Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, at Portsmouth, England, the eldest son of a navy clerk. Although he received little formal education, he spent many hours in his father’s library, reading imaginative works such as The Arabian Nights and the novels of Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Miguel de Cervantes. Dickens’s father was poor, lived beyond his means, and was sent to debtors prison. Young Dickens had to work in a shoe-blacking factory, work that he despised. He never forgot the humiliation of his father’s imprisonment and the misery of child labor.
Dickens eventually found work at an attorney’s office, learned shorthand, and became a court reporter. His first books, Sketches by Boz (1836) and The Pickwick Papers (1837), brought him instant fame. The next four novels assured his success. His financial position now secure, he married Catherine Hogarth, an editor’s daughter, and settled in Bloomsbury, London. His industry was enormous, for in addition to writing novels, he edited a magazine with the largest circulation of the day. During the middle years, Dickens was a traveler, editor, and satirist. He made his first trip to America in 1842. Warmly greeted but disappointed that his novels were being pirated, Dickens held America up to ridicule in two satirical works: American Notes (1842) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843). It was about this time that he wrote his most beloved story, A Christmas Carol, traveled in France and Italy, and founded Household Words, a popular weekly magazine. His last novel was his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood. During the last decade of his life, Dickens gave dramatic readings from his works in England and America. His exhausting public engagements and heavy literary production led to his early death on June 9, 1870, in Rochester, England.
Dickens’s works fall into two broad divisions. His early novels are distinguished by their large cast of memorable characters. This category includes Oliver Twist, a tale of a workhouse waif; Nicholas Nickleby (1839), an attack on cheap boarding schools; and The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Ridge, both published in 1841. Dickens’s later novels have fewer characters and tighter plots. They constitute his greatest achievements: David Copperfield, a portrait of the author’s childhood; Bleak House (1853), a satire on the Chancery Court that many critics regard as his greatest novel; Dombey and Son (1848), an examination of the middle class in industrialized England; Hard Times, an expose of the poverty and misery of a textile town; A Tale of Two Cities, a popular historical novel; and Great Expectations.