Meet Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens
Like the age he described in the famous opening
of A Tale of Two Cities, the life of Charles
Dickens contained both the best of times and the
worst of times, its seasons of light and of darkness.
Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, in
1812. His family was lower-middle-class; his
father was a clerk in a navy office. The Dickens
family moved often. When Dickens was five, his
family settled in the village of Chatham, where
the young boy spent five happy years. When
Dickens was ten, the family had to move to a
poor area of London because of his father’s finacial
troubles. Two years later, Dickens’s father was
imprisoned for debt in London’s Marshalsea
Prison, and the boy was sent to work in a shoe
polish factory to earn money. In a building he
described later as a “crazy tumble-down old house
. . . on the river . . . literally overrun with rats,” he pasted labels on bottles of shoe blacking. These events permanently affected Dickens, and he returned to them often in his fiction. He likened the dark, dank shoe polish factory to a kind of living grave. The contrast between his happy school days and the misery of his life in the factory gnawed at him, and he later wrote: “No words can express the secret agony of my soul. . . . even now, famous and happy, I . . . wander desolately back to that time of my life.” Dickens’s childhood experiences made him all the more determined to succeed, and they also created in him a strong sympathy for the poor, which he never lost. His father’s continuing financial troubles prevented Dickens from attending school for very long. In 1827, when he was fifteen, he found work as a law clerk, a job he hated. In his spare time he studied on his own and taught himself to write shorthand. The serial publication of Pickwick Papers, begun in 1836 and completed in 1837, made Dickens an overnight success. Other novels soon followed, and Dickens became the most popular author of his time. Dickens’s early novels, such as Oliver Twist, were filled with comic characters, gruesome villains, and chatty, rambling narrators. The novels of his middle and late periods, such as Hard Times, are much darker visions of Victorian society and attack specific social problems. Two masterpieces, David Copperfield and Great Expectations, are somewhat autobiographical. His two historical novels are Barnaby Rudge and A
Tale of Two Cities. Dickens and his wife had ten children but separated in 1858. Dickens threw himself into causes such as improving education, and he frequently acted in plays. He also traveled widely, often on reading tours that brought him wealth and created a special bond between himself and his readers. The hectic pace of his life and his many responsibilities wore Dickens out. His health failed during a reading tour in 1869, and he was forced to return home. The next year, while working on his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens died. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey and is celebrated as a national treasure.