(b. Feb. 7, 1812, Portsmouth, Hampshire, Eng.-d. June 9, 1870, Gad’s Hill, near Chatham, Kent)
Charles Dickens is generally considered the greatest British novelist of the Victorian period. 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. In 1824 the family reached bottom. Charles, the eldest son, had been withdrawn from school and was now sent to do manual work in a factory, and his father went to prison for debt.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 their life and privations that informed his writings. His schooling, interrupted and unimpressive, ended at 15. He became a clerk in a solicitor’s office, then a shorthand reporter in the law courts (thus gaining a knowledge of the legal world often used in the novels), and finally a parliamentary and newspaper reporter.
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 Pickwick Papers appeared. Within a few months Pickwick, his first novel, was the rage and Dickens the most popular author of the day. Resigning from his newspaper job, he undertook to edit a monthly magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, in which he serialized his second novel, Oliver Twist (1837–39).
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.
Novels continued to tumble forth: Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44), Dombey and Son (1846–48), Bleak House (1852–53), Little Dorrit (1855–57). Dickens’s popularity was everexpanding. He had about him “a sort of swell and overflow as of a prodigality of life,” an American journalist said, and he cut a dandyish figure in London. His journalistic ambitions at last found a permanent form in Household Words (1850–59) and its successor, All the Year Round (1859–88), to which he contributed some serialized novels-including Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860–61)-and essays.
But in the novels of the 1850s Dickens is politically more despondent, emotionally more tragic. The satire is harsher, the humour less genial and abundant, the “happy endings” more subdued than in the early fiction. This turn was the result partly of political reasons, partly of marital troubles. (The actress Ellen Ternan, 27 years his junior, seems to have become his mistress in the 1860s.)
In April 1858 Dickens began a series of paid public readings, the immediate impulse being to find some energetic distraction from his domestic unhappiness. His readings drew on more permanent elements in him and his art: his remarkable histrionic talents, his love of theatricals and of seeing and delighting an audience, and the eminently performable nature of his fiction. Moreover, he could earn more by reading than by writing, and more certainly; it was easier to force himself to repeat a performance than create a book.
His initial repertoire consisted entirely of Christmas books but was soon amplified by episodes from the novels and magazine Christmas stories. A performance usually consisted of two items. Of the 16 eventually performed, the most popular were The Trial from Pickwick and A Christmas Carol (1834). Comedy predominated, though pathos was important in the repertoire, and horrifics were startlingly introduced in the last reading he devised, Sikes and Nancy, with which he petrified his audiences and half killed himself.
Intermittently, until shortly before his death, he gave seasons of readings in London and embarked upon hardworking tours through the provinces and (in 1867–68) the United States. Altogether he performed about 471 times. Tired and ailing though he was in his later years, Dickens remained inventive and adventurous in his final novels. A Tale of Two Cities was an experiment, relying less than before on characterization, dialogue, and humour.
Great Expectations, though not his most ambitious, is his most finely achieved novel. Our Mutual Friend (1864–65), a large inclusive novel, offers a critique of monetary and class values. The unfinished Edwin Drood (1870) would likely have been his most elaborate treatment of the themes of crime, evil, and psychological abnormality that had recurred throughout his novels. His farewell reading tour was abandoned when, in April 1869, he collapsed. He died suddenly in June 1870 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity than had any previous author during his lifetime. Much in his work could appeal to simple and 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.
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.