Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. He was the second of eight children. His mother had been in service to Lord Crew, and his father worked as a clerk for the Naval Pay office. John Dickens was imprisoned for debt when Charles was young. Charles Dickens went to work at a blacking warehouse, managed by a relative of his mother, when he was twelve, and his brush with hard times and poverty affected him deeply. He later recounted these experiences in the semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield. Similarly, the concern for social justice and reform which surfaced later in his writings grew out of the harsh conditions he experienced in the warehouse.
As a young boy, Charles Dickens was exposed to many artistic and literary works that allowed his imagination to grow and develop considerably. He was greatly influenced by the stories his nursemaid used to tell him and by his many visits to the theater. Additionally, Dickens loved to read. Among his favorite works were Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, and Arabian Nights, all of which were picaresque novels composed of a series of loosely linked adventures. This format no doubt played a part in Dickens' idea to serialize his future works.
Dickens was able to leave the blacking factory after his father's release from prison, and he continued his education at the Wellington House Academy. Although he had little formal schooling, Dickens was able to teach himself shorthand and launch a career as a journalist. At the age of sixteen, Dickens got himself a job as a court reporter, and shortly thereafter he joined the staff of A Mirror of Parliament, a newspaper that reported on the decisions of Parliament. During this time Charles continued to read voraciously at the British Library, and he experimented with acting and stage-managing amateur theatricals. His experience acting would affect his work throughout his life--he was known to act out characters he was writing in the mirror and then describe himself as the character in prose in his novels.
Fast becoming disillusioned with politics, Dickens developed an interest in social reform and began contributing to the True Sun, a radical newspaper. Although his main avenue of work would consist of writing novels, Dickens continued his journalistic work until the end of his life, editing The Daily News, Household Words, and All the Year Round. His connections to various magazines and newspapers as a political journalist gave him the opportunity to begin publishing his own fiction at the beginning of his career. He would go on to write fifteen novels. (A final one, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was left unfinished upon his death.)
While he published several sketches in magazines, it was not until he serialized The Pickwick Papers over 1836-37 that he experienced true success. A publishing phenomenon, The Pickwick Papers was published in monthly installments and sold over forty thousand copies of each issue. Dickens was the first person to make this serialization of novels profitable and was able to expand his audience to include those who could not normally afford such literary works.
Within a few years, he was regarded as one of the most successful authors of his time, with approximately one out of every ten people in Victorian England avidly reading and following his writings. In 1836 Dickens also married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a fellow co-worker at his newspaper. The couple had ten children before their separation in 1858.
Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby followed in monthly installments, and both reflected Dickens' understanding of the lower classes as well as his comic genius. In 1843, Dickens published one of his most famous works, A Christmas Carol. His disenchantment with the world's economic drives is clear in this work; he blames much of society's ills on people's obsession with earning money and acquiring status based on money.
His travels abroad in the 1840s, first to America and then through Europe, marked the beginning of a new stage in Dickens' life. His writings became longer and more serious. In David Copperfield (1849-50), readers find the same flawed world that Dickens discovered as a young boy. Dickens published some of his best-known novels including A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations in his own weekly periodicals.
The inspiration to write a novel set during the French Revolution came from Dickens' faithful annual habit of reading Thomas Carlyle's book The French Revolution, first published in 1839. When Dickens acted in Wilkie Collins' play The Frozen Deep in 1857, he was inspired by his own role as a self-sacrificing lover. He eventually decided to place his own sacrificing lover in the revolutionary period, a period of great social upheaval. A year later, Dickens went through his own form of social change as he was writing A Tale of Two Cities: he separated from his wife, and he revitalized his career by making plans for a new weekly literary journal called All the Year Round. In 1859, A Tale of Two Cities premiered in parts in this journal. Its popularity was based not only on the fame of its author, but also on its short length and radical (for Dickens' time) subject matter.
Dickens' health began to deteriorate in the 1860s. In 1858, in response to his increasing fame, he had begun public readings of his works. These exacted a great physical toll on him. An immensely profitable but physically shattering series of readings in America in 1867-68 sped his decline, and he collapsed during a "farewell" series in England.
On June 9, 1870, Charles Dickens died. He was buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. Though he left The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished, he had already written fifteen substantial novels and countless shorter pieces. His legacy is clear. In a whimsical and unique fashion, Dickens pointed out society's flaws in terms of its blinding greed for money and its neglect of the lower classes of society. Through his books, we come to understand the virtues of a loving heart and the pleasures of home in a flawed, cruelly indifferent world. Among English writers, in terms of his fame and of the public's recognition of his characters and stories, he is second only to William Shakespeare.