From an anonymous magazine writer to one of the most well-known English authors of all time, Charles Dickens' life was a tale of rags to riches, pauper to literary prince. His works, including Great Expectations and his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, draw upon several situations, experiences and people he came into contact with throughout his life, serving as tiny glimpses into Dickens' deeply personal world.

Drawing Upon the "Worst of Times"

Charles Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England, the second of eight children. As a child, Dickens spent a lot of time reading while his father worked a low-level government job—and frequently spent beyond his means. Unable to pay his debts, Dickens' father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor's prison in London, which later became the focus of Dickens' serial novel Little Dorrit.

With his father imprisoned, Dickens was forced to leave school at the age of 12 and take a job at Warren's Blacking, a shoe-polish factory, to provide for his family. However, the working conditions there were both cruel and intense, forever influencing Dickens' desire for socio-economic reform and serving as recurring themes in his fiction and essays featuring the lives of the working class and the poor.

Dickens was eventually removed from the factory after his father's release from the debtor's prison and attended Wellington House Academy. He left the school at age 15 to work as a clerk at a law firm before becoming a freelance reporter for legal proceedings. The years he spent observing the legal system gave him contempt for the law and politics, which his books like Bleak House echo.

In 1830, when he was just 18, Dickens met his first love, Maria Beadnell, thought to be the inspiration for the character Dora in David Copperfield and the character Estella in Great Expectations. However, her parents disapproved of Dickens' family and prospects and the relationship ended in heartbreak, as Maria was sent away to school in Paris.

A Writer Is Born

At the age of 21, Dickens published his first story anonymously in Monthly Magazine under the pseudonym "Boz," a nicknamed he called his brother. He continued working as a political journalist, covering debates and election campaigns in Britain, and published his first collection of pieces, Sketches by Boz, in 1836. That same year, Dickens also received a contract to write his first novel, a series of 20 monthly installments called The Pickwick Papers, and became editor of Bentley's Miscellany.

The Pickwick Papers launched a new era in publishing. The concept of publishing a novel in installments was new at the time, and Dickens often wrote the episodes as they were being published instead of writing a novel in its entirety. From the beginning, readers held on to his cliffhangers, waiting for the next installment as much to see what happened next to the characters as to see what Dickens would write about social reform. The Pickwick Papers was so popular that circulation of the newspaper increased from 14,000 to 40,000 during the story's run.

By the mid 1830s, Dickens had married and was enjoying success as a novelist as he continued to publish more works, including Oliver Twist (1837–9), Nicholas Nickleby (1838–9) (later dramatized on the London stage), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41) and Barnaby Rudge (1841).

Learn about Dickens' most famous works, popularity and dying wish
Penguin Books and Penguin Classics wish to thank and credit the following writers and books for information used in creating this Reading Group Guide:

Janice Carlisle (editor), Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, New York, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996

Edmond Jabes, The Book of Questions (Volume 1), Middletown, CT., Wesleyan University Press, 1976

Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography, New York, William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1988

Norman Page, A Dickens Chronology, Boston, MA., G.K. Hall & Co., 1988


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