Charles Dickens was a master of storytelling. His writings exposed the realities of the newly industrialised world, and revealed the dark and grotesque extremes of 19th century society.

Within Dickens's foggy portraits of England's cities we find characters from all across the social spectrum. We read of market stalls selling soggy gingerbread; of street children fumbling for treasures in the pockets of the wealthy; we peer inside debtors prisons and stumble over dock workers; we meet street sweepers, lovers, sailors and rogues, as well as aristocrats, politicians, solicitors and clerks.

During the Victorian period British novelists penned approximately 60,000 novels. New efficient industrial technologies meant that books were now easier to produce, and therefore more affordable to buy. Many novels were produced in monthly parts, costing around 1 shilling each.

Dickens' Language

Dickens's broad range of characters allowed him to speak in many different voices, and to experiment with dialects. This enabled him to highlight the deep class-divisions of 19th century England. The extract above is a page from the handwritten draft of Nicholas Nickleby, a novel written by Dickens in 1838. The manuscript shows Dickens's corrections and alterations, giving us a glimpse into the writer's creative process.

The page begins in the middle of a letter written by Fanny Squeers, daughter of Dotheboys Hall's violent headmaster. She is giving Nicholas's uncle an exaggerated account of her father's beating by his 'nevew'. The letter is full of Dickens's attempts to represent authentic popular speech in writing, both in terms of pronunciation and non-standard grammar. In other words, Dickens has deliberately sprinkled parts of Fanny's letter with dialect features alongside standard English.

For example, Fanny writes that Nicholas 'not having been apprehended by the constables is supposed to have been took up by some stage-coach'. Dickens instinctively used his own standard grammar, 'to have been taken up', but changes it to fit Fanny's character. Why he also substituted 'constables' for 'officers' is not so clear.

Continue to explore the Written Word Timeline or else try out some Victorian English activities .