to the London scene during his “abandonment.” He became first a lawyer’s clerk and then a shorthand reporter in the courts and the House of Commons.

Charles Dickens

(Library of Congress)

His first book, Sketches by Boz, stemmed from his work as a journalist; it led to his being commissioned to write the text accompanying a collection of comic drawings of Cockney sportsmen, which was to be published in monthly installments. With the appearance of Sam Weller in Chapter X, the success of The Pickwick Papers was not merely assured but sensational. From then on, Dickens was the most popular of all English novelists in his lifetime.

Even while The Pickwick Papers was appearing, Oliver Twist was being published as a serial in a magazine. These two novels show the two sides of Dickens’s genius. The Pickwick Papers is a work of pure humor, in which the crudities and miseries of the real world are sterilized by laughter and the vicious are objects of comedy, without reference to moral judgment. The world of The Pickwick Papers is almost fairyland. In Oliver Twist, however, fairyland has become the country of nightmare, and the bad fairies have become ogres. There is still laughter, but it has become savage, satirical; the appeal is to derision. On the surface, Oliver Twist is an exposure novel, an attack on the working of the poor law of the day, but its underlying theme is the fate of innocence and weakness. The savage comedy, seen in a character like Bumble, is accompanied by equally savage melodrama, the melodrama of Fagin and the robber Bill Sikes.

Fairyland and nightmare exist side by side in Dickens’s subsequent novels. During the first part of his career, these novels are naïve in form, based on eighteenth-century picaresque fiction, in which readers follow the fortunes of the hero who gives his name to the book, as in Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit. The weaknesses of structure inherent in picaresque fiction were accentuated by Dickens’s practice of writing for serialization and by his lack of what today might be called the artistic conscience. For example, Martin Chuzzlewit was sent to America not because the pattern of the novel demanded it but because sales were falling off and an element of novelty seemed appropriate to revive interest. Today the earlier novels are read for their incidentals, not for their plots. They are read for the scenes at Dotheboys Hall and the character of Mrs. Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, for the wonderful Pecksniff and the sublime Mrs. Gamp—as a comic creation second only to Falstaff in English literature—in Martin Chuzzlewit.

The masterpiece of this first part of Dickens’s career is the semiautobiographical David Copperfield, the most varied of the earlier works and the best proportioned, containing, too, some of his most delightful characters, among them Mr. Micawber, modeled on his father. The darkening of his vision is already apparent, however, in Dombey and Son (published before David Copperfield), and henceforth his criticism of the age, which up to then had largely dealt with specific abuses, becomes general, focusing on the themes of money and class conflict. The humor is no longer that of delighted appreciation of the absurd, but bitterly sardonic, as in the rendering of Mr. Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s last completed novel. Plot becomes much more highly organized; at the same time, a rich symbolism enters his fiction, sometimes as an extraordinary intensification of atmosphere, as in the description of Dombey’s house in Dombey and Son, sometimes as a feature of the London scene, such as the dust-piles (trash heaps) that dominate Our Mutual Friend, sometimes even as an atmospheric condition, as in the fog that enshrouds the beginning of Bleak House. Symbolism of this kind was something almost entirely new in English fiction, and while his contemporaries preferred the earlier books, in which he portrayed comical eccentrics and stressed high spirits and the gospel of kindliness, later critics have tended more to admire the later novels, with their dark poetic sweep, the passionate intensity of their symbolism. Outstanding also among the later works are Little Dorrit, which is partly autobiographical in inspiration, and Great Expectations. He wrote two historical novels, Barnaby Rudge, based on the Gordon Riots of eighteenth century London, and A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution. His mystery story, Edwin Drood, was unfinished at Dickens’s death, and many critics believe that the completed part suggests a level of accomplishment not yet realized in Dickens’s previous work. A Christmas Carol is the most famous of his shorter pieces.

Dickens married in 1836 and separated from his wife in 1858. His first visit to the United States, in 1841, resulted in American Notes, a work which, together with the American chapters in Martin Chuzzlewit, was extremely resented in the United States. A second visit, in 1867, was a triumphant success. He died at his home at Gadshill on June 9, 1870.

Author Works Long Fiction: Pickwick Papers, 1836–37 (originally pb. as The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club) Oliver Twist, 1837–39 (originally pb. as The Adventures of Oliver Twist) Nicholas Nickleby, 1838–39 (originally pb. as The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby) The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840–41 Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’80, 1841 Martin Chuzzlewit, 1843–44 (originally pb. as The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit) Dombey and Son, 1846–48 (originally pb. as Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation) David Copperfield, 1849–50 (originally pb. as The Personal History of David Copperfield) Bleak House, 1852-1853 Hard Times, 1854 (originally pb. as Hard Times for These Times) Little Dorrit, 1855–57 A Tale of Two Cities, 1859 Great Expectations, 1860–61 Our Mutual Friend, 1864–65 The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870 (unfinished) Short Fiction: Sketches by Boz, 1836 A Christmas Carol, 1843 The Chimes, 1844 The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845 The Battle of Life, 1846 The Haunted Man, 1848 Reprinted Pieces, 1858 The Uncommercial Traveller, 1860 George Silverman’s Explanation, 1868 Christmas Stories, 1871 Drama: The Strange Gentleman, pr. 1836 The Village Coquettes, pr., pb. 1836 Mr. Nightingale’s Diary, pr., pb. 1851 (with Mark Lemon) No Thoroughfare, pr., pb. 1867 (with Wilkie Collins) Nonfiction: American Notes, 1842 Pictures from Italy, 1846 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: A Child’s History of England, 1852–54 The Life of Our Lord, 1934 Edited Texts: Master Humphrey’s Clock, 1840–41 (periodical) Household Words, 1850–59 (periodical) All the Year Round, 1859–70 (periodical) Bibliography Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990. The author, a major English novelist, writes a biography of Dickens that warrants the characterization of being Dickensian both in its length and in the quality of its portrayal of the nineteenth century writer and his times. In re-creating that past, Ackroyd has produced a brilliant work of historical imagination. Baker, William, and Kenneth Womack, eds. A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Includes chapters on Victorian detective fiction and Charles Dickens. Bibliographic references and index. Butterword, R. D. “A Christmas Carol and the Masque.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Winter, 1993): 63-69. Discusses how Dickens’s famous Christmas story embodies many of the characteristics of the masque tradition. Considers some of the implications of this tradition for the story, such as the foreshortening of character development. Carey, John. The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination. London: Faber and Faber, 1979. The number of works about Dickens and the various aspects of his career is enormous. Carey, in one insightful Dickens study, focuses on Dickens’s fascination with various human oddities as a spur to his artistic inspiration. Connor, Steven, ed. Charles Dickens. London: Longman, 1996. Part of the Longman Critical Readers series, this is a good reference for interpretation and criticism of Dickens. Davis, Paul B. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 1998. An excellent handbook for the student of Dickens. Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Dickens: Being a Good-Natured Guide to the Art and Adventures of the Man Who Invented Scrooge. New York: Viking, 1998. An interesting study of Dickens. Includes bibliographical references, an index, and a filmography. Erickson, Lee. “The Primitive Keynesianism of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 30 (Spring, 1997): 51-66. A Keynesian reading of Dickens’s story that shows how Scrooge is an economic hoarder because of his fear of the financial future and his need for complete financial liquidity. Claims that Dickens correctly diagnoses the economic depression of Christmas, 1843. Flint, Kate. Dickens. Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1986. Looks at paradoxes within his novels and between his novels and his culture. Includes a select bibliography and an index. Ford, George H., and Lauriat Lane, Jr., eds. The Dickens Critics. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1961. This collection consists of more than thirty essays concerned with various aspects of Dickens’s literary life. Represented are notables such as Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Anthony Trollope, George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Graham Greene, and Edgar Johnson. Frank, Lawrence. Victorian Detective Fiction and the Nature of Evidence: The Scientific Investigations of Poe, Dickens, and Doyle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Looks at the models of evidence at play in the detective fiction of Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, comparing them to one another, as well as to the very different models of evidence that took hold in the twentieth century. Bibliographic references and index. Haining, Peter. Introduction to Hunted Down: The Detective Stories of Charles Dickens. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1996. Extremely useful overview of Dickens’s contribution to the detective genre and comparison of his various stories to one another. Hardy, Barbara. Dickens and Creativity. New York: Continuum International Publishers Group, 2008. This is a comprehensive study of Dickens’ works that examines his creative process along with the characters he created. Shakespeare’s influence on Dickens is discusses, as well as Dickens’ influence on other writers. Includes a summary of all of his novels and stories. Hawes, Donald. Who’s Who in Dickens. New York: Routledge, 1998. The Who’s Who series provides another excellent guide to the characters that populate Dickens’s fiction. Hobsbaum, Philip. A Reader’s Guide to Charles Dickens. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998. Part of the Reader’s Guide series, this is a good manual for beginning students. Jacobson, Wendy S., ed. Dickens and the Children of Empire. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A collection of fourteen essays focusing on child images and colonial paternalism in the work of Dickens. Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. Subtitled “His Tragedy and Triumph,” this work was perhaps the first major scholarly biography of Dickens. The author integrates into his study an excellent discussion and analysis of Dickens’s writings. It remains a classic. Jordan, John O., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. From the Cambridge Companions to Literature series. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988. Published a generation later than Edgar Johnson’s study of Dickens, Kaplan’s biography is more forthright about Dickens’s family life and personal qualities, especially his relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan. An interesting and well-written work. Mazzeno, Laurence W. The Dickens Industry: Critical Perspectives, 1836-2005. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2008. This book takes a look at critics’ attitudes towards Dickens from his lifetime to the early twenty-first century. The changing attitudes about his writing throughout the decades are examined, and his personal life and public persona are given close scrutiny. Includes a lengthy chronological works cited list which provides a quick overview to criticism. Newlin, George, ed. and comp. Every Thing in Dickens: Ideas and Subjects Discussed by Charles Dickens in His Complete Works—A Topicon. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. A thorough guide to Dickens’s oeuvre. Includes bibliographical references, an index, and quotations. Newsom, Robert. Charles Dickens Revisited. New York: Twayne, 2000. From Twayne’s English Authors series. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Newton, Ruth, and Naomi Lebowitz. The Impossible Romance: Dickens, Manzoni, Zola, and James. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990. Discusses the impact of religious sensibility on literary form and ideology in Dickens’s fiction. Reed, John Robert. Dickens and Thackeray. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995. Discusses how beliefs about punishment and forgiveness affect how Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray told their stories. Discusses Dickens’s major fiction in terms of moral and narrative issues. Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 2009. The focus of this biography is Dickens’ writing, but Slater does a good job of placing the works in the context of Dickens’ life. Among the topics discussed are his love of London, his aversion to authority, and his affair with actress Ellen Ternan. Includes sixteen pages of color illustrations and sixty black and white illustrations. Smiley, Jane. Charles Dickens. New York: Viking, 2002. A Dickens biography by a noted American novelist. Includes bibliographical references. Smith, Grahame. Charles Dickens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. A strong biography of Dickens. Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2011. A comprehensive biography of Dickens. Tytler, Graeme. “Dickens’s ‘The Signalman.’” The Explicator 53 (Fall, 1994): 26-29. Argues that the story is about a man suffering from a type of insanity known in the nineteenth century as lypemania or monomania; discusses the symptoms of the signalman. Weliver, Phyllis. Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860-1900: Representations of Music, Science, and Gender in the Leisured Home. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. Includes a chapter on Dickens’s use of the tropes of fugue and dissonance in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Bibliographic references and index. Wilson, Angus. The World of Charles Dickens. New York: Viking Press, 1970. The author, an Englishman, has been a professor of literature, has published a major work on Rudyard Kipling, and has written several novels. This relatively brief study is enriched by many period illustrations ranging from George Cruikshank to Gustave Doré.

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