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Who is Charles Dickens?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is the most acclaimed writer of the Victorian Era. His childhood was one of difficulty. He received some education, but his father was indiscriminate with his money, and when he was 12, John was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea. He went to work blacking bottles. This early experience, after some success at school, wounded him deeply. He reflects on it in his semi-autobiographical novel, David Copperfield as well as in the novel Little Dorrit , which deals particularly with the Marshalsea.

When his father paid his debt, Charles Dickens resumed his studies. He studied law and became a law reporter for Doctors Commons, the proctors who proofed wills and also defended laws regarding mariners and relating to the Church of England. His opinions on proctors makes its way into both Copperfield and his masterful Bleak House.

By the 1830s, he began writing opinion pieces and short stories, and became a contributor to several magazines. He would establish his own magazines “Household Words,” and “All the Year Round” in the 1850s. These magazines featured work by Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as many contributions of essays and sketches by Dickens.

Charles Dickens saw his first novel Sketches by Boz published in 1836. Pickwick Papers followed in 1837. Pickwick certainly represents his humor, and was very well received by the public at the time. It is now considered by many critics to be a good, humorous read, but unremarkable compared to Dickens’ later works.

In 1836, Charles Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, with whom he had 10 children. The novelist fell deeply in love with Catherine’s sister Mary, who died at the age of 17. Mary is thought to be the model for Dickens’ devoted and infinitely good female characters in most of his novels. In David Copperfield, Catherine is thought to represent Dora, the young bride who really is not suited to David, while Mary represents Agnes, the ever faithful woman who marries David when Dora dies. The novel represents some wishful thinking on the part of Charles Dickens, who separated from Catherine in 1858.

Additional early novels of Charles Dickens include: Oliver Twist in 1837, Nicholas Nickleby in 1838, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge both published in 1841. 1843 saw publication of the work he is probably most recognized for, The Christmas Carol , actually a very short story compared to his other novels.

David Copperfield was published in 1849. Bleak House, The Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend are all of his later period, and represent his maturity. Mutual Friend is considered by many to be his finest work. It contains over 50 characters. The novel evaluates the social strata, the nouveau riche, money lending, the treatment of Jews, and a host of other topics while exploring a first rate mystery. Others consider Bleak House, also rich with characters, to be the best of Dickens’ work in its scathing criticism of the proctory, and the ignorance of most people toward the unbearable lives of the poor.

The Tale of Two Cities examines the French Revolution. Charles Dickens echoes the fear of many that England’s indifference to the impoverished during the Industrial Revolution would lead to an uprising of the poor as it had in France. In this viewpoint, he is partially right, as many riots did occur in England, though the British Army stopped them, causing numerous deaths and more suffering.

Charles Dickens remained a critic of his age, and was so popular that his works can be said to have in part influenced reform. He was also admired in the US, though many of his serialized novels were pirated, resulting in him attempting to change copyright status so he would be reimbursed for his work. He toured the US as a lecturer, and his nonfiction work American Notes represents his critical attitude toward Americans.

Charles Dickens continued to write and lecture until shortly before his death in 1870. His last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was unfinished. His contemporaries, and later critics have admired his complex characters and plots.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PublicPeople contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Sunny27 — On Feb 02, 2011

Crispety -I love that story too. It has such a relatable quality and it makes you wonder if you are living the life the way that you should. I notice that a lot of the Charles Dickens’s books deal with themes of extreme childhood suffering and poverty.

You see this in Tiny Tim’s character in the “Christmas Carol” and you definitely see it in Oliver Twist with its main character Oliver as poor orphaned child whose mother died when he was born and his father disappeared from his life leaving him to be taken into an orphanage where he suffered immensely.

I know that a lot of his influences were drawn from his own childhood which was not very happy either.

By Crispety — On Jan 31, 2011

Behaviourism- I have to say that my daughter studied this story in the fourth grade and although the vocabulary was a bit challenging for a fourth grader she enjoyed the story immensely because the message in this book is crystal clear.

She could not wait to finish the book. In fact she got an A on her final because she loved the book so much. Anytime a Victorian novel can get a nine year old this excited about reading tells you that the book is nothing short of a sheer masterpiece.

By oasis11 — On Jan 29, 2011

Out of all of the Charles Dickens novels my favorite is “The Christmas Carol”. This classic Charles Dickens story about Scrooge, a miser that learns the true meaning of life is great novel on many levels.

The richness of this story is revealed in the complex characters. The use of the ghost of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future depicts the main message of the story beautifully. With this novel we learn that the quality of your life and how you will be remembered is based on how you live your life today.

By behaviourism — On Jan 29, 2011

I read a couple of different places that Charles Dickens did most of his writing to pay off debts and keep making money, and that this was why he wrote such long books. This originally made me way less interested in reading his books. Knowing from this Charles Dickens bio, though, that a lot of his writing was inspired by his own difficult childhood makes me a little more interested in giving his books a chance. At least, I feel like I ought to read one and see if I like his style or it really does seem extended for no reason.

By BambooForest — On Jan 29, 2011

Though I majored in English in college, I still have not read many Charles Dickens novels; in fact, I have only gone all of the way through A Christmas Carol. I hope to read more though, if only to see if these classics are as great as I have always been told.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PublicPeople contributor, Tricia...
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