Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812. By the time he died of a stroke fifty-eight years later, on 9 June 1870, he had become one of the great forces in world literature. Books such as A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations have made him one of the most popular writers in the history of English fiction.
Marked for Life
Dickens’ life was marked forever at the age of twelve, when his father was put in prison for debt. Dickens had to leave school and work in a factory to support the family. Although his father’s financial position quickly improved, his mother wanted him to continue in the factory, which he refused to do. Dickens never forgave her, but the experience showed him the hard realities of working-class life, helping in his formation as a writer.
"Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts."
After working as a reporter in London’s law courts and Parliament, Dickens started writing short stories, with immediate success. The Pickwick Papers, tales of a group of friends travelling around the country, was followed by his first real novel, Oliver Twist, the story of an orphan born in a workhouse, which was serialised in a magazine every month from 1837 to 1839. By now, Dickens was the most popular writer in Britain.
Over the next thirty years, Dickens worked at an incredible speed, producing comic and dramatic novels, editing magazines, writing articles attacking social injustices, and doing almost five hundred stage readings of his works in both Britain and the United States. He also had ten children with his wife, Catherine. “The Inimitable” he called himself. Others called him a “human hurricane”.
Dickens the writer is valued for many reasons. He has left us an incredibly detailed depiction of England, and especially London, at that time. Through novels such as Bleak House and Hard Times, he exposed the iniquities of Victorian society — he was the literary conscience of his time. In A Christmas Carol, he basically invented the idea of Christmas. He created unforgettable characters — Scrooge, above all — and wrote some of the most entertaining prose in the history of English.
Sadly, however, Dickens the husband and father is another story. Highly critical of many of his children, in his later years he started an affair with an actress, Ellen Ternan, twenty-seven years his junior. The affair was only discovered last century. Dickens finally separated from his wife in 1858, banishing her from their home. In the next twelve years he wrote her just three short letters and never even contacted her when their son Walter died in 1863. On Dickens’ death seven years later, he was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, against his own wishes.