The most popular Victorian author in Great Britain and the United States, Charles Dickens was both gifted humorist and critic of the social evils of his time. His characters are frequently eccentric, almost caricatures. They change very little or not at all in the course of the narrative, but they are nonetheless memorable. For example, Mr. Micawber is one of the outstanding characters in David Copperfield, and remains his improvident, amiable self all through the novel until he goes to Australia. Yet he is a comic character almost in the same league as Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff.
Dickens was born in 1812 at Landport, near Portsmouth, England, to John Dickens, a navy payclerk, and Catherine Dickens, nee Barrow. The family moved to London in 1815 and in 1817 to Chatham, where Dickens spent the happiest years of his childhood. Neither of his parents was particularly mature in financial matters, and after returning to London in 1822, the family became destitute. In 1824 John Dickens was thrown into the Marshalsea Prison for debt. During the previous year, Charles had been taken out of school and sent to work in Warren’s Blacking factory, a warehouse managed by a relative. This was the most traumatic event in Dickens’ young life. After his father’s release from prison, Dickens returned to school briefly but his formal education ended when he was fifteen. A succession of jobs followed including work as a solicitor’s clerk, as a shorthand reporter in the law courts, and as a parliamentary reporter. In 1833 he began contributing stories to newspapers and magazines that were collected to form his first book, Sketches by Boz. In 1836 began the serialization of Pickwick Papers, which became immensely popular. While Pickwick was still appearing, Dickens, as editor of Bentley’s Miscellany, was contributing installments of Oliver Twist to the magazine. In April 1836 he married Catherine Hogarth, who between 1837 and 1852 bore him ten children. Serial publication suited Dickens’ temperament, and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1843-1844), and Barnaby Rudge (1841) all appeared in this format. A visit to America in 1842 resulted in American Notes (1843), and in a lengthy episode in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844). The first of the five “Christmas Books,” A Christmas Carol, appeared in 1843, and became the most important Christmas story in the English language. Dombey and Son was serialized in 1846-1848, followed in 1849-1850 by the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, Dickens’ “favorite child.” Then came Bleak House (1852-1853), Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1855-1857). Dickens also edited and contributed to the journals Household Words (1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1870). He bought a country house, Gad’s Hill, near Rochester in 1856. He was separated from his wife in 1858. In 1859 his historical novel A Tale of Two Cities was published. Great Expectations (1860-1861) was his third book to use a first-person narrator, and both it and the historical novel were serialized in All the Year Round. Dickens’ last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, was published in 1864-1865. Edwin Drood was left unfinished at Dickens’ death on June 9, 1870.