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Dickens, Charles Biography

 
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

English novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian period. Dickens's works are characterized by attacks on social evils, injustice, and hypocrisy. He had also experienced in his youth oppression, when he was forced to end school in early teens and work in a factory. Dickens's good, bad, and comic characters, such as the cruel miser Scrooge, the aspiring novelist David Copperfield, or the trusting and innocent Mr. Pickwick, have fascinated generations of readers.

"In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice." (from Great Expectations, 1860-61)

Charles Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire, during the new industrial age, which gave birth to theories of Karl Marx. Dickens's father was a clerk in the navy pay office. He was well paid but often ended in financial troubles. In 1814 Dickens moved to London, and then to Chatham, where he received some education. The schoolmaster William Giles gave special attention to Dickens, who made rapid progress. In 1824, at the age of 12, Dickens was sent to work for some months at a blacking factory, Hungerford Market, London, while his father John was in Marshalea debtor's prison. "My father and mother were quite satisfied," Dickens later recalled bitterly. "They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge." Later this period found its way to the novel LITTLE DORRITT (1855-57). John Dickens paid his £40 debt with the money he inherited from his mother; she died at the age of seventy-nine when he was still in prison.

In 1824-27 Dickens studied at Wellington House Academy, London, and at Mr. Dawson's school in 1827. From 1827 to 1828 he was a law office clerk, and then a shorthand reporter at Doctor's Commons. After learning shorthand, he could take down speeches word for word. At the age of eighteen, Dickens applied for a reader's ticket at the British Museum, where he read with eager industry the works of Shakespeare, Goldsmith's History of England, and Berger's Short Account of the Roman Senate. He wrote for True Sun (1830-32), Mirror of Parliament (1832-34), and the Morning Chronicle (1834-36). Dickens gained soon the reputation as "the fastest and most accurate man in the Gallery", and he could celebrate his prosperity with "a new hat and a very handsome blue cloak with velvet facings," as one of his friend described his somewhat dandyish outlook. In the 1830s Dickens contributed to Monthly Magazine, and The Evening Chronicle and edited Bentley's Miscellany. These years left Dickens with lasting affection for journalism and suspicious attitude towards unjust laws. His career as a writer of fiction started in 1833 when his short stories and essays to appeared in periodicals. 'A Dinner at Poplar Walk' was Dickens's first published sketch. It appeared in the Monthly Magazine in December 1833. It made him so proud, that he later told that "I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half an hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen there." SKETCHES BY BOZ, illustrated by George Cruikshank, was published in book form in 1836-37. THE POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF THE PICKWICK CLUB was published in monthly parts from April 1836 to November 1837.

Dickens's relationship with Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a banker, whom he had courted for four years, ended in 1833. Three years later Dickens married Catherine Hogart, the daughter of his friend George Hogarth, who edited the newly established Evening Chronicle. With Catherine he had 10 children. They separated in 1858. Some biographers have suspected that Dickens was more fond of Catherine's sister, Mary, who moved into their house and died in 1837 at the age of 17 in Dickens's arms. Eventually she became the model for Dora Copperfield. Dickens also wanted to be buried next to her and wore Mary's ring all his life. Another of Catherine's sisters, Georgiana, moved in with the Dickenses, and the novelist fell in love with her. Dickens also had a long liaison with the actress Ellen Ternan, whom he had met by the late 1850s.

Dickens's sharp ear for conversation helped him to create colorful characters through their own words. In his daily writing Dickens followed certain rules: "He rose at a certain time, he retired at another, and, though no precisian, it was not often that arrangements varied. His hours for writing were between breakfast and luncheon, and when there was any work to be done, no temptation was sufficiently strong to cause it to be neglected. The order and regularity followed him through the day. His mind was essentially methodical, and in his long walks, in his recreations, in his labour, he was governed by rules laid down for himself - rules well studied beforehand, and rarely departed from. " (anonymous friend, in Charles Dickens, An Illustrated Anthology, Cresent Books, 1995)

The Pickwick Papers were stories about a group of rather odd individuals and their travels to Ipswich, Rochester, Bath, and elsewhere. It was sold at 1 shilling the installment (1836-37), and opened up a market for similar inexpensive books. Many of Dickens's following novels first appeared in monthly installments, including OLIVER TWIST (1837-39). It depicts the London underworld and hard years of the foundling Oliver Twist, whose right to his inheritance is kept secret by the villainous Mr. Monks. Oliver suffers in a poorfarm and workhouse. He outrages authorities by asking a second bowl of porridge. From a solitary confinement he is apprenticed to a casket maker, and becomes a member of a gang of young thieves, led by Mr. Fagin. Finally Fagin is hanged at Newgate and Mr. Barnlow adopts Oliver. NICHOLAS NICKELBY (1838-39) was a loosely structured tale of young Nickleby's struggles to seek his fortune.

David Lean's dark, atmospheric version of Oliver Twist from 1948 is among the best films made from Dickens's novels. Lean's young thieves are as hard and professional as the brutal gang members of Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados (1950). Alec Guinness played the old, big-nosed Fagin. The caricature upset some Jews in England, as Dickens's novel had done one hundred and ten years earlier. The Zionists protested that the character was presented in the same way that Jews were vilified in the Nazi paper Der Sturmer. American critics attacked the film's alleged anti-Semitism, and cuts were made before it was shown, with twelve minutes missing, in the American theatres. Lean's stylised Great Expectations (1946), based on Dickens's novel, had been a great success in the U.S. "Grandfather would have loved it," said Monica Dickens, the granddaughter of the author, of the film. With these works Lean has been considered an authority on Dickens.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1843) is one of Dickens's most loved works, which has been adapted into screen a number of times. The character of Ebenezer Scrooge, the "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching" miser, has attracted such actors as Seymour Hicks, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, George C. Scott and Alastair Sim. In a pornography version from 1975 Mary Stewart was "Carol Screwge". Historical subjects did not much interest Dickens. BARNABY RUDGE (1841), set at the time of the 'No Popery' riots of 1780, and A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1859) are exceptions. The latter was set in the years of the French Revolution. The plot circles around the look-alikes Charles Darnay, a nephews of a marquis, and Sydney Carton, a lawyer, who both love the same woman, Lucy.

Among Dickens's later works is DAVID COPPERFIELD (1849-50), where he used his own personal experiences of work in a factory. David's widowed mother marries the tyrannical Mr. Murdstone. David becomes friends with Mr. Micawber and his family. "I went in, and found there a stoutish, middle-aged person, in a brown surtout and black tights and shoes, with no more hair upon his head (which was a large one, and very shining) than there is upon an egg, and with a very extensive face, which he turned full upon me. His clothes were shabby, but he had an imposing short-collar on." Dora, David's first wife, dies and he marries Agnes. He pursues his career as a journalist and later as a novelist.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1860-61) began as a serialized publication in Dickens's periodical All the Year Round on December 1, 1860. The story of Pip (Philip Pirrip) was among Tolstoy's and Dostoyevsky's favorite novels. G.K. Chesterton wrote that it has "a quality of serene irony and even sadness," which according to Chesterton separates it from Dickens's other works. "Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip." Pip, an orphan, lives with his old sister and her husband. He meets an escaped convict named Abel Magwitch and helps him against his will. Magwitch is recaptured and Pip is taken care of Miss Havisham. He falls in love with the cold-hearted Estella, Miss Havisham's ward. With the help of an anonymous benefactor, Pip is properly educated, and he becomes a snob. Magwitch turns out to be the benefactor; he dies and Pip's "great expectations" are ruined. He works as a clerk in a trading firm, and marries Estella, Magwitch's daughter.

Dickens participated energetically in all forms of the social life of the time, "light and motion flashed from every part of it," wrote his friend and future biographer John Forster. In the 1840s Dickens founded Master Humphrey's Cloak and edited the London Daily News. He spent much time travelling and campaigning against many of the social evils with his pamphlets and other writings. In the 1850s Dickens was founding editor of Household World and its successor All the Year Round (1859-70). Although Dickens's works as a novelist are now best remembered, he produced hundreds of essays and edited and rewrote hundreds of others submitted to the various periodicals he edited. Dickens distinguished himself as an essayist in 1834 under the pseudonym Boz. 'A Visit to Newgate' (1836) reflects his own memories of visiting his own family in the Marshalea Prison. 'A Small Star in the East' reveals the working conditions on mills and 'Mr. Barlow' (1869) draws a portrait of an insensitive tutor.

Dickens lived in 1844-45 in Italy, Switzerland and Paris, and from 1860 one his address was at Gadshill Place, near Rochester, Kent, where he lived with his two daughters and sister-in-law. He had also other establishments - Gad's Hill, and Windsor Lodge, Peckham, which he had rented for Ellen Ternan. His wife Catherine lived at the London house. In 1858-68 Dickens gave lecturing tours in Britain and the United States. By the end of his last American tour, Dickens could hardly manage solid food, subsisting on champagne and eggs beaten in sherry. In an opium den in Shadwell, Dickens saw an elderly pusher known as Opium Sal, who then featured in his mystery novel THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. He collapsed at Preston, in April 1869, after which his doctors put a stop to his public performances. Dickens died at Gadshill on suddenly of a stroke on June 8, 1870. Some of his friends later thought the readings killed him. Dickens had asked that he should be buried "in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner".

OUR MUTUAL FRIEND (1865), the second last novel Dickens wrote, started with a murder mystery. In the opening chapter a drowned man is found floating on Thames. The Italian writer Italo Calvino has called the novel "an unqualified masterpiece, both in its plot and in the way it is written." The Mystery of Edwin Drood was published in 1870, but Dickens did not manage to finish it. He planned to produce it in 12 monthly parts, but completed only six numbers. The story is chiefly set in the cathedral city of Cloisterham and opens in an opium den. "Ye've smoked as many as five since ye come in at midnight," the woman goes on, as he chronically complains. "Poor me, poor me, my head is so bad. Them two come in after ye. Ah, poor me, the business is slack, is slack! Few Chinamen about the Docks, and fewer Lascars, and no ships coming in, these say! Here's another ready for ye, deary." The choirmaster of the cathedral, John Jaspers, lives a double life, as an opium addict and a respected member of society. His ward, Edwin Drood, disappears on Christmas Eve, after a quarrel with Neville Landless. However, there is no trace of Edwin's body. Dick Datchery, a disguised detective arrives to investigate the case. "It is the complex nature of Dickens's evil men, not their merited fate, that makes them the peers of Dostoyevsky's lost souls. For this reason, I have always been irked by the critical treatment of his last novel as a pure whodunit. ''Endings'' were not his strong suit." (Angus Wilson in The New York Times, March 1, 1981)

For further reading: Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley (2002); Dickens and the 1830s by Kathryn Chittick (1991); Dickens by Peter Acroyd (1990); The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin (1990); Dickens on America and the Americans, edited by Michael Slater (1979); Dickens and Charity by Norris Pope (1979); Charles Dickens as Familiar Essayist by Gordon Spence (1977); The World of Charles Dickens by Angus Wilson (1970); Dickens the Craftsman: Strategies of Presentation, edited by Robert B. Partlow, Jr. (1970); The Inimitable Dickens by A.E. Dyson (1970); Dickens at Work by Kathleen Tillotson and John Butt (1957); Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph by Edgar Johnson (1953); The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster (1872-74).

Biography written by Petri Liukkonen. Used with permission from Authors' Calendar.

Works by Dickens, Charles

A Child's History of England
A Christmas Carol
A House to Let
A Message From the Sea
A Tale of Two Cities
American Notes
Barnaby Rudge, 80's Riots
Bleak House
David Copperfield
Dombey and Son
George Silverman's Explanation
Great Expectations
Hard Times
Holiday Romance
Hunted Down
Life And Adventures Of Martin Chuzzlewit
Little Dorrit
Master Humphrey's Clock
Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy
Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings
Mugby Junction
Nicholas Nickleby
No Thoroughfare
Oliver Twist
Our Mutual Friend
Pictures From Italy
Some Christmas Stories
Somebody's Luggage
The Battle of Life
The Chimes
The Cricket on the Hearth
The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain
The Holly Tree
The Lamplighter
The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
The Old Curiosity Shop
The Pickwick Papers
The Seven Poor Travellers
The Uncommercial Traveller
The Voyage of the Beagle
Three Ghost Stories
To Be Read At Dusk
Tom Tiddler's Ground
Wreck of the Golden Mary