Charles Dickens, the most popular novelist of the nineteenth century England, was born on 7th February, 1812 at Portsea. His father, John Dickens, was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. He was an affectionate and generous man, but lacked in thrift and foresight. Not much is known about Dickens’s mother except that she was gentle and virtuous and had a gift for mimicry. Charles was the second of six children and was the eldest among the sons. In his childhood, one could often see him perched on some chair or table singing comic songs in an atmosphere of perpetual applause. A touch of ill health prevented him from participating in the usual children’s games. He had to amuse himself by reading novels. His family was not particularly literary; but they had a good collection of novels the major works of Defoe, Cervantes, Smollet Fielding and Goldsmith. Charles would often crawl up into a lonely garret and lose himself in reading these classics.He was specially fond of Humphrey Clinker and Tom Jones.
Warren’ s Blacking Factory
In 1822, John Dickens was transferred to London. He had always been handling his financial affairs rather clumsily.But now, he was faced with an acute financial crisis. Charles was forced to accept work in a blacking factory, on the Thames waterfront. His job was to cover and label the pots of blacking, i.e. boot polish. Charles was then just twelve and receptive and hyper sensitive. He felt tormented to mix with the coarse boys gloating in foul language throughout the day. He worked in this factory for barely four or five months, but he could never fully recover from the humiliation of this episode. And he could never forgive his parents for forcing him to work in the squalid, rat infested factory. He also developed excessive sympathy for deprived children like himself who would be condemned by their circumstances to such an inhuman task.
John Dickens in the Debtors Prison
Charles Dickens had just started working in the Warrens b1acking factory when his father was arrested for debt and removed to the Debtors Prison at the Marshalsea. His mother,along with the other members of the family, joined him in the prison. Charles was the only one left outside. He was not keeping good health. In addition,he had to remain hungry four or five times a week. Sometimes he would drop down groaning while at his work. This was perhaps the most miserable period of his life. It ended when John Dickens got a small legacy which enabled him to leave the prison and to send his son to a school at Hampstead. Charles remained in this school for two to three years.
Dickens began his career as a lawyer’s clerk at the age of fifteen in 1827. It was a modest beginning. But he had his aspirations and was endowed with initiative and drive. Besides, he had the energy and zeal to put in real hard work. He began to learn shorthand in his spare time. Sometimes, he would forego even sleep and continue practicing shorthand.
In love with Maria Beadnell
It was at this time that he fell in love with Maria Beadnell. He was working hard to lift himself above the trap of poverty and obscurity and Maria’s love would have sustained him in his struggle. But she ridiculed and spurned his suit. Dickens was disappointed but determined to ride on. Later Dickens immortalised Maria by making her Dora in David Copperfield.
In 1832 Dickens left law and embarked upon a career of journalism. He was a natural reporter’s flair for descriptive writing. He had an eye for detail which enabled him to present lively accounts of whatever he had seen. He began by covering cases in the ecclesiastical courts but soon worked his way up to Parliament; he gained reputation as an efficient parliamentary reporter but was personally disillusioned with the proceedings of that august house. He was amazed by the stupid pomposity of parliamentary warfare, and for the rest of his life held the legislature in contempt.
Preparation to be a novelist
Dickens was a man of divergent interests. He was also possessed extraordinary energy which enabled him to pursues everal interests at once. He frequented theatres, learnt acting and narrowly missed entering this profession. He also regularly went to the British Museum Library and furthered his self education. Thus, by the age of twenty-one, when his first published work appeared, Dickens had acquired a solid knowledge of those subjects which run like thread through all his novels: the law, the theatre, and above all the city of London and its inhabitants.
First sketches and marriage
In 1833, Dickens published his first sketch in the Old Monthly Magazine; Other sketches followed and in 1834, he published them in a book form under the penname of Boz. The book was an instantaneous success. The same year, he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a fellow journalist.
Sketches by Boz (1836) was followed by Pickwick Papers(183637), Dickens full length work, which brought him resounding success. Pickwick Papers was followed by four novels in quick succession: Oliver Twist (1837-39), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41) and a historical novel, Barnaby Rudge (1841). All these novels appeared in monthly installments.
The first tour of America and Canada
In 1842, Dickens, accompanied by his wife, went on a tour of America and Canada. His reputation as a novelist had already reached there and he was given a rousing welcome wherever he went. He based his next two works American Notes (1842) and Mar tin Chuzzlewit (1844) on his impressions gathered during this tour. These works reflect the life in America in a rather uncomplimentary manner.
The novels of the middle phase
Martin Chuzzlewit was followed by A Christmas Carol (1843), the most famous of his five ‘Christmas Books’. These books were shorter pieces appearing in the next few years. Next came Dombey and Son (1846-48) and David Copperfield (1849-50). David Copperfield, the most popular of Dickens’s novels, marks a turning point, in his productive activity; for thematically and structurally, the novels following David Copperfield are much different from the earlier works. It has special interest for the readers, for it contains a good deal of autobiographical materials.
The novels written before 1842 were rather formless. They abounded in episodes which, hilarious in themselves, tended to loosen the construction. His readers loved him for such episodes, but the enlightened ones expected something aesthetically more satisfying from him. He felt infuriated if someone pointed out the absence of organic structure and coherence in his works, but somewhere in his heart of hearts he was also becoming aware of the need of imposing an artistic design on his novels. Ashe grew older, he started paying greater attention to the form of his novels. He also took longer to write them. It is not a mere coincidence that his contemporaries loved his earlier writings whereas it is his later novels that have been more favorably received by the modern readers. These later novels include Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times (I854) and Little Dorrit (1855-57).
Unhappy domestic life
Comparatively little is known of Dickens’s wife Catherine, except that she failed to bring him the happiness he might have expected his wife to bring him. As time passed, Dickens’s outside commitments went on increasing and life at home became miserable. A stage came when he just could not endure more. He separated from his wife after having spent twenty-two years in her company and having got ten children. Dickens treated all his children with affection and concern.
The last novels
In account of domestic troubles, Dickens went through a comparatively unproductive period following his Little Dorrit. But very soon he wrote A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860-61) and Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). Our Mutual Friend is his last complete novel.
The second tour of America
On finishing Our Mutual Friend September1865, Dickens devoted his attention to prepare new readings for public. The scene of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist was the most powerful reading in his repertory. In 1867, he went to America on a reading tour. This was a very exhausting work but Dickens enjoyed it and continued it even after his return from America. On March 15, 1870 he gave a final reading in London.
Dicken was now working on Edwin Droon which he had begun in1869. On 9th June, 1870, he wrote fresh chapters for this novel. Then suddenly he was taken suddenly ill. His sister-inlaws efforts to get him on the sofa were unavailing. “On the ground”, he murmured, and shortly afterwards passed away without recovering consciousness. He was buried at the Westminster Abbey