"For the first time, he conceived a hero who could survive in the midst of the problem-filled world of experience by using his artistic imagination, like Dickens himself. This autobiographical novel was a celebration of the artist's ability to cope with the world right in the center of it, as opposed to just surviving the world by retreating to some safe place at the edge of it, as Dickens' earlier heroes had done."
The next several years would bring the publication of Dickens' next three novels — Bleak House, Hard Times, and Little Dorrit — as well as the anguish and personal scandal of his involvement with Ellen Ternan and his divorce from Catherine. The novels were darker than anything he had previously written and their focus was mostly social criticism: Bleak House's criticism targeted the legal system (it may have been the first detective novel published in English), Hard Times hit the government, and Little Dorritt aimed at the problems of society's class structure. This period also saw Dickens become involved in more theatrical productions, start a weekly magazine, Household Words, and give public readings of his works.
In 1859, after a dispute with the publishers of Household Words, Dickens left and started another magazine, All the Year Round. The first issue carried the first installment of his next novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Like Barnaby Rudge it was a historical novel, set in France during the riotous 1770s and 1780s. The novel was popular with his readers, but did not receive much critical acclaim. Struggling to improve the magazine's circulation and revenue, Dickens hit gold and a financial rescue with his next novel: Great Expectations. In spite of a mixed reception by reviewers, the reading public loved it — many proclaimed it to be his best work.
Also during this time, Dickens burned most of his letters and papers: In his success, he did not want anyone to make his life more interesting than his novels. By destroying his notes, he effectively took his insights regarding his works to the grave, leaving the interpretations of his stories up to his literary critics and readers.
After Great Expectations, Dickens began work on his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend. It was a return to Dickens' darker style: social criticism was of a corrupt society, with London's dumps and polluted river symbolizing a modern industrial wasteland. Dickens continued to chain-smoke and overwork, maintaining a heavy public-reading schedule as well as national and international tours. From 1865 until his death, Dickens experienced a number of health problems, including a possible heart attack and a series of small strokes. The work he began in 1869, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was never finished — on June 8, 1870 he suffered an apparent cerebral hemorrhage, collapsing on the floor after dinner. He died the next day.