One of the most popular novelist of the time, Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812. His father, a clerk in the navy pay office, was careless with money and often in debt. However, the writer’s childhood was happy. When he was about ten years old the family moved to London, where young Charles was sent to school. Before long his father was imprisoned for debts and the boy had to work in a blacking factory; the experience was terrible for him: Dickens remembered this period as the darkest of his life, and often described similar situations and atmosphere in his novels.
On his father’s release he was sent back to school, but after two years he went to work as a clerk in a lawyer’s office. In his spare time he learnt shortland and soon became a parliamentary reporter. He also began to contribute to magazines, and wrote a series of sketches which were caricatures of the life and manners of the time. These sketches came out in 1836 as Sketches by Boz. Between 1836 and 1837 The Pickwick Papers appeared in instalments and became very popular. This episodic novel tells the humorous story of the naive Mr Pickwick, the chairman of an amateur sports club, who travels around England with a group of friends visiting the last places as yet untouched by the Industrial Revolution.
Around this time Dickens got married; his wife bore him ten children, but the marriage was not happy and ended in a separation. Several novels followed in quick succession: Oliver Twist (1837-1839), about the hardships and adventures of a foundling, Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), in which Dickens attacked a number of social injustice, and The old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), whose theme was the appalling conditions in which children in the industrial cities worked and lived, are among the most successful of this period. He also attempted the historical novel with A Tale of Two Cities (1859), the two cities being London and Paris during the French revolution, but it was not very successful because Dickens was more interested in teh society of his time.
A visit to America inspired Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), which satirizes the materialism of American life, and after Dickens decided to live abroad for a time. He rented a villa in Genoa in 1844, and settled there with his family. Italian life and culture does not seem to have had much of an influence on his work as he continued to write the series of short Christmas stories begun in 1843 that would become A Christmas Carol. Over the next few years Dickens visited Switzerland and France. In 1848 he published Dombey and Son, in which Victorian hypocrisy and material greed came under attack.
1850 saw the first instalment of David Copperfield, a largely autobiographical novel of which he wrote: “I like this one the best”. David Copperfield is a Bildungsroman, because it shows the development of the hero from childhood to maturity.
When Dickens was not writing, he was engaged in various activities: he produced and acted in plays with a travelling theatrical troup, and also gave impassioned public readings of his novels, touring Britain extensively. The central theme of Bleak House (1852-53) is the long delays in the justice system; the following year Hard Times appeared and strongly criticized industrialization, and between 1855 and 1857 Dickens serialized Little Dorrit and focused his anger on the institution of debtors’ prisons.
The year 1860-61 saw the publication of Great Expectations, a Bildungsroman thought by many to be his best work. It is about the orphan Pip’s life from boy to adult and his attempts to become a gentleman. In Our Mutual Friend (1846-65) Dickens the injustices of the Poor Laws.
From 1867 to 1868 he made a triumphant return to America, which, however, helped to ruin his health. Nevertheless, he engaged in another public reading tour of Britain, but his his health broke down, and he retired from his readings to start his last novel, The Mistery of Edwin Drood, which was never finished. Charles Dickens died in 1870 and was buried in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.