Charles Dickens Biography


Personal Background

Described as "the greatest English novelist,"Charles Dickens is studied more than any other author writing in English, except for Shakespeare. While his popularity with critics has fluctuated over time, Dickens' works have never lost their appeal for general readers, thanks to the universality of his writing. He infused his realistic depictions of society and memorable characters with enough humor and sensitivity to entertain and satisfy both casual and serious readers.

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, on February 7, 1812, to John and Elizabeth Barrow Dickens. His family moved several times during his early years and finally settled in Chatham, a seaport town in southern England, from 1817 to 1822. The Chatham years were happy ones for Dickens; he attended a good school and found much in the busy town and open countryside to entertain his active mind.

In 1822, Dickens' father's job transferred the family to London, where financial problems eventually led to John Dickens being sent to debtor's prison in 1824. Although the rest of his family joined his father in prison, twelve-year-old Charles lived alone and worked at Warren's Blacking Factory. Although the experience lasted for only a few months, it affected him deeply. Images of orphaned children and prisons would permeate his stories and books throughout his writing career.

After being removed from the factory, Dickens spent the next three years attending the Wellington House Academy, where he won a Latin prize. At the age of fifteen, he left school and began working as a solicitor's clerk at the law firm of Ellis and Blackmore. He eventually became a shorthand reporter in the Doctors' Commons law courts and then a parliamentary and news reporter for the Morning Chronicle newspaper. His years of observing the legal system gave him a familiarity and contempt for the law and politics, which his books echo.

After an unsuccessful courtship of Maria Beadnell, a banker's daughter whose parents viewed Dickens' family and prospects as inadequate, Dickens turned his attentions to Catherine Hogarth, daughter of journalist George Hogarth. Dickens and Catherine married on April 2, 1836, and eventually had ten children: Charles, Mary, Kate, Walter, Francis, Alfred, Sydney, Henry, Dora, and Edward.

Domestically, Dickens eventually became estranged from his wife. The couple separated in 1858, and Dickens began a relationship with actress Ellen Ternan that would last for the rest of his life. In March 1870, exhausted by his hectic schedule of readings and appearances, Dickens gave his last public reading, stating, "From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore."Three months later, on June 9, 1870, Dickens died at age fifty-eight from a stroke and was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. He remains one of England's most popular authors, and readers throughout the world continue to enjoy his books and stories.

Career Highlights

In 1833, Dickens started publishing "sketches,"or brief, informal stories and essays, in the Monthly Magazine and in the Morning Chronicle under the pseudonym "Boz."In February 1836, a collection of his sketches appeared as Sketches by Boz. Also in February, Dickens received a contract to write his first novel, a series of 20 monthly installments called The Pickwick Papers. The popularity of the story of Samuel Pickwick and his Pickwick Club increased with each installment; by the last chapter, the number of copies being sold had grown from 1,000 to 40,000, an exceptional number for the time.

The success of The Pickwick Papers launched a new era in publishing. The concept of publishing a novel in installments was a new one at the time, but it soon caught on with other authors, including Anthony Trollope, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Wilkie Collins. Serial literature benefited the publisher, the reader, and the author through its affordability and accessibility. Publishers could introduce a new title for one-twentieth the cost of publishing an entire book, plus the advantage of selling advertising space in the publication. Meanwhile, readers gained a cheap source of literature and authors received payment for each installment, rather than waiting for the entire book to be finished before they could sell it and be paid. Writing in installments worked well for Dickens, and he used this method to publish all of his major fiction.

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