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Charles Dickens  

Charles Dickens was England's greatest Victorian author, whose many books are read today and admired for their depth of character and description of Victorian life.
Last Updated: Oct 25, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Charles Dickens (1812-1870)


Brief Biography

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England in 1812.   His parents sent him to school at the age of nine, but he soon had to withdraw because of his father's heavy debts.  His father, John, was sent to debtor's prison along with the rest of the family.  Charles was sent to work in a shoe  blacking factory, where he had to endure terrible conditions along with loneliness and depression.  This experience would forever affect him and influenced both his writings and his personality.  Despite his success in later life, he was a very insecure man.  He had, however, deep sympathy for the poor and downtrodden and a tremendous capacity for hard work. 

Dickens was determined to better himself and not be like his spendthrift father.  He learned shorthand  ( he became an expert) and worked as a court reporter and later a parliamentary journalist for "The Morning Chronicle."   This is how he knew about the court system as illustrated in some of his novels. Like any ambitous young man, he took advantage of the contacts he made in the publishing world.  Through the help of these contacts he was able to publish a series of sketches under the pseudonym "Boz."  In April 1836 he married Catherine Hogarth.  Soon after that his successful "Pickwick Papers" appeared in print.  He was a young man on his way to fame by dint of industry and talent.  After the great success of the "Pickwick Papers" Dickens decided to become a full time novelist and make his living by his pen.  His novels appeared in parts, either weekly or monthly.   He began "Oliver Twist" in 1837 and it continued in monthly parts until 1839.  Catherine and he had their first of 10 children in 1839.

Dickens had a tremendous capacity for hard work- a habit that would affect his health as he grew older.    "Nicholas Nickleby" appeared in 1838 and continued into the fall of 1839.  Other novels followed.  In 1842 he visited Canada and the United States.  He had a negative opinon of the United States and wrote about his impressions in "American Notes."   "Martin Chuzzlewit" first appeared in 1843 and continued until July, 1844.   "A Christmas Carol," the most popular of his Christmas books appeared in 1843.   In that same year, he and his growing family toured Italy, Switzerland and France.

Dickens kept writing, even while he toured Europe for a second time.   In 1856 he purchased Gad's Hill, a large estate.  In 1858, his theatrical company  ( he was very interested in the theater and even appeared as an actor himself) performed a play for Queen Victoria.  It was then that he met Ellen Ternan, an actress and someone much younger than he.  He fell in love with her and in that same year, he separated with his wife.  He found his wife, the mother of his ten childen, dull, unattrative and uninspiring  and for a number of years they were not happy as a couple.   He began a relationship with Ellen Ternan and took great pains to keep it out of the press.  Some historians have written that he had a mid-life crisis. Whatever the reason, he took Ellen Ternan as his mistress.  The relationship lasted for thirteen years--until his death.  He never lived with his wife again.  However, he continued writing.  In 1859, he began a new weekly magazine, "All the Year Round."  The first installment of " A Tale of Two Cities" appeared in the first issue and continued for several months.   He burned many of his personal letters and carefully re-read his most autobiographical of novels, "David Copperfield."   Always working, he began "Great Expectations."   This well known novel appeared weekly until August, 1861.

Dickens enjoyed reading his works to an audience and undertook another series of public readings in 1861. His health began to decline in 1865 due to overwork.  That same year he and Ellen Ternan were involved in a train accident.  They were not badly hurt and Dickens helped the wounded and dying.  The accident disturbed him deeply and contributed to his declining health.   In 1867 Dickens, against the advice of his doctor, embarked on another American reading tour and kept writing.  Finally in 1869, he collapsed, perhaps from a mild stroke.  However even this illness did not stop him and he began "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."   He undertook another public reading tour in 1870.  He suffered another much more serious stroke on June 8, 1870 while working on this last novel.  He died the next day and was buried at Westminster Abby on June 14.  He never finished "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." He completed about half of the mystery before he died. The last episode he wrote appeared in print several weeks after his death.  The unfinished novel is still in print and many readers try to guess how the book would have ended had Dickens lived to complete it.

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