This biographical essay originally appeared as part of the BBC's Our Mutual Friend Souvenir Programme (1998)
Charles Dickens was born near Portsmouth on February 7, 1812. The happiest years of his childhood were spent in Chatham, Kent, where his family lived between 1817 and 1823. It was in Chatham that Dickens was first introduced to the world of literature and drama. In 1823, his family moved to London, where his father was suddenly arrested for debt and incarcerated in Marshalsea Debtors' Prison.
For the three months that John Dickens and his family lived in a single, cramped room in the Marshalsea, Charles -- then only eleven -- was left to live alone in lodgings, and was sent to work at Warren's Blacking Factory.
These three months changed Dickens as a person and shaped his outlook as a writer and social critic. It was at Warren's that Dickens met the boy on whom he would later base the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist. The misery of the Warren experience is reflected in several chapters of the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield. Many of his broad novelistic images and themes -- prisons, degraded conditions of labour, children lost in the city -- grew out of this traumatic childhood experience.
Dickens returned to school after the family's situation improved. He attended theWellington House Academy from the years of 1824-1827 and, at fifteen, entered the world as a solicitor's clerk. He studied shorthand at Doctors' Commons, which lead to work as a Parliamentary reporter: his speed and accuracy amazed his contemporaries. By 1833, he had contributed his first sketches of urban life to the Monthly Magazine and other periodicals. These were soon collected in his first book, Sketches by 'Boz' (1836), and in that same year, on the crest of this wave of success, he married Catherine Hogarth.
Now twenty-four, Dickens started the weekly serial publication of Pickwick Papers (1836-37) which quickly made him a literary phenomenon. While Dickens wrote his next novel, Oliver Twist (1837-39), and edited Bentley's Miscellany, the Dickens family moved from their first home at Furnival's Inn to 48 Doughty Street. The death of Catherine's sister Mary, to whom both were very attached, troubled the couple deeply during this active time: images of her are later reflected in Dickens's portraits of saintly, diminutive female characters like Little Nell and Little Dorrit. Nicholas Nickleby appeared in 1838, and the family moved up again, to 1 Devonshire Terrace. Setting the pattern of industriousness that would typify his entire career, Dickens edited (and ultimately authored) the weekly periodical Master Humphrey's Clock (1840-41), which included Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop.
In 1842, Dickens took America by storm. His six-month trip bore literary fruit: the controversial and unflattering American Notes (1842) and the slyly devastating American episode in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4). He published A Christmas Carol in December 1843, the first of five widely popular Christmas books. In the mid to late 1840s, the Dickens family lived in Italy, Switzerland, and Paris as well as maintaining residence in London. He published Pictures from Italy in 1846, Dombey and Son in 1848, and his 'favourite child,' David Copperfield, in 1850. Also during this decade, in 1847, Dickens's commitment to philanthropic causes led him to help establish Miss Coutts's Home for Homeless Women, where he 'booked' the degraded but fascinating clientele.
In 1851, the Dickens family moved to Tavistock House. But by now, Dickens's marriage had grown increasingly troubled. Catherine had born Dickens ten children, but by the end of the decade he separated permanently from her, and in 1858, he made the acquaintance of the actress Ellen Ternan, with whom he maintained a close relationship until his death.
The fifties marked a return to journalism http://mural.uv.es/agoboy/biogra.html for Dickens, and increasing attention to social problems. He launched Household Words in 1850, a periodical that spanned the decade (and was incorporated into All the Year Round in 1859). In 1852-3 Bleak House appeared, one of his most famous novels and a frontal attack on the foggy and wasteful English legal system. Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1855-57) shortly followed, lambasting exploitative industrialism and rapacious financial greed. The benefit of all this social criticism, however, was his purchase in 1856 of the gentleman's residence he'd always dreamed of owning, Gad's Hill Place in Kent. He then detoured into historical fiction, publishing A Tale of Two Cities in 1859.
Dickens began his immensely popular public readings in 1858. The stress and strain of these performances, which he toured in both England and the United States, led to a breakdown in 1869. The sixties saw the publication of more journalistic essays in The Uncommercial Traveller (1860), the weekly-serialised novel Great Expectations (1860-61), and his last twenty-number monthly novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). After a farewell season of public readings early in 1870, he began The Mystery of Edwin Drood in April. His persistent illness would not relent, however; Dickens died on 9 June, 1870. Edwin Drood was left uncompleted. Our Mutual Friend became his last finished work.
John Forster's The Life of Charles Dickens remains an invaluable resource. First published between 1872 and 1874 by Chapman & Hall, the book is currently out of print, and often difficult to find. Most university libraries, however, will have a copy of a later edition.
Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: Avon, 1990.