life of Charles Dickens makes the characters and stories that sprang from
his two hands look tame by comparison. From poverty and disgrace, from
imprisonment and servitude, from sickness to depravity--all the elements and
drama of a Dickens novel were present in the author as a young man.
Charles John Huffam Dickens
was born February 7, 1812, in a house in the Mile End Terrace, Commercial
Road, Landport (Portsea)—a house that was opened as a Dickens Museum on July
22, 1904. When Dickens turned five, the family moved to Chatham, and
young Dickens considered his years there the happiest of his childhood.
He grew up in a series of picturesque fishing villages on the
southern coast of England, where his father worked as a naval clerk.
Not surprisingly, Dickens loved the sea. He wrote,
"The sun, away at sea, just breaking through the heavy mist, and showing us
the ships, like their own shadows... I have never beheld such sky, such
water, such glorified ships sailing away into golden air."
mother, Elizabeth (Barrow) taught him to read from the books his father,
John, kept stored in a small attic library. He became a voracious
devourer of books of all sorts. "[Reading] was my constant comfort,"
he wrote. "When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of
a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my
bed, reading as if for life."
The works that sustained him most were Roderick Random,
Peregrine Pickle, Humphry Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don
Quixote, and Robinson Crusoe. Dickens would inject himself into the
stories and often played the characters in the books for weeks at a time.
He told in his own master work, David Copperfield, how he sustained his concept of
Roderick Random for a month.
When Dickens turned, 10, his life also took a turn.
His father received a promotion to a job on the outskirts of London, one of
the world's first sprawling cities and a capital of the industrial
revolution, filled with poverty and pollution, crime and mystery.
Dickens didn't want to move, but he had no choice. He remembered
leaving the small coastal town where he'd grown up with apprehension and
Dickens, London was "The great city... like a dark shadow on the ground,
reddening the sluggish air with a deep dull light, that told of labyrinths
of public ways and shops, and swarms of busy people... Sounds arose—the
striking of church clocks, the distant bark of dogs, the hum of traffic in
the streets... tall steeples looming in the air, and piles of unequal roofs
oppressed by chimneys."
On the day he left for London, he was overwhelmed by
sadness. "I consumed my sandwiches in solitude and dreariness, and it
rained hard all the way, and I thought life sloppier than I had expected to
The new house the family moved into was uncomfortably
small. He said of his new neighborhood, "It was as shabby, dingy, damp
and mean a neighborhood as one would desire not to see." Instead of
standing on the shore of his old town and looking out to sea, he now found
himself standing on the edge of his property and gazing out across the black
clouds of soot and smoke rising from the chimneys of London's industrial
the family had been relatively well-to-do, Dickens' father--who enjoyed
living beyond his meager means--had for years been slowly sinking into debt.
When Charles turned 12, his parents decided he was old enough to help the
family financially by taking a job at Warren's Blacking Company, a
manufacturer of boot blacking that was run by friend of his mother's family.
His parents saw it both as solid economic move and also as
an opportunity for their son to work his way up in the business world.
Dickens, though, saw it as a prison sentence. He described the
building where he had to go to work as "A crazy, tumbledown old house... its
wainscoted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats
swarming down the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling
coming up the stairs all the time." Dickens worked 10 hours a day
pasting labels on the jars of boot polish and doing other odd jobs.
few days after he began work, John Dickens was arrested and thrown
into debtor's prison. Young Dickens was devastated. He went to visit
his father in prison, and it was there that his father told him
to take this as a warning, that if a man had 20 pounds a year, and spent 19
pounds 19 shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling
spent the other way would make him wretched.
His mother sold off or pawned most of the family's
possessions and moved into the debtor's prison with her husband and the
younger Dickens children. Dickens moved in with a friend of the family
and survived mostly on a diet of black tea and pudding. Each morning,
he walked the crowded streets to the prison, where he had breakfast with his
family before going to the blacking factory. On his way home, he would
stop at the prison to join in dinner before returning to the tiny house
where he lived.
Feeling the iron fist of shame, Dickens vowed to do
whatever necessary to make sure that he would never be poor again or wind up
like his father in prison.
1824, Dickens received relief from his own personal hell when his parents
inherited some money from his father's family. Dickens quit his job
at the factory and spent the next two years at Wellington House, an academy
at the corner of Granby Street and the Hampstead Road, where he was
remembered as a merry and rather mischievous boy. His father had been
released from prison and took a job as a parliamentary reporter.
Meanwhile, Dickens accepted a position with a Gray’s Inn
attorney who had been attracted to the bright, clever look of the boy and
took him into his office at a salary of thirteen and sixpence (rising to
fifteen shillings) a week. He worked there from May 1827
to November 1828, but he had lost none of his eagerness to excel and spent
most of his spare time mastering Gurney’s shorthand and reading before and
after work at the British Museum.
His hard work paid off. He had an opportunity to
become a reporter for the True Sun, and he jumped at the opportunity.
He spent his days traveling around the country, covering parliamentary
proceedings and election campaigns. At night, he worked at writing his
first novel, creating elaborate stories involving complex, full characters
rich in attributes--both good and bad.
But Dickens couldn't afford to wait for payment until his
book was finished, so he struck upon an ingenious plan for serializing the
chapters of his book in local magazines. The scheme proved remarkably
successful, and his reading public waited anxiously for each new edition.
Once, when he had run out of writing paper and gone down to
the local stationary store to purchase more, he overheard a woman asking
when the next Charles Dickens serial would be out--the very story that he
had interrupted working on running out of paper!
literary career was at its peak. He serialized Oliver Twist in
Bentley's Miscellany beginning in 1837. The following year,
with the book only half completed, he began publishing monthly installments
of Nicholas Nickleby. Because he had so many projects in the
works, he was barely able to stay ahead of his monthly deadlines. But
he was driven toward success. After the completion of Twist and
Nickleby, he produced weekly installments of The Old Curiosity Shop
and Barnaby Rudge.
Following a short working vacation in the United States in 1841, Dickens
continued his break-neck literary pace. He began publishing annual
Christmas stories, beginning with A Christmas Carol in 1843.
1850, he established a weekly journal, Household Words, to which he
contributed the serialized works of Child's History of England
(1851-53), Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and
Great Expectations (1860-61). At the same time, he continued
work on his novels, including David Copperfield (1849-50), Bleak
House (1852-53), Little Dorrit (1855-57), and Our Mutual
But, as his popularity grew,
Dickens became more and more disenchanted with life. His works had
always reflected the pain suffered by the common man, but novels such as
Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend portrayed his growing anger and
disillusionment with society.
In 1858, Dickens began a series of paid readings, which became instantly
popular. Through them, he was able to combine his love of the stage with an
accurate rendition of his works. In all, he performed more than 400
times. The readings often left him exhausted and ill, but they allowed
him to increase his income, receive creative satisfaction, and travel the
on June 9, 1865, Dickens' life took another curious turn. While returning from a trip to France, the train upon
which he was traveling was involved in a horrific crash at Staplehurst.
The first six carriages plunged off of a bridge that was being
repaired. The only first-class carriage to remain on the tracks was the
one in which the author rode.
The event left him shaken, and his writing suffered.
His health gradually deteriorated, and his literary output fell off.
Exactly five years to the day after the Staplehurst crash,
Charles John Huffam Dickens died. He was buried in the Poets' Corner
of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads: “He was a
sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death,
one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.”
Dickens' reputation among critics declined drastically
following his death
with the advent of literary realism. His work was considered too
melodramatic and moralistic, too full of cartoon-like characters, wicked
villains, and innocent children to be considered little more than child's
But, with the passing of time, critics such as G.K. Chesterton
began to reassess his work in light of its universal value. Since 1950, more has been written about
Dickens each year than about any other author in the English language
outside of Shakespeare.
Today, in that part of London where Dickens once walked
between the prison and the factory, streets are named after his literary
characters: Pickwick Street and Little Dorrit Court, and nearby there is a Charles Dickens Primary School for children.
Charles Dickens wrote, "Pause you who read this, and think
for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that
would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one
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