Charles Dickens (1812-70) was born in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, but his family moved to Chatham while he was still very young. His most pleasant childhood years were spent in Chatham, and re-creations of these scenes appear in a disguised form in many of his novels. His father, John Dickens, was a minor clerk in the Navy Pay Office and, like Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, was constantly in debt.
In 1822, John Dickens was transferred to London, but debts continued to pile up, and the family was forced to sell household items in order to pay some of the creditors. Young Charles made frequent trips to the pawnshop, but eventually his father was arrested and sent to debtors' prison, and at the age of twelve, he was sent to work in a blacking warehouse, where he pasted labels on bottles for six shillings a week.
This experience was degrading for the young boy, and Dickens later wrote: "No words can express the secret agony of my soul. I felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my breast." The situation is an exact parallel to David Copperfield's plight at the wine warehouse. Even after his father was released from prison and the family inherited some money, his mother wanted him to continue with his job.
Later, for two and a half years, Dickens attended school at Wellington House Academy, and then in 1827, at the age of fifteen, he began work as a clerk in a law office and taught himself shorthand so he could report court debates. At the same time, he was learning about life in London and frequently attended the theater, even taking acting lessons for a short time.
Meanwhile, Dickens had fallen in love with Maria Beadnell, a frivolous young girl whose father objected to his daughter's being courted by a young reporter from a lower middle-class background. Nothing came of this relationship, but it probably intensified Dickens' efforts to make something of himself. In 1832, he began working as a parliamentary reporter for two London newspapers, and two years later, he joined a new paper, the Morning Chronicle, where he was asked to write a series of sketches about London life. This request resulted in Sketches by Boz, which appeared in installments that were later, in 1836, published in book form. Dickens' career as an author was begun. This led to an offer to write a monthly newspaper series about a group of humorous English clubmen. These pieces became The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, and after they appeared, Dickens' reputation as a writer was assured.
He now felt financially secure and quit his job as a parliamentary reporter to devote all his time to writing. He married Catherine Hogarth in April 1836; however, the marriage was never a happy one and Dickens separated from his wife twenty years later.
His writing output increased, and a number of novels, including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, were published — first in monthly installments and then as novels. By the 1840s, Dickens was the most popular writer in England. In 1849, he began one of his most important novels, David Copperfield. His friend John Forster proposed that he tell the story in the first person, and this suggestion proved to be a perfect method for Dickens to fictionalize the background of his early life. David Copperfield became the "favorite child" of its author and in it Dickens transcribed his own experiences, producing not only a fine novel, but a disguised autobiography as well.
But the novel is not pure biography; rather, it is Dickens' experiences made into fiction. In the novel, David escapes from the warehouse to a sympathetic aunt, and he marries Dora after the "timely" death of her father. This did not happen in real life, and it is almost as though Dickens were reconstructing parts of his childhood the way he wished it had been. In the novel, too, Dickens shows his contempt for his parents (in the guise of the Murdstones) for sending him to the blacking factory, and, at the same time, his devotion to them (the Micawber family) as lovable eccentrics. Dora Spenlow becomes both Maria Beadnell and, later, the simple-minded Catherine Hogarth, his real wife. The novel, thus, is both fantasy and fact.
Little needs to be said about the humor in the novel; it is simply to be enjoyed. The scene at the inn where the waiter eats David's dinner, the night of revelry when David becomes drunk and falls down the stairs, the preposterous Micawber boarding the ship with a telescope under his arm — all are near-slapstick pieces of good fun, and it is easy to understand the continuing popularity of the novel.
After David Copperfield, Dickens wrote novels that were bitter and caustic. Bleak House is a brooding satire on the law courts, while both Hard Times and Little Dorrit suffer from uncontrolled social outrage. The wildly humorous characters of Sam Weller, of The Pickwick Papers, and Mr. Micawber give way to dark, sinister figures, and although the later novels perhaps show more craftsmanship, most readers feel that the "magic" had worn off.
During the last years of his life, Dickens traveled in England and America, giving public readings from his works. The strain weakened his health, and he died in 1870 at the age of fifty-eight. At the time of his death, he was working on a novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and though many writers have attempted to supply an ending, the book remains unfinished.