Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812 to June 9, 1870) was a British novelist, journalist, editor, illustrator and social commentator who wrote such beloved classic novels as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Dickens is remembered as one of the most important and influential writers of the 19th century. Oliver Twist, Dickens first novel, follows the life of an orphan living in the streets. The book was inspired by how Dickens felt as an impoverished child forced to get by on his wits and earn his own keep.
As publisher of a magazine called Bentley’s Miscellany, Dickens began publishing Oliver Twist in installments between February 1837 and April 1838, with the full book edition published in November 1838. Dickens continued showcasing Oliver Twist in the magazines he later edited, including Household Words and All the Year Round. The novel was extremely well-received in both England and America. Dedicated readers of Oliver Twist eagerly anticipated the next monthly installment.
Among his accomplishments, he has been lauded for providing a stark portrait of the Victorian era underclass, helping to bring about societal change. When Dickens died of a stroke, he left his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.
Charles Dickens is much loved for his great contribution to classic English literature. He was the quintessential Victorian author. His epic stories, vivid characters and exhaustive depiction of contemporary life are unforgettable.
His own story is one of rags to riches. He was born in Portsmouth on 7 February 1812, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. The good fortune of being sent to school at the age of nine was short-lived because his father, inspiration for the character of Mr Micawber in ‘David Copperfield’, was imprisoned for bad debt.
The entire family, apart from Charles, were sent to Marshalsea along with their patriarch. Charles was sent to work in Warren’s blacking factory and endured appalling conditions as well as loneliness and despair. After three years he was returned to school, but the experience was never forgotten and became fictionalised in two of his better-known novels ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Great Expectations’.
Like many others, he began his literary career as a journalist. His own father became a reporter and Charles began with the journals ‘The Mirror of Parliament’ and ‘The True Sun’. Then in 1833 he became parliamentary journalist for The Morning Chronicle.
With new contacts in the press he was able to publish a series of sketches under the pseudonym ‘Boz’. In April 1836, he married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of George Hogarth who edited ‘Sketches by Boz’. Within the same month came the publication of the highly successful ‘Pickwick Papers’, and from that point on there was no looking back for Dickens.
As well as a huge list of novels he published autobiography, edited weekly periodicals including ‘Household Words’ and ‘All Year Round’, wrote travel books and administered charitable organisations. He was also a theatre enthusiast, wrote plays and performed before Queen Victoria in 1851.
Travels to the United States and Italy
His energy was inexhaustible and he spent much time abroad – for example lecturing against slavery in the United States and touring Italy with companions Augustus Egg and Wilkie Collins, a contemporary writer who inspired Dickens’ final unfinished novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’.
In 1842, Dickens and his wife, Catherine, embarked on a five-month lecture tour of the United States. Upon their return, Dickens penned American Notes for General Circulation, a sarcastic travelogue criticizing American culture and materialism. Around this time he also wrote The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, a story about a man’s struggle to survive on the ruthless American frontier.
During his first U.S. tour, in 1842, Dickens spoke of his opposition to slavery and expressed his support for additional reform. His lectures, which began in Virginia and ended in Missouri, were so widely attended that ticket scalpers gathered outside his events. Biographer J.B. Priestly wrote that during the tour, Dickens enjoyed “the greatest welcome that probably any visitor to America has ever had.”
“They flock around me as if I were an idol,” bragged Dickens, a known show-off. Although he enjoyed the attention at first, he eventually resented the invasion of privacy. He was also annoyed by what he viewed as Americans’ gregariousness and crude habits, as he later expressed in American Notes.
After his criticism of the American people during his first tour, Dickens launched a second U.S. tour, from 1867 to 1868, hoping to set things right with the public. This time, he made a charismatic speech promising to praise the United States in reprints of American Notes for General Circulation and The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. His 75 readings netted an estimated $95,000, which, in the Victorian era, amounted to approximately $1.5 million in current U.S. dollars.
Back at home, Dickens had become so famous that people recognized him all over London as he strolled around the city, collecting the observations that would serve as inspiration for his future work.
Dickens also spent significant time in Italy, resulting in his 1846 travelogue Pictures from Italy.
He was estranged from his wife in 1858 after the birth of their ten children, but maintained relations with his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan.
When and How Did Charles Dickens Die?
After suffering a stroke, Dickens died at age 58 on June 9, 1870, at Gad’s Hill Place, his country home in Kent, England. In 1865, Dickens was in a train accident and never fully recovered. Despite his fragile condition, he continued to tour until shortly before his death.
Dickens was buried in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, with thousands of mourners gathering at the beloved author’s gravesite. Scottish satirical writer Thomas Carlyle described Dickens’ passing as “an event worldwide, a unique of talents suddenly extinct.” At the time of his death, his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was unfinished. He was buried at Westminster Abbey.
- Charles John Huffam Dickens Biography (BBC / Biography)