Oliver Twist

By Charles Dickens


On February 7th 1812, Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth. His father was chronically unable to live within his means, thereby inflicting a constant sense of insecurity on Dickens and his seven siblings. In 1823 the family moved to London, where a distant relation of Mrs. Dickens obtained work for Charles in a factory, labelling bottles of shoe blacking for six shillings a week. At this time his father was arrested for debt and the family was obliged to move to the Marshalsea Prison, later to feature so prominently in his son's work. Cruelly aware of his untapped abilities and not knowing for how long he would be condemned to soulless labour, these humiliating childhood experiences marked Dickens for life.

Finding work in a lawyer's office following his father's release, Dickens taught himself shorthand aged about 16, and quickly established himself as one of London's more reliable freelance reporters of legal and parliamentary proceedings. Soon after turning 21 he began to contribute short, humorous 'sketches' to magazines, and in 1834 joined the staff of the Morning Chronicle. A collection, Sketches by Boz, appeared in early 1836, and as a result the publishing house Chapman and Hall invited him to provide witty prose to accompany a series of jocular sporting illustrations by the popular artist Robert Seymour. These became The Pickwick Papers, his first novel. Days after starting the project he married Catherine Hogarth, who eventually bore him 10 children.

As 1836 turned into 1837, The Pickwick Papers acquired a huge following and Dickens' characters became the centre of a popular cult. Whilst concluding Pickwick he began publishing Oliver Twist (1837). In May of 1837 his beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died suddenly. Her death had a seismic impact on Dickens, and she can fairly be interpreted as the model for the innumerable idealised maidens in his novels. Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9) confirmed him as England's most popular novelist. Sales of The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1) topped 100,000 and upon finishing Barnaby Rudge (1841) he embarked for America, where he was rapturously received. Disillusioned by the narrow attitudes he perceived there, however, his American Notes (1842) soured his reputation across the Atlantic for the next 25 years. His most complex and mature work yet, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4) was his first relative failure, but A Christmas Carol (1843) was another phenomenon. In the mid-1840s he travelled widely, and his next novel, Dombey and Son (1846) indicates a new seriousness of purpose, with imagery and theme more deftly linked than previously.

David Copperfield (1849-50) is loosely autobiographical and was Dickens' favourite of all his works. The 1850s saw him intensify his assaults on the smug bureaucracy that masked official negligence of the underprivileged. Bleak House (1852-3), Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1855-7) all powerfully demonstrate his contempt for the machinery of government. In 1850 he started Household Words, a journal that reflected his radical political agenda alongside more flippant and comic interests. It was succeeded in 1859 by All the Year Round, which at its peak attracted over 300,000 readers a week; contributors included Mrs. Gaskell and Wilkie Collins.

In 1858 Dickens separated from his wife and may have started an affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860-1) and Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) completed his life's great work of 14 finished novels. The 1860s were marked by a sharp decline in Dickens' health as he repeatedly undertook lucrative but physically draining reading tours of his works, including a triumphant return to America (1867-8). Increasingly careworn, he died of a stroke at home on June 9th 1870, whilst working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He is thought to have accepted a baronetcy from Queen Victoria shortly before his death, but there is no definitive evidence of this. In direct contrast to his wishes and amidst scenes of hysterical public grief, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Charles Dickens' extraordinary energy allowed him to be many things: brilliant novelist, mediocre playwright and bad poet, tireless traveller and walker (it was not unusual for him to walk 15 miles around London at speed), voluminous correspondent, social worker, generous host, amateur actor / director, journalist and editor- merely to contemplate his activities is tiring. He can be seen as typifying both the Victorian work ethic and the contemporary phenomenon of the self-made man. His lifelong habit of publishing serially ensured constant success and he was never seriously challenged as the most popular writer of his century. Complex, contradictory and haunted by a lifelong fear of debt and failure, he worked himself into a sadly early grave. Equalled only amongst writers by Shakespeare in terms of imaginative range and expression, it is hard to believe that anyone will again create so many immortal characters or so deeply impress their imagination upon the reading public.

Of the many full biographies available, Peter Ackroyd's Dickens is the best.