The title of Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times is an apt description of his early life and youth. Born February 7, 1812, the boy was one of eight children. His formal education was scanty, but as a child Charles spent much of his time reading and listening to the stories told by his grandmother. His reading included works by Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, and Tobias Smollett — all outstanding English novelists. Too, young Dickens frequently attended and enjoyed the theater with his uncle.
Charles' father, John Dickens, was a poor manager; consequently, after failing at many jobs, he was arrested and sent to debtor's prison at Marshalsea. All of the family furniture and possessions were sold, and Charles went to work in a blackening warehouse. In this job he was treated as a drudge. His mother and family went to Marshalsea; however, Charles, feeling that living in debtors' prison was degrading, did not stay with them, but lived nearby. When the Insolvent Debtors Act resulted in John Dickens' discharge from prison, the family fared better than it had in a long time.
After his father's release, Charles went to school; then he began to work as a clerk for an attorney. Determined to raise his standard of living, he studied shorthand and became a court reporter. Later he began to work for the Morning Chronicle. His Sketches by Boz (1834-36), which appeared in the Chronicle, brought him fame. From this beginning he wrote many books, all of which utilized as characters his own family and people he met. He used for his themes and plots both the working conditions and the social conditions of his time. His Christmas stories, of which A Christmas Carol (1843) is most famous, were the only ones which did not describe the plight of his contemporaries. In 1867, he achieved the standard of living which he had set out to attain: he received one hundred thousand dollars for a lecture tour in America. After his return to England in 1870, he died suddenly at the dinner table. Medical men attributed his death to overexertion. Leaving behind a family of four children and a wife to mourn him, Charles Dickens — blackening house apprentice and poor lower middle-class boy — was buried in Westminster Abbey beside other great figures of English literature.
Dickens left behind a large number of much-loved novels, including Oliver Twist (1837-39), which satirized the conditions and institutions of the time; The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), one of the most widely known works in all literature; and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), in which Dickens reported his impressions of America. Mrs. Roylance, an early landlady of the author's, appears in Dombey and Son (1846-48). David Copperfield (1849-50) drew heavily on the writer's own experiences. In Bleak House (1852-53), one sees reflected the sorrow that Dickens felt over the deaths of his sister and daughter. In Hard Times (1854), he skillfully combined many literary techniques to produce a great novel of social protest. His Little Dorrit (1855-57) describes the arrest and imprisonment of his own father. In A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a triangle love plot is developed against the background of the French Revolution. Great Expectations (1860-61) narrates the growing up of a boy under conditions of mystery and suspense. Dickens' last volume, Life of Our Lord, a book for children, was not published until 1934.
In all of his novels — those that appeared as serials in newspapers or magazines and those that were first printed as whole books — Dickens reveals his keen observation, his great understanding of human nature, and his varied techniques of style. True, his characters are sometimes exaggerated; however, the very exaggeration adds vitality and humor to the stories. As a novelist and a social critic, Dickens was a giant of his era; later generations have turned to his works for both amusement and instruction.