Charles John Huffam Dickens was born February 1812 in Hampshire, England, the oldest child of naval clerk John Dickens and his wife Elizabeth Barrow. His early childhood was marred by poverty. When Dickens was 12, his father landed in debtor’s prison; Charles left school to support the family by working in a blacking factory. Although a windfall inheritance bought John’s freedom, the family’s growing financial needs kept Charles out of the classroom and in the marketplace. Eventually, he found work as a freelance reporter in the London courts. This began an illustrious career in letters for Charles. Over the course of his writing career, Dickens edited several journals, wrote 15 well-respected novels, 5 novellas, countless short stories, and numerous non-fiction articles (Wikipedia). With his pen, he developed a reputation for humour, wit, and sensitivity, publishing his first book, a collection of stories and articles called Sketches by Boz, under the eponymous pseudonym. Historian R. H. Horne declared Dickens “manifestly the product of his age…a genuine emanation from its aggregate and entire spirit…a first-rate practical intellect, with ‘no nonsense’ about him” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). While he was not a philosopher or an intellectual, Dickens’s sagacious observations about Victorian England and human nature won him many devoted readers. Nevertheless, his personal experiences colored his perception of 19th c. culture, breeding a general distrust of landed wealth. This “shadow of the Marshalsea” would remain upon Dickens all his life.
Victorian England was a stratified society; Dickens perceived its excesses and shortfalls, characterizing them satirically in novels such as Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, and Bleak House. He found as much virtue in the poor as he found graft and corruption in the rich, and these observations found their way into social satires like A Christmas Carol, in which the notorious capitalist Scrooge learns from ghosts and angels to share his blessings with the unfortunate Bob Cratchit and his family. It can be argued that Dickens virtually created the modern concept of Christmas with this novella. While some critics have accused Dickens of creating shallow, one-dimensional caricatures, his critical reputation has endured. Biographer Philip Collins notes: “The centenary in 1970 of Dickens’s death demonstrated a critical consensus about his standing second only to William Shakespeare in English literature which would have seemed incredible 40 or even 20 years earlier” (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Working in the genre of realism and in the shadow of the 18th c. picaresque novel, Charles wove somewhat allegorical tales that targeted the social ills of his time, lampooning ethical misconduct such as child abuse, unmerciful debt laws, and corporate graft, while showcasing true, Christian morality. Encyclopaedia Britannica lauds him as “the conscience of his age.” A professing Christian, he disliked pretentious religion, preferring instead the sincere faith of those like his character Amy Dorrit.
However devout, in 1858, Dickens betrayed his wife of 22 years, Catherine Hogarth, who bore him ten children to pursue the young actress Ellen Ternan, with whom he maintained an affectionate relationship until his death (Biography.com). His work with Ternan gave way to a love of the theater, and Dickens began to stage readings of his stories for the public. This led to several international tours and great public acclaim. Likewise, it placed considerable strain on Charles, who collapsed on stage in 1869 while on tour. Although he recovered, he spent his twilight years, while outwardly cheerful, in reality sad and declining. American Romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that he was a man whose spirit was too large for his frame, and American author Mark Twain, a notable peer, called him a “pioneer” in the oral and written arts (Encyclopaedia Britannica). He finished his peerage beneath the stage lights, delivering his final speech on his Farewell Tour with these famous words: “From these garish lights I vanish now forevermore…” Dickens died in June of 1870 from a stroke; he was 58 years old. Modern actor and Dickens historian Simon Callow depicts him in his renowned bio-theatrical, the Mystery of Charles Dickens, as an intelligent, energetic, optimistic, but haunted man who craved love and admiration. He courted this in a distant but adoring public that reveres him to the present day.
Biography.com editors. “Charles Dickens Biography.com.” www.biography.com/people/charles-
dickens-9274087. A & E Television Networks. April 27, 2017. Web. September 18. 2017.
Collins, Philip. “Charles Dickens.” www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Dickens-British-novelist.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. August 29, 2017. Web. September 18. 2017.
Wikipedia editors. “Charles Dickens.” www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens. N.p. September 16, 2017. Web. September 18, 2017.