Charles Dickens

Photograph of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, author of over 15 novels including Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol.
Charles Dickens, British Library

Biography

Charles Dickens is perhaps as famous today as he was in his lifetime, the author of 15 novels, five novellas, and countless stories and essays, he also generously promoted the careers of other novelists in his weekly journals, and concerned himself with social issues. He excelled in writing about London settings and grotesque and comic characters (Uriah Heep and Fagin, Miss Havisham and Scrooge, the Artful Dodger and Sam Weller).

He was born in Portsmouth on 7 February 1812, son of John Dickens, a feckless and improvident navy clerk with a great love for literature, and his wife Elizabeth: Charles drew an ironically affectionate portrait of them in Mr and Mrs Micawber (David Copperfield). A happy childhood in Chatham, during which he read voraciously, ended with a move to London in 1822. Family poverty meant the young Charles had to earn money, and he spent a humiliating year labelling bottles in a blacking factory; during this period, his father was imprisoned for debt. Both experiences informed later novels.

After leaving school, he became a parliamentary journalist and sketch-writer. He first won fame in 1836 with the antics of the cockney sportsmen portrayed in The Pickwick Papers, which was issued in 20 monthly parts. In the same year he married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of Evening Chronicle editor, George Hogarth; they had 10 children.

Next, written in monthly instalments with prodigious speed, came Oliver Twist (1838) and the semi-comedic Nicholas Nickleby (1839). Dickens soon graduated to writing the complex and resonant masterpieces that have ensured his enduring fame, including David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Great Expectations (1861) and Our Mutual Friend (1865).

An enthusiast for the theatre, he enjoyed performing his own works, and twice toured America lecturing. After the collapse of his marriage in 1858, he continued his liaison with the actress Nelly Ternan. He died of a stroke in 1870, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished.

Further information about the life of Charles Dickens can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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