Life of Charles Dickens(1)
Charles Dickens, the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens, was born in
Landport on 7th February 1812. John Dickens worked as a clerk at the
Navy pay office in Portsmouth. He later found work in Chatham and
Charles, the second of seven children, went to the local school.
John Dickens found it difficult to provide for his growing family on his
meager income. In 1822 the family moved to Camden Town in London.
John Dickens' debts had become so severe that all the household goods
were sold. Still unable to satisfy his creditors, John Dickens was arrested
and sent to Marshalsea Prison.
Charles, now aged twelve, found work at Warren's Blacking Factory,
where he was paid six shillings a week wrapping shoe-black bottles. Six
months after being sent to Marshalsea, one of John Dickens's relatives
died. He was left enough money in the will to pay off his debts and to
Some of the inheritance was used to educated Charles at a nearby
private school, Wellington House Academy. Charles was only a moderate
student and at the age of fifteen he left school and found work as an
office boy in a firm of solicitors. Charles disliked the work but he did enjoy
walking the streets in the evening observing the people of London.
Life of Charles Dickens(2)
Charles Dickens decided he wanted to become a reporter. He purchased
a copy of Gurney's Brachgraphy and taught himself shorthand. In 1828,
aged sixteen, Dickens found work as a court reporter. Later he joined the
Mirror of Parliament, a newspaper that reported the daily proceedings of
Parliament. Dickens considered most politicians to be "pompous" who
seemed to spend most of the time speaking "sentences with no meaning
in them". However, Dickens was impressed with some of the MPs who
genuinely appeared to be interested in making Britain a better place to
Dickens became interested in the subject of social reform and started
contributing articles to the radical newspaper, the True Sun. Unlike most
radical newspapers such as the Poor Man's Guardian and The Gauntlet,
the True Sun did pay the 4d. stamp duty.
Despite having to charge the heavy tax imposed on newspapers, the
True Sun sold 30,000 copies a day. In his articles, Dickens used his
considerable knowledge of what went on in the House of Commons to
help promote the cause of parliamentary reform. Charles Dickens was
pleased when Parliament eventually agreed to pass the 1832 Reform Act,
however, like most radicals, he thought it did not go far enough. The new
reformed House of Commons passed a series of new measures including
a reduction in newspaper tax from 4d. to 1d. As a result, the circulation of
the True Sun increased to over 60,000.
Life of Charles Dickens(3)
In 1833 Dickens had his first story published in the Monthly Magazine.
Using the pen-name of 'Boz', Dickens also began contributing short
stories to the Morning Chronicle and the Evening Chronicle. These
stories were so popular that they were collected together and published
as a book entitled Sketches by Boz (1836).
The publisher, William Hall, now commissioned Dickens to write The
Pickwick Papers in twenty monthly installments. This was followed by
Oliver Twist, published in Bentley's Miscellany (1837-38) and Nicholas
Nickleby (1838-39), also published monthly. Dickens was now the most
popular writer in Britain and over the next few years he wrote a series of
popular novels including The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1), Barnaby
Rudge (1841), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4) and A Christmas Carol (1843).
Although Dickens was now a very successful novelist, he continued to be
interested in social reform. While in America in 1842 he upset his hosts
by condemning slavery. Dickens also decided to invest some of his
royalties in a new radical newspaper, The Daily News. Dickens became
editor and in the first edition published on 21st January 1846, he wrote:
"The principles advocated in The Daily News will be principles of
progress and improvement; of education, civil and religious liberty, and
Life of Charles Dickens(4)
The Daily News was not a great commercial success and Dickens
resigned as editor. However, he was determined to create a means
where he could communicate his ideas on social reform and in 1850 he
began editing Household Words. The weekly journal included articles on
politics, science and history. To increase the number of people willing to
buy Household Words, it also contained short stories and humourous
pieces. Dickens also used the journal to serialize novels that were
concerned with social issues such as his own Hard Times (1854) and
Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855). By 1851 the twenty-four
page Household Words was soon selling 40,000 copies a week.
Dickens published Household Words between 1850 and 1859 and during
that time campaigned in favour of parliamentary reform and
improvements in the education of the poor. Dickens's was extremely
hostile to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Actand wrote several articles
on the workhouse system. Dickens was also concerned with public health
and the reform of the legal system.
When Dickens's argued with the publishers of Household Words in 1859,
he closed the journal and replaced it with All the Year Round. The new
journal still covered social issues but mainly concentrated on literary
matters. Several important novels were serialized in All the Year Round
including Dickens's own A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great
Expectations (1860-61). The journal also published three of Wilkie
Collins's novels, The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862) and The
Moonstone (1868). Dickens continued to published All the Year Round
until his death on 8th June, 1870.
Dickens' characters are some of the most memorable in fiction.
Often these characters were based on people that he knew:
Wilkins Micawber and William Dorrit (his father), Mrs. Nickleby (his
mother), and David Copperfield (himself).
Characters such as Scrooge (miserly) and Pecksniff (hypocritically
affecting benevolence) have become defining terms in the
Names of Dickens' characters are some of the most unique in
fiction. Characters such as Sweedlepipe, Honeythunder, Bumble,
Pumblechook, Podsnap, and Muddlebranes are easily
recognizable as Dickensian even by those unfamiliar with the
According to John R. Greenfield, in his Dictionary of British
Literary Characters, Dickens created 989 individual characters
during his career.
Dickens applied his unique power of observation to the city in which
he spent most of his life. He routinely walked the city streets, 10 or
20 miles at a time, and his descriptions of nineteenth century
London allow readers to experience the sights, sounds, and smells
of the old city. This ability to immerse the reader into time and
place sets the perfect stage for Dickens to weave his fiction.
Victorian London was the largest, most spectacular city in the world.
While Britain was experiencing the Industrial Revolution, its capital
was both reaping the benefits and suffering the consequences. In
1800 the population of London was around a million souls. That
number would swell to 4.5 million by 1880. While fashionable areas
like Regent and Oxford streets were growing in the west, new
docks supporting the city's place as the world's trade center were
being built in the east. Perhaps the biggest impact on the growth of
London was the coming of the railroad in the 1830s which displaced
thousands and accelerated the expansion of the city.
Cattle were driven through the streets until the mid 19th century.
In an article for Household Words in March 1851 Dickens, with
characteristic sarcasm, describes the environmental impact of
having live cattle markets and slaughterhouses in the city:
"In half a quarter of a mile`s length of Whitechapel, at one time, there
shall be six hundred newly slaughtered oxen hanging up, and seven
hundred sheep but, the more the merrier proof of prosperity. Hard by
Snow Hill and Warwick Lane, you shall see the little children, inured
to sights of brutality from their birth, trotting along the alleys, mingled
with troops of horribly busy pigs, up to their ankles in blood but it
makes the young rascals hardy. Into the imperfect sewers of this
overgrown city, you shall have the immense mass of corruption,
engendered by these practices, lazily thrown out of sight, to rise, in
poisonous gases, into your house at night, when your sleeping
children will most readily absorb them, and to find its languid way, at
last, into the river that you drink".
A Map of London in Dickens’s Time
On January 3, 1842 Charles Dickens, a month shy of
his 30th birthday, sailed from Liverpool on the
steamship Britannia bound for America. Dickens
was at the height of his popularity on both sides of
the Atlantic and, securing a year off from writing,
determined to visit the young nation to see for himself
this haven for the oppressed which had righted all the
wrongs of the Old World. The voyage out,
accompanied by his wife, Kate, and her maid, Anne
Brown, proved to be one of the stormiest in years and
his cabin aboard the Britannia proved to be so small
that Dickens quipped that their portmanteaux could
"no more be got in at the door, not to say stowed away,
than a giraffe could be forced into a flowerpot".
The violent seas on the journey can best be described by Dickens'
comical account of trying to administer a little brandy to his wife
and her traveling companions to calm their fears:
"They, and the handmaid before mentioned, being in such ecstasies of
fear that I scarcely knew what to do with them, I naturally bethought
myself of some restorative or comfortable cordial; and nothing better
occurring to me, at the moment, than hot brandy-and-water, I procured a
tumblerful without delay. It being impossible to stand or sit without
holding on, they were all heaped together in one corner of a long sofa -- a
fixture, extending entirely across the cabin -- where they clung to each
other in momentary expectation of being drowned. When I approached
this place with my specific, and was about to administer it, with many
consolatory expressions, to the nearest sufferer, what was my dismay to
see them all roll slowly down to the other end! And when I staggered to
that end, and held out the glass once more, how immensely baffled were
my good intentions by the ship giving another lurch, and their all rolling
back again! I suppose I dodged them up and down this sofa for at least a
quarter of an hour, without reaching them once; and, by the time I did
catch them, the brandy-and-water was diminished, by constant spilling, to
Dickens has probably had more influence on the way that we celebrate
Christmas today than any single individual in human history except one.
At the beginning of the Victorian period the celebration of Christmas was
in decline. The medieval Christmas traditions which combined the
celebration of the birth of Christ with the ancient Roman festival of
Saturnalia, a pagan celebration for the Roman god of agriculture, and
the Germanic winter festival of Yule, had come under intense scrutiny by
the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell. The Industrial Revolution, in full
swing in Dickens' time, also allowed workers little time for the
celebration of Christmas.
The romantic revival of Christmas traditions that occurred in Victorian
times had other contributors: Prince Albert brought the German custom
of decorating the Christmas tree to England, the singing of Christmas
carols, which had all but disappeared at the turn of the century began
to thrive again, and the first Christmas card appeared in the 1840's. But
it was the Christmas stories of Dickens, particularly his 1843
masterpiece A Christmas Carol, that rekindled the joy of Christmas in
Britain and America.
Dickens' description of the holiday as "a good time: a kind,
forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the
long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one
consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other
people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the
grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys"
is the very essence of Christmas today, not at the greedy
commercialized level, but in people's hearts and homes.
Dickens' name had become so synonymous with Christmas that
on hearing of his death in 1870 a little costermonger's girl in
London asked, "Mr. Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas
Charles Dickens, editorial in The Daily
News (21st January, 1846)
The principles advocated in The Daily News
will be principles of progress and improvement;
of education, civil and religious liberty, and
equal legislation. Principles, such as its
conductors believe the advancing spirit of the
time requires: the condition of the country
demands: and justice, reason and experience
Charles Dickens, letter to a friend, (April,
There is nothing in the present age at once so
galling and so alarming to me as the alienation
of the people from their own affairs. They have
had so little to do with the game through all
these years of Parliamentary Reform, that they
have sullenly laid down their cards, and taken
to looking on. You can no more help a people
who do not help themselves, than you can help
a man who does not help himself. I know of
nothing that can be done beyond keeping their
wrongs continually before them.
George Augustus Sala worked as a
journalist on Household Words. In 1894
Sala recorded working with Charles
Dickens on the journal.
What he liked to talk about was the latest
new piece at the theatres, the latest
exciting trial or police case, the latest
social craze or social swindle, frequently
touched on political subjects - always
from that which was then a strong
Radical point of view.
The Sunday Observer (12th June, 1870)
If ever in the annals of our literature there was a man whose name was,
in very truth, a household word to all English speaking men it was
Charles Dickens. To all of us, to young and old, to rich and poor, the
tidings, which saddened England on Friday, came home like the news of
a friend's death. The cords he struck vibrated somehow through all our
hearts. At the time that Dombey and Son was being published an
eminent reviewer summed up his criticism of the work with the comment
that it was hard to judge of it fairly when a whole nation was "in tears for
the death of little Paul."
There have been within our day writers of fiction with subtler insight into
the working of human passions, with more varied knowledge of society,
with greater constructive faculty, with higher faculty of diction, but there is
none who, like him, could make his characters live, move, and be.
No doubt something of Dickens's wide-spread popularity was due to the
circumstances of his time. In our days the reading public has reached
dimensions which our forefathers would have deemed impossible, while
the faculties of communication between all parts of the globe enable the
written word to circulate with a rapidity rivalling that of the telegraph itself.
But still, the like facilities were open to all writers of our time; and yet it
was Dickens, and Dickens only, who made his works quoted through the
length and breadth of everyone of those vast regions where the English
tongue rules supreme.
George Orwell, Charles Dickens (1939)
In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens
attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since
been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself
hated, and, more he has become a national institution himself. In
its attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a
little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a
delightful tickling. Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking
everybody and antagonizing nobody. Naturally this makes one
wonder whether after all there was something unreal in his attack
The truth is that Dickens's criticism of society is almost exclusively
moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion
anywhere in his work. He attacks law, parliamentary government,
the educational system and so forth, without ever really
suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not
necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make
constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens's attitude is
at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he
wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it
would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in
reality his target is not so much society as 'human nature'.
George Orwell, Charles Dickens (1939)
It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times
because he disapproved of its "sullen Socialism".
There is not a line in the book that can properly be
called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is
pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that
capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to
be rebellious. And so far as social criticism goes, one
can never extract much more from Dickens than this,
unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His
whole message is one that at first glance looks like an
enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the
world would be decent.