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.
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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.