|Dickens, Charles (1812-1870)|
| English novelist and one of the
most popular writers in the history of literature. In his enormous body
of works, Dickens combined masterly storytelling, humor, pathos, and irony
with sharp social criticism and acute observation of people and places,
both real and imagined.
Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth and spent most of his childhood in London and Kent, both of which appear frequently in his novels. He started school at the age of nine, but his education was interrupted when his father, an amiable but careless minor civil servant, was imprisoned for debt in 1824. The boy was then forced to support himself by working in a shoe-polish factory. A resulting sense of humiliation and abandonment haunted him for life, and he later described this experience, only slightly altered, in his novel David Copperfield (1849-1850). From 1824 to 1826, Dickens again attended school. For the most part, however, he was self-educated. Among his favorite books were those by such great 18th-century novelists as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, and their influence can be discerned in Dickens's own novels. In 1827 Dickens took a job as a legal clerk. After learning shorthand, he began working as a reporter in the courts and Parliament, perhaps developing the power of precise description that was to make his creative writing so remarkable.
In December 1833 Dickens published the first of a series of original descriptive sketches of daily life in London, using the pseudonym Boz. A London publisher commissioned a volume of similar sketches to accompany illustrations by the celebrated artist George Cruikshank. The success of this work, Sketches by Boz (1836), permitted Dickens to marry Catherine Hogarth in 1836 and led to the proposal of a similar publishing venture in collaboration with the popular artist Robert Seymour. When Seymour committed suicide, another artist, H. K. Browne, called Phiz, who subsequently drew the pictures for most of Dickens's later works, took his place. Dickens transformed this particular project from a set of loosely connected vignettes into a comic narrative, The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). The success of this first novel made Dickens famous. At the same time it influenced the publishing industry in Great Britain, being issued in a rather unusual form, that of inexpensive monthly installments; this method of publication quickly became popular among Dickens's contemporaries.
Dickens subsequently maintained his fame with a constant stream of novels. A man of enormous energy and wide talents, he also engaged in many other activities. He edited the weekly periodicals Household Words (1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1870), composed the travel books American Notes (1842) and Pictures from Italy (1846), administered charitable organizations, and pressed for many social reforms. In 1842 he lectured in the United States in favor of an international copyright agreement and in opposition to slavery. In 1843 he published A Christmas Carol, an ever-popular children's story. Dickens's extraliterary activities also included managing a theatrical company that played before Queen Victoria in 1851 and giving public readings of his own works in England and America. All these successes, however, were shadowed by domestic unhappiness. Incompatibility and Dickens's relations with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, led to his separation from his wife in 1858, after the marriage had produced ten children. He suffered a fatal stroke on June 9, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey five days later.
As Dickens matured artistically, his novels developed from comic tales based on the adventures of a central character, like The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby (1837-1838), to works of great social relevance, psychological insight, and narrative and symbolic complexity. Among his fine works are Bleak House (1852-1853), Little Dorritt (1855-1857), Great Expectations (1860-1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865). Readers of the 19th and early 20th century usually prized Dickens's earlier novels for their humor and pathos. While recognizing the virtues of these books, critics today tend to rank more highly the later works because of their formal coherence and acute perception of the human condition. In addition to those mentioned, Dickens's major writings include Oliver Twist (1837-1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), Barnaby Rudge (1841), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), Dombey and Son (1846-1848), Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished, 1870).