The English author Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870) was, and probably still is, the most widely read Victorian novelist. He is now appreciated more for his "dark" novels than for his humorous works.
Charles Dickens was born on Feb. 7, 1812, at Port-sea (later part of Portsmouth) on the southern coast of England. He was the son of a lower-middle-class but impecunious father whose improvidence he was later to satirize in the character of Micawber in David Copperfield. The family's financial difficulties caused them to move about until they settled in Camden Town, a poor neighborhood of London. At the age of 12 Charles was set to work in a warehouse that handled "blacking," or shoe polish; there he mingled with men and boys of the working class. For a period of months he was also forced to live apart from his family when they moved in with his father, who had been imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtors' prison. This experience of lonely hardship was the most significant formative event of his life; it colored his view of the world in profound and varied ways and is directly or indirectly described in a number of his novels, including The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Little Dorrit, as well as David Copperfield.
These early events of Dicken's life left both psychological and sociological effects. In a fragmentary autobiography Dickens wrote, "It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. … My father and mother were quite satisfied. … My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life."
The sociological effect of the blacking factory on Dickens was to give him a firsthand acquaintance with poverty and to make him the most vigorous and influential voice of the lower classes in his age. Despite the fact that many of England's legal and social abuses were in the process of being removed by the time Dickens published his exposés of them, it remains true that he was the most widely heard spokesman of the need to alleviate the miseries of the poor.
Dickens returned to school after an inheritance (as in the fairy-tale endings of some of his novels) relieved his father from debt, but he was forced to become an office boy at the age of 15. In the following year he became a free-lance reporter or stenographer at the law courts of London. By 1832 he had become a reporter for two London newspapers and, in the following year, began to contribute a series of impressions and sketches to other newspapers and magazines, signing some of them "Boz." These scenes of London life went far to establish his reputation and were published in 1836 as Sketches by Boz, his first book. On the strength of this success he married; his wife, Catherine Hogarth, was eventually to bear him 10 children.
In 1836 Dickens also began to publish in monthly installments The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. This form of serial publication became a standard method of writing and producing fiction in the Victorian period and affected the literary methods of Dickens and other novelists. So great was Dickens's success with the procedure—summed up in the formula, "Make them laugh; make them cry; make them wait"—that Pickwick became one of the most popular works of the time, continuing to be so after it was published in book form in 1837. The comic heroes of the novel, the antiquarian members of the Pickwick Club, scour the English countryside for local points of interest and are involved in a variety of humorous adventures which reveal the characteristics of English social life. At a later stage of the novel, the chairman of the club, Samuel Pickwick, is involved in a lawsuit which lands him in the Fleet debtors' prison. Here the lighthearted atmosphere of the novel changes, and the reader is given intimations of the gloom and sympathy with which Dickens was to imbue his later works.
During the years of Pickwick's serialization, Dickens became editor of a new monthly, Bentley's Miscellany. When Pickwick was completed, he began publishing his new novel, Oliver Twist, in this magazine—a practice he continued in his later magazines, Household Worlds and All the Year Round. Oliver expresses Dickens's interest in the life of the slums to the fullest, as it traces the fortunes of an innocent orphan through the London streets. It seems remarkable today that this novel's fairly frank treatment of criminals like Bill Sikes, prostitutes like Nancy, and "fences" like Fagin could have been acceptable to the Victorian reading public. But so powerful was Dickens's portrayal of the "little boy lost" amid the lowlife of the East End that the limits of his audience's tolerance were gradually stretched.
Dickens was now embarked on the most consistently successful career of any 19th-century author after Sir Walter Scott. He could do no wrong as far as his faithful readership was concerned; yet his books for the next decade were not to achieve the standard of his early triumphs. These works include: Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), still cited for its exposé of brutality at an English boys' school, Dothe boys Hall; The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), still remembered for reaching a high (or low) point of sentimentality in its portrayal of the sufferings of Little Nell; and Barnaby Rudge (1841), still read for its interest as a historical novel, set amid the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780.
In 1842 Dickens, who was as popular in America as he was in England, went on a 5-month lecture tour of the United States, speaking out strongly for the abolition of slavery and other reforms. On his return he wrote American Notes, sharply critical of the cultural backwardness and aggressive materialism of American life. He made further capital of these observations in his next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), in which the hero retreats from the difficulties of making his way in England only to find that survival is even more trying on the American frontier. During the years in which Chuzzlewit appeared, Dickens also published two Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, which became as much part of the season as plum pudding.
First Major Novels
After a year abroad in Italy, in response to which he wrote Pictures from Italy (1846), Dickens began to publish Dombey and Son, which continued till 1848. This novel established a new standard in the Dickensian novel and may be said to mark the turning point in his career. If Dickens had remained the author of Pickwick, Oliver Twist, and The Old Curiosity Shop, he might have deserved a lasting reputation only as an author of cheerful comedy and bathetic sentiment. But Dombey, while it includes these elements, is a realistic novel of human life in a society which had assumed more or less its modern form. As its full title indicates, Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son is a study of the influence of the values of a business society on the personal fortunes of the members of the Dombey family and those with whom they come in contact. It takes a somber view of England at mid-century, and its elegiac tone becomes characteristic of Dickens's novels for the rest of his life.
Dickens's next novel, David Copperfield (1849-1850), combined broad social perspective with a very strenuous effort to take stock of himself at the midpoint of his literary career. This autobiographical novel fictionalized elements of Dickens's childhood degradation, pursuit of a journalistic and literary vocation, and love life. Its achievement is to offer the first comprehensive record of the typical course of a young man's life in Victorian England. Copperfield is not Dickens's greatest novel, but it was his own favorite among his works, probably because of his personal engagement with the subject matter.
In 1850 Dickens began to "conduct" (his word for edit) a new periodical, Household Words. His editorials and articles for this magazine, running to two volumes, cover the entire span of English politics, social institutions, and family life and are an invaluable complement to the fictional treatment of these subjects in Dickens's novels. The weekly magazine was a great success and ran to 1859, when Dickens began to conduct a new weekly, All the Year Round. In both these periodicals he published some of his major novels.
In 1851 Dickens was struck by the death of his father and one of his daughters within 2 weeks. Partly in response to these losses, he embarked on a series of works which have come to be called his "dark" novels and which rank among the greatest triumphs of the art of fiction. The first of these, Bleak House (1852-1853), has perhaps the most complicated plot of any English novel, but the narrative twists serve to create a sense of the interrelationship of all segments of English society. Indeed, it has been maintained that this network of interrelations is the true subject of the novel, designed to express Thomas Carlyle's view that "organic filaments" connect every member of society with every other member of whatever class. The novel provides, then, a chastening lesson to social snobbery and personal selfishness.
Dickens's next novel is even more didactic in its moral indictment of selfishness. Hard Times (1854) was written specifically to challenge the prevailing view of his society that practicality and facts were of greater importance and value than feelings and persons. In his indignation at callousness in business and public educational systems, Dickens laid part of the charge for the heartlessness of Englishmen at the door of the utilitarian philosophy then much in vogue. But the lasting applicability of the novel lies in its intensely focused picture of an English industrial town in the heyday of capitalist expansion and in its keen view of the limitations of both employers and reformers.
Little Dorrit (1855-1857) has some claim to be regarded as Dickens's greatest novel. In it he provides the same range of social observation that he had developed in previous major works. But the outstanding feature of this novel is the creation of two striking symbols of his views, which operate throughout the story as the focal points of all the characters' lives. The condition of England, as he saw it, Dickens sums up in the symbol of the prison: specifically the Marshalsea debtors' prison, in which the heroine's father is entombed, but generally the many forms of personal bondage and confinement that are exhibited in the course of the plot. For his counterweight, Dickens raises to symbolic stature his traditional figure of the child as innocent sufferer of the world's abuses. By making his heroine not a child but a childlike figure of Christian loving-kindness, Dickens poses the central burden of his work—the conflict between the world's harshness and human values—in its most impressive artistic form.
The year 1857 saw the beginnings of a personal crisis for Dickens when he fell in love with an actress named Ellen Ternan. He separated from his wife in the following year, after many years of marital incompatibility. In this period Dickens also began to give much of his time and energies to public readings from his novels, which became even more popular than his lectures on topical questions.
In 1859 Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel of the French Revolution, which is read today most often as a school text. It is, while below the standard of the long and comprehensive "dark" novels, a fine evocation of the historical period and a moving tale of a surprisingly modern hero's self-sacrifice. Besides publishing this novel in the newly founded All the Year Round, Dickens also published 17 articles, which appeared as a book in 1860 entitled The Uncommercial Traveller.
Dickens's next novel, Great Expectations (1860-1861), must rank as his most perfectly executed work of art. It tells the story of a young man's moral development in the course of his life—from childhood in the provinces to gentleman's status in London. Not an autobiographical novel like David Copperfield, Great Expectations belongs to the type of fiction called, in German, Bildungsroman (the novel of a man's education or formation by experience) and is one of the finest examples of the type.
The next work in the Dickens canon had to wait for the (for him) unusual time of 3 years, but in 1864-1865 he produced Our Mutual Friend, which challenges Little Dorrit and Bleak House for consideration as his masterpiece. Here the vision of English society in all its classes and institutions is presented most thoroughly and devastatingly, while two symbols are developed which resemble those of Little Dorrit in credibility and interest. These symbols are the mounds of rubbish which rose to become features of the landscape in rapidly expanding London, and the river which flows through the city and provides a point of contact for all its members besides suggesting the course of human life from birth to death.
In the closing years of his life Dickens worsened his declining health by giving numerous readings from his works. He never fully recovered from a railroad accident in which he had been involved in 1865 and yet insisted on traveling throughout the British Isles and America to read before tumultuous audiences. He broke down in 1869 and gave only a final series of readings in London in the following year. He also began The Mystery of Edwin Drood but died in 1870, leaving it unfinished. His burial in Westminster Abbey was an occasion of national mourning.
Further Reading on Charles John Huffam Dickens
The definitive biography of Dickens is Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (2 vols., 1952). This supersedes but does not render obsolete the long-standing "official" biography by John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (3 vols., 1872-1873; new ed., 2 vols., 1966). The most interesting psychological study is Edmund Wilson, "Dickens: The Two Scrooges," in The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature (1941). The best critical interpretation is J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (1958). F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist (1970), contains essays on Dickens's major novels. For the earlier novels the most informative reading is Steven Marcus, Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey (1965). The most useful book on the social and historical background of the novels is Humphry House, The Dickens World (1941; 2d ed. 1950).