The attention that has been paid to the life of Charles Dickens is due mainly to his stature as the greatest novelist of Victorian England. Even though the biographical accounts of Dickens frequently try to unravel the mystery of his creative genius, there is something about Dickens' imaginative power that defies explanation in purely biographical terms. Nevertheless, his biography shows the source of that power and is the best place to begin to define it.
The second child of John and Elizabeth Dickens, Charles was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsea on England's south coast. At that time John Dickens was stationed in Portsmouth as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. The family was of lower-middle-class origins, John having come from servants and Elizabeth from minor bureaucrats. Dickens' father was vivacious and generous but had an unfortunate tendency to live beyond his means. His mother was affectionate and rather inept in practical matters. Dickens would later use his father as the basis for Mr. Micawber and would portray his mother as Mrs. Nickleby — two marvelous comic figures.
After a transfer to London in 1814 the family moved to Chatham, near Rochester, three years later. Dickens was about five at the time, and for the next five years his life was pleasant. Taught to read by his mother, he devoured his father's small collection of classics, which included Shakespeare, Cervantes, Defoe, Smollett, Fielding, and Goldsmith. These left a permanent mark on his imagination. He also went to some performances of Shakespeare, and these helped to influence his lifelong attraction to the theater. Dickens attended school during this period and showed himself to be a rather solitary, observant, good-natured child with some talent for comic routines, which his father encouraged. In retrospect Dickens looked upon these years as a kind of golden age. His first novel, Pickwick Papers, is in part an attempt to recapture their idyllic nature; it exalts innocence and the youthful spirit, and its happiest scenes take place in that geographical area.
In the light of the family's move back to London, where financial calamity overtook the Dickenses, the time in Chatham must have seemed glorious indeed. The family moved into the shabby suburb of Camden Town, and Dickens was taken out of school and set to menial jobs about the household. In time, to help augment the family income, Dickens was given a job in a blacking factory among coarse companions. Then his father was jailed for debt in Marshalsea Prison for three months. Dickens worked at washing and labeling blacking bottles for six months or so. Years later he reported to his closest friend, John Forster, that he felt a deep sense of abandonment, of being forsaken, at this time. His feelings of lostness and humiliation emphasize the fact that the major themes of his art may be traced to this period. His sympathy for the poor and the victimized, his fascination with prisons and money, his desire to vindicate his heroes' status as gentlemen, and the notion of London as an awesome and rather threatening environment all appear to have their roots in these experiences, which resulted from the brief but nearly total collapse of his parents' ability to protect him from the world. Out on his own at an early age, Dickens acquired a lasting self-reliance, driving ambition, and a boundless energy that went into everything he did. In many ways Dickens never outgrew the shocks and emotional attitudes of this period, but his achievement is that he worked these shocks over in novel after novel until they took on the symbolic complexity and depth of great literature.
At thirteen Dickens went back to school for two years and then took a job in a lawyer's office. Dissatisfied with the work, he learned shorthand and became a freelance court reporter in 1828. The work was seasonal and enabled him to do a good deal of reading in the British Museum. At the age of twenty Dickens became a full-fledged journalist, working for three papers in succession. In the next four to five years he acquired the reputation of being the fastest and most accurate parliamentary reporter in London. The value of these years was that he gained a sound, firsthand knowledge of London and the provinces which helped him flesh out the experiences of early adolescence with concrete details and a maturer experience of the world.
In December 1833, Dickens began to publish sketches of London and its inhabitants in the Monthly Magazine. In time he began to sign them with the pseudonym, "Boz," and gained some notice for the dramatic quality of his reportage. On his twenty-fourth birthday these articles were published in book form as Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Everyday Life and Everyday People. Although the book was a success it had little intrinsic literary merit. However, it launched him on his career as a writer, a career astonishing in its productivity, quality, and undiminished popular acclaim.
A week after his first book was published, the firm of Chapman and Hall approached Dickens about writing a series of fillers to accompany sporting illustrations by a well-known artist. Dickens convinced the firm that the illustrations should follow the text, rather than vice versa, and began writing the first installment of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which appeared in April 1836. Writing in monthly installments was a mode of publication that proved congenial to Dickens. In the beginning it enabled him to continue his newspaper work and later to edit magazines. Writing for deadlines inflicted a lack of artistic coherence on his early novels, but eventually he was able to abandon his episodic structures and impose a tighter, more unified organization on his later novels.
The Pickwick Papers got off to a slow start, but with the introduction of Sam Weller its sales skyrocketed into the tens of thousands. A Pickwick rage started and Dickens' success was assured. On the surface this novel is a series of sketches, loosely held together by the adventures of Samuel Pickwick and his friends. Yet there are certain basic themes that unify the novel: the celebration of travel, benevolence, youthfulness, fellowship, plenty, romance; the contrast between the freedom of the open road and the constriction of Fleet Prison; the comic treatment of various institutions and professions; and the gradual revelation of Mr. Pickwick's endearing humanity.
With the prospect of a livable income, Dickens, at twenty-four, married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a newspaper colleague. The marriage was genuinely happy at first and there were ten children. Catherine seems to have been a gentle, loving woman, but rather commonplace and lethargic, without much aptitude for housekeeping or childrearing. Under the strain of personality conflicts, the steady pres-sure of Dickens' numerous activities, and his infatuation with Ellen Ternan, the couple separated twenty-two years later in disagreeable circumstances.
Dickens' domestic life, in fact, was odd from the start. The man who sentimentalized marriage was prone to falling in love with other women, including his sisters-in-law. The relationship with Ellen Ternan may have begun platonically, but the evidence points to the fact that she eventually became his mistress. Moreover, his treatment of his own children was harsh, even as he made his readers weep over the fates of innocent and victimized fictional children. This does not mean that Dickens was an out-and-out hypocrite. In his novels he projected what most men want at home — an affectionate, tidy, understanding, attentive wife. And he really knew what it meant to be a lost child in an incomprehensible world. But like many hyperactive public men, Dickens was spoiled and impatient. He craved attention, and between his demands and those of his children, the marriage fell to pieces. His writing was partly an attempt to redress his unsatisfactory personal life, and in doing so it appealed to many with similar discontents.
While still working on his Pickwick Papers (1836-37), Dickens contracted to write two more novels and started publishing Oliver Twist (1837-38). During this period he also worked on a second series of Sketches by Boz (1839). Oliver Twist marked a new departure for Dickens, presenting an attack on workhouse conditions and London's criminal-infested slums through the nightmarish experiences of an innocent young boy. Oliver's trials are rewarded in the end when his claim to gentility is established once and for all. Before he had completed that novel, Dickens began Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), an exposure of private schools for unwanted boys. The hero this time actively seeks a gentlemanly position in life, whereas Oliver is a passive character. The private school, the slums, the workhouse are degrading conditions, analogous in some respects to prison. The only proper alternative is gentility. Dickens was extremely concerned with status, and in these two novels the drama centers upon those who try to deprive the hero of status and those who try to abet him. Each of these novels was successful and increased Dickens' readership. Unquestionably Dickens had hit upon a theme which interested a large proportion of the English middle class.
The next novel, The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), increased Dickens' popularity still further and stunned the public with the sentimental death of Little Nell. The heroine's urge to leave the corrupt, threatening city and find a pastoral peace and security may represent a drive toward death. London, for all its sinister aspects, is the center of vitality in the novel, while the countryside is rich in graveyards and moldering churches.
Even at this early stage in his career Dickens was capable of ambiguous feelings about the central subjects of his novels. He wrote about things that made him uneasy, that raised serious questions in his mind. His novels, in effect, were attempts to answer those questions about the city, prison, crime, success, and gentility. Time and again he came back to these subjects because his questions were of a kind that can never be answered conclusively. By reworking the old themes, his art gained in subtlety, resonance, and depth. To the end of his career he never stopped growing.
Barnaby Rudge (1841) centered on London's anti-Catholic riots of 1780 and examined the relationship between vicious or misguided fathers and the obtuse, selfish authority of public institutions. Just as youth must rebel against the former, so society at large rebels against the latter; but in rebelling everyone is harmed. A historical novel, Barnaby Rudge shows that Dickens had learned much from Sir Walter Scott.
In 1842 Dickens and his wife took a trip to America, which resulted in an unflattering travel book, American Notes (1842), and in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44); this novel is flawed in structure, yet it explores various kinds of egoism with extraordinary verve. In a world where egoism predominates, we get an anarchic view of society. Even the hero is infected with selfishness and his success in establishing himself in the world is very precarious. In America he meets egoism in its most predatory form and returns to England chastened and poverty-stricken. He may win at last through his grandfather's generosity but he clearly exists in a world where strife is ever ready to devour him. Despite the grim sound of these comments, the novel is actually a comic tour de force.
Dombey and Son (1846-48) also has a flawed hero in Mr. Dombey. The fault is inhuman pride of position, which undergoes three crises: the death of a son, the desertion by a proud wife, and the collapse of a financial empire. Dickens uses this subject to show the changing Victorian world, and he balances Dombey's pride and the forces of change with the unchanging love of Dombey's daughter, Florence. Dombey and Son marks Dickens' first major attempt to portray English society realistically. This novel is technically superior to his earlier works, but the comic inventiveness is not nearly as flamboyant. As Dickens' organizing skill grew in his succeeding novels, the comic flair diminished, transforming itself into satire.
For his eighth novel, David Copperfield (1849-50), he made use of autobiographical material. Copperfield's early hardship and rise to prominence is a thinly disguised version of Dickens' own life. This was Dickens' first effort to show the education of a hero from the inside, using a first-person narration. The interest of the book lies in the peripheral characters and intrigues as the raw material of Copperfield's growth.
The most remarkable thing about Dickens is that from his first novel to his last he never ceased to experiment with his forms, themes, and characters. Each novel built on the previous ones and yet was an effort at something new and fresh. With Bleak House (1852-53), for example, he used Chancery and its legal obfuscations to serve as a metaphor for society at large and to connect every class from the aristocratic Dedlocks to Jo, the street sweeper. Moreover, he set the omniscient third-person narrative side by side with a first-person narrative to get a dual vision of the Victorian mental climate. This kind of experimentation enhanced his popularity, yet it was an important element in his greatness as well.
In Hard Times (1854) Dickens combined the moral fable with a realistic social analysis in his depiction of an industrial town. The school and the factory are the confining, objective equivalents of the narrow views of the English political economists. As an alternative to the grim social environment, Dickens shows the freedom and good-heartedness of a circus troupe. As Dickens grew older, benevolence has a harder time of it in his novels. It is no longer dished out wholesale by pleasant gentlemen of unlimited means. More and more it becomes personal, intimate, the expression of love in an increasingly hostile environment.
Dickens' next novel, Little Dorrit (1855-57), presents no alternative to the vision of society as a series of interrelated prisons. From top to bottom all the world's a jail, and no one can escape it. The best that can be salvaged from this claustrophobic society is the mild, tender affection between Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit, both of whom are overshadowed by Marshalsea Prison.
However, in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) Dickens finds an uneasy solution to the prison-like nature of the Victorian world. As society dissolves into anarchy, the only redeeming values are friendship, family, heroic self-sacrifice — each of which is based on love. As a solution to the nightmare of history these values are far more satisfactory than those embodied in the circus troupe of Hard Times because they are deeper and more universal.
Prison also plays a role in Great Expectations (1860-61). Using a first-person narrator-hero, as in David Copperfield, Dickens shows how money and status corrupt people. Crime and prison represent the most dramatic form of that corruption, the dark side of Pip's gentility. Here Dickens returned to his early theme of the young man trying to make good as a gentleman. But this time the theme is shot through with irony because Pip's rise in society is based on a convict's money. In this novel Dickens places redemption in good, honest work.
Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) is Dickens' last completed novel. Through an omniscient narrator Dickens explores the corrupting taint of money in the whole of society. Here he stresses the regenerating force of love rather than that of work. This novel combines a large, vivid cast of characters with great structural proficiency, and may well be Dickens' best novel.
His last work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), remained unfinished. It turns away from society and concentrates on private pathology, on the double nature of John Jasper, a murderer. It is almost Dostoevskian in its view of the criminal as a tormented man fallen from grace and yet having a very respectable facade. It was characteristic of Dickens that the work on which he was working at the time of his death should mark still another new departure. Edwin Drood is a tantalizing piece of work.
Dickens' body of novels remains his outstanding achievement, a living testament to his intensely creative life. But he wrote much else besides: volumes of excellent journalistic essays, two travel books, several hundred letters, a book of Christmas stories, and a child's history of England. He also edited three magazines, two of these for many years.
Furthermore, Dickens was very much involved in theater work during the whole of his career. He frequented the theater and, for a time, considered becoming a professional actor. He wrote plays, acted in amateur productions (which were really quite skilled), and he directed plays with an impressive energy and thoroughness. In time his theatrical bent found an outlet in his public readings from his novels. These readings overwhelmed audiences, yet the strain of doing them hastened his death.
Dickens practiced benevolence as well as preached it. In his private life he did many favors for his parents, his brothers and sisters, and his in-laws, the Hogarths. In public he organized charities and gave benefits, contributing substantial amounts. In this capacity he worked with the heiress, Angela Burdett-Coutts, for many years.
Physically, Dickens had a slight and rather frail body, but he was very active. He loved taking twenty-mile walks, horseback riding, making journeys, entertaining friends, dining well, and playing practical jokes. He enjoyed games of charades with his family, was an expert amateur magician, and practiced hypnotism. One tends to share Shaw's opinion that Dickens was always on stage. He was the quintessence of a master of ceremonies: ebullient, dynamic, quick, observant, full of zest for life. Yet he was also high-strung, impatient, irascible, and subject to fits of depression. At times he must have been nearly intolerable to live with, however agreeable he may have been as a companion.
In view of his strenuous life it was not surprising that he died, prematurely aged, of a stroke at fifty-eight. At his death on June 9, 1870, he was immensely popular, wealthy, and probably the greatest writer the Victorian age produced. Perhaps his broadest achievement lay in the part his towering novels played in raising the novel from a slightly disreputable level to the dominant form it is today.
Appropriately, Dickens was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey and was mourned internationally.