Charles John Huffam Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, on England’s southern coast. John Dickens, Charles’s father, was a respectable, middle-class naval pay clerk. His family moved several times during Charles’s youth, and the boy attended several schools, received instruction from his mother, and read voraciously. John Dickens received a reasonable salary, but he always spent more than he made. In 1824 he was imprisoned for debt. Two weeks before his father’s imprisonment, young Charles was sent to work in a blacking warehouse, pasting labels on bottles of boot polish. He lived alone in poverty in rented lodgings while the rest of his family moved into prison with his father-a common practice at that time. John Dickens was released after three months, and Charles returned to school. Dickens always remembered and hated this period of his life and the degradation it seemed to entail. Yet here he first became familiar with the lower-class people who appear throughout his novels. Dickens also returns again and again in his books to prison scenes.
In 1827 Dickens left school for good and became an apprentice for an attorney’s firm. He took a strong dislike to the law-a dislike that shows up in many of his novels, especially Bleak House (1852-1853). He studied legal shorthand after work and became a very successful court and parliamentary reporter, eventually working for several newspapers. In 1836 Dickens published his first book, Sketches by Boz, a successful collection of short sketches on London life previously published in a London newspaper. He married Catherine Hogarth that year, and the couple, though increasingly unhappy, had ten children. His first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, appeared in monthly installments in 1836 and 1837. It became an immensely popular best seller, making Dickens extremely famous at age twenty-four.
From this time on, Dickens worked full-time as a writer. He published fourteen major novels, several plays, numerous short stories, and many other books and articles. At times he was involved in writing as many as three novels simultaneously. A man of incredible energy and vitality, Dickens acted, edited a number of periodicals, and worked with various charitable organizations. He also gave impressive public readings from his own works. He twice toured America, giving readings to packed houses. Severe shocks and exhaustion from overwork contributed to the stroke that ended his life on June 9, 1870, in Rochester, England.
Dickens’s novels dominated the Victorian literary scene throughout his life. He was arguably the most popular novelist ever to write in English. In addition to his books appropriate for young adults, Dickens’s important works include Bleak House (1852-1853), Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865). He left a final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished at the time of his death.