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Biography of Author Charles Dickens

Updated on April 13, 2013

You probably already know some of his characters. The hungry Oliver who dared ask for more before ending up among a gang of pickpockets in the mean streets of London. Or maybe miserly old Ebeneezer Scrooge who was haunted by ghosts in the classic tale A Christmas Carol.

His memorable characters are one of the reasons why Dickens remains one of Britain's greatest writers. His highly popular novels have been noted for their mix of comedy and realism, as well as the way they tacked the issues of social inequality in Victorian Britain.

What was the Early Life of Charles Dickens Like?

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on February 7th 1812 in Portsmouth, England.

He was the second of eight children born to John Dickens, a Naval Pay Office clerk, and his wife Elizabeth.

The family moved to London in 1814 and then to Chatham in Kent. Financial difficulties caused them to return to London in 1822.

The Dickens family moved to Camden Town, which was, at the time, a poor area of London.


In 1824, John Dickens was sent to Marshalsea debtor's prison.

John Dickens' wife and children joined him in prison. Young Charles, however was sent to work in Warren's Blacking Factory, where shoe polish was made. This experience had a major effect on the future writer. It exposed him first hand to the effects of poverty.

Later, when his father was released, Dickens returned to school. At 15, he found work as an office boy at an attorneys. He studied shorthand at night.

The Journalism & Early Novels of Charles Dickens

In 1829, Dickens became a freelance reporter at Doctor's Commons Court. A successful reporter of Parliamentary debates in the House of Commons, he took on the pseudonym Boz in 1834. The first series of Sketches by Boz was published in 1836. The sketches were about London places and people.

Dickens was hired to write some short texts to accompany a series of humorous sporting illustrations by Robert Seymour. When Seymour committed suicide, Dickens changed the concept and The Pickwick Papers were released as a story in monthly parts. It became a major success and Dickens began a full-time career as a novelist. Many of Dicken's later stories were to be written in monthly or weekly instalments, which appeared in journals.

On 2 April 1836, Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth, the daughter of a newspaper editor. They had their first child in January 1837, the first of ten. Dickens and his family set up home at 48 Doughty Street in the Bloomsbury area of London.

Dickens began work on his novel Oliver Twist in 1837. it was released in monthly parts until April 1839. After that, he wrote The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby (1838–39), which was about a young man who has to support his mother and sister after his father dies. The Old Curiosity Shop (1840- 1841) was about a young girl and her grandfather who live in a shop.

When Did Charles Dickens Tour America?

In 1842, Dickens began a five-month lecture tour of the United States. He and his wife Kate went, leaving their 10 children at home with friends. Dickens was very much a celebrity in the United States. Travelling from Virginia to Missouri, Dickens drew such large crowds that there were often ticket scalpers outside his events. Dickens opposed slavery and supported reform.

In 1843, Dickens published A Christmas Carol. This classic tale tells the story of old miser Ebeneezer Scrooge, who is haunted by ghosts and eventually finds the Christmas spirit.

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chwhuzzlewit came out as a monthly serial between January 1843 and July 1844. In the book, the main character struggles to survive in the wilderness of the American frontier. Some saw the novel as an attack on America.


The Later Years of Charles Dickens

David Copperfield was released as a serial between 1849 and 1850. Telling the story of a man from childhood through to childhood, it was perhaps the most autobiographical of Dickens' works. The theme was more serious and it was more carefully planned than his previous works.

In 1851, Dickens moved to Tavistock House. While there, he wrote Bleak House (1852-53), a novel which dealt with the hypocrisy of British society. He followed this with Hard Times (1854) , which took place in an industrial town at the peak of economic expanision. Next came Little Dorrit (1857). In 1856, he bought Gad's Hill Place in Higham, Kent. As a child he had walked past and dreamt of living there.

Dickens had an interest in amateur theatre. In 1857, he hired actresses for a play which he had written with Wilkie Collins. Dickens began an affair with one of the actresses, Ellen Ternan. Dickens was 45 and Ternan was 18.

In 1858, Dickens separated from his wife, Catherine. Catherine left the home of the writer, taking one of their children. The rest of the children stayed with her sister Georgina.

Scandalous though it may have been, Dickens and Ellen Ternan stayed together until he died. Many scholars believe that Dickens named several characters in his stories after Ellen Ternan.

In 1859 Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel set during the French Revolution. This was published as a weekly serial in the periodical that he founded, All the Year Round. Great Expectations (1860-1861), which was about the central character's lifelong journey of moral development. Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865) examined the psychological impact of wealth on London society.

Dickens was involved in a rail crash in June 1865. The first seven carriages of a train fell off a bridge which was being repaired. Dickens was in the only first-class carriage which remained on the track. He was not physically harmed, but he the incident caused him a great deal of trauma.

From 1867 to 1868, Dickens made a second tour of America, hoping to make things right after some saw his writings as critical of the nation. While there, he promised to praise the United States in reprints of the books American Notes for General Circulation and The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dicken's final book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood began to appear in serial form in April 1870. Dickens did not finish the book though. Only six of twelve parts were completed. The story was a murder mystery and the identity of the murderer remains a mystery.

Although he had experienced poverty in his childhood, Dickens strove for financial success in later life. Working from the age of 14, he was driven and determined to become a wealthy man.

As biographer Claire Tomalin notes in her book, Charles Dickens A Life, the writer's earning power was considerable throughout his career. There were plenty of family, friends and other beneficiaries who relied upon him for financial support, but he managed to live well. Before he died, he took an inventory of his cellar at his house in Kent. There were entries for sherry, brand and one "cask very fine Scotch whisky, 30 gallons".


When Did Dickens Die?

Charles Dickens has a stroke at the age of 58 on June 9, 1870. He died at Gad's Hill Place, his country home in Kent, England.

He was buried in Poet's Corner at Westminister Abbey. Thousands of people gathered to mourn at the author's grave.

Dickens was one of the most popular writers of his time. His popularity continues. His books are widely read and many of them have been adapted for film and television.

As well as providing readers with memorable characters, his books drew attention to the poor and disadvantaged within society.

His fiction had a major effect in changing people's opinions about inequality in Britain.


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