Charles Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsea, on the south coast of England, while his father was stationed nearby at Portsmouth. Although the Dickens family was from the lower middle class, it tried to maintain an air of respectability. The father, John Dickens, was a clerk in the navy pay office. He was a man of some ability and he did advance in the service, but his tastes for living beyond his means eventually led to disaster.
In 1814, John Dickens was transferred to London for a tour of duty of unknown duration. By 1817, the family was established in Chatham, near the naval dockyard, marking the beginning of the happy years of Charles's childhood. His recollections of early life were centered in Kent. Later in his life, he spoke of himself as coming from that region. One of Charles's fancies was to own Gad's Hill Place, a stately old dwelling near Rochester.
When Dickens was forty-four years old, he was able to afford to purchase the property; it became his permanent residence for the rest of his life.
Young Charles received his first schooling at home from his mother. He later attended regular schools in Chatham. He soon began reading his father's small collection of literary classics. The youngster also revealed early signs of genius, which John Dickens delighted in showing off. Having his father's approval encouraged Charles to work at his studies.
The pleasant times came to an end in 1822, when John Dickens was ordered back to London. The elder Dickens's fondness for luxuries beyond his means had caught up with him. He was in debt beyond the point where his creditors would cut him slack. Mrs. Dickens tried to help by starting up a school, but this only drew the family deeper into debt.
To lessen the strain, Charles, then twelve years old, was put to work in a shoe-polish factory at low wages. Two weeks later,, his father was sent to a debtors' prison, where Mrs. Dickens and their four smallest children joined him. During that difficult time, young Charles had only irregular relations with his family.
The next four or five months were a painful ordeal. In addition to degrading labor, Charles endured the indignities of insufficient food, shabby quarters, and the association of rough companions. It was a humiliating trial that left an indelible impression on the proud and sensitive boy. In later years, he never spoke of this episode, except in the pages of David Copperfield. It is likely that this introduction to poverty was instrumental in shaping his life. Dickens became distinguished by furious energy, determination to succeed, and an inflexible will.
After John Dickens had been in prison for about three months, his aged mother died. The inheritance he received was large enough to pay his more pressing debts and allow his release from debtor's prison. An additional result of this inheritance was that Charles was taken out of his job at the shoe-polish factory a few weeks later and sent back to school. He spent the next two and a half years in an academy, completing all of the formal education he was ever going to get.
In the spring of 1827, Charles Dickens, then a youth of fifteen, entered a lawyer's office. While applying himself to the law, he managed in his free time to master shorthand. About a year and a half later, the energetic young man felt ready to try a more promising occupation. He became a freelance court reporter, and for the next three years, the future novelist was brought into close contact with grim realities of life as it was played out in the courts. His work was seasonal and irregular, giving him time to read in the British Museum.
In March 1832, Dickens became a journalist. After serving on two newspapers and gaining experience as a parliamentary reporter, in 1834 he joined the staff of the prominent Morning Chronicle, where he got d the reputation for being one of the fastest and most accurate reporters in London. In addition to his metropolitan activities, his assignments took him all over England, mainly to cover political events. With this exposure to the prevailing realities of political life, in Parliament and around the nation, Dickens's apprenticeship was receiving its finishing touches.
In the meantime, drawing upon the abundance of material he'd seen in twenty-one years, Dickens had begun to compose sketches of London life. The first of these was published unsigned in the Monthly Magazine of December 1833. In August 1834, the signature "Boz" made its first appearance, and Dickens's anonymity gradually evaporated.
The energetic Dickens produced numerous sketches while continuing his newspaper career. The records of the reporter's keen observations that were preserved in the vivid pieces later found their way into a number of celebrated novels. Finally, on the author's twenty-fourth birthday, February 7, 1836, Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Everyday Life and Everyday People was published in book form. A second series came out later, and the complete edition was issued in 1839.
The following month saw an even more significant literary event: the first number of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club was offered to the public. Instead of being first serialized or released in its entirety, the work came out in individual numbers that were sold separately from March 1836 to November 1837. Only 400 copies were printed of the first installment, and the initial reception was inauspicious. But later sales rose spectacularly and printings reached 40,000.
The success of the Sketches by Boz had sharpened Dickens's confidence in the future and sufficiently improved his income to allow him to consider marriage. On April 2, 1836, two days after the first of the Pickwick Papers went on sale, Dickens and Catherine Hogarth were married. The bride was the oldest daughter of George Hogarth, the editor of the Evening Chronicle, an affiliate of the newspaper for which Dickens wrote. The couple had ten children, but after twenty-two years the marriage ended in dissension and separation.
When the success of the Pickwick Papers was assured, the star reporter resigned from the Morning Chronicle, but within a few months he became editor of a new periodical, Bentley's Miscellany. The February 1837 issue began the serialization of Oliver Twist, or, the Parish Boy's Progress by Boz, even though the busy editor was still at work on the Pickwick Papers. Before Oliver Twist had all appeared, several numbers of Dickens's next novel, Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), had been printed. Oliver Twist was completed in September 1838 and was issued in book form before the end of the year, although serial publication ran until March 1839.
Dickens gave up the editorship of Bentley's Miscellany after two years, but his astounding literary productivity went on with few intermissions until the day of his death. His many books followed one another at regular intervals: The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), Barnaby Rudge (1841), American Notes (1842), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849-50), Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-57), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860-61), Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870 — unfinished).
Besides his output of books, Dickens's other literary pursuits were impressive. Among his best-known short stories are A Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth. He wrote miscellaneous sketches, travel accounts, articles, and dramatic pieces. In 1850, he assumed the editorship of Household Words, and from 1859 until the end of his life, he edited the successor of that periodical, All the Year Round.
Dickens's non-literary activity alone would have taxed the stamina of an ordinary person. He had a boundless zest for life; everything that he did was undertaken with energy and speed. He enjoyed an active social life and was a prolific letter writer. Many relatives and his own numerous family commanded much of his attention — and material assistance. Some of his time was taken by his interest in organized charity. His travels took him to the continent and twice to America. There were several changes of residence, including sojourns in Italy, Switzerland, and France. In spite of all this, Dickens managed to keep up a strenuous exercise program, including horseback riding and brisk walks of up to twelve or fourteen miles.
While still a child, Dickens developed an enduring attachment for the theater. At one time in his youth, Dickens made an attempt to become a professional actor. As an adult, he delighted in arranging amateur performances, at various times writing plays, managing productions, or acting.
His dramatic interests later found expression in the famous readings from his own works. These started with a benefit in 1853, and professional appearances began in 1858. Dickens's second trip to America in 1867-68 was a reading tour that proved to be highly profitable. He threw himself into the oral interpretation of his works, sparing neither himself nor his audiences. After presenting the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist, Dickens commonly had to leave the stage for a rest before proceeding. The swooning of females in the audience was a regular feature of these occasions.
Beginning with his early successes, Dickens's literary career was an unbroken triumphal procession. His popularity grew enormously and everywhere he came to be regarded with almost reverence. His cosmopolitan reading public grew to epic numbers , and every addition to his writing was awaited with wild expectation. Dickens was universally beloved as probably no other living writer has ever been.
On June 8, 1870, Charles Dickens, working on the manuscript of his last book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, wrote longer than was his usual practice. At dinner time he collapsed and sank into a coma; he died in the evening of the following day. The news of Dickens's death was carried on a shock wave of grief to remote regions of the earth. As his body was interred in Westminster Abbey, the whole world mourned.