Charles Dickens
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
5 Famous Works from the 1840s and '50s

A Christmas Carol: In 1843, at the age of 31, Dickens published his immortal holiday tale, A Christmas Carol, after working on the text for just two months. The story was met with instant success with the general public and remains popular to this day, having never been out of print and having been adapted to film, opera and more.

David Copperfield: At the close of the 1840s, Dickens began serialization of his novel David Copperfield, said to be his most autobiographical work.

Bleak House: Arguably considered one of his finest creations, Bleak House contains one of the most complex and engaging array of characters and subplots in all of Dickens' works.

A Tale of Two Cities: This was Dickens' second historical novel, and in it, he experimented with developing the characters through the action of the plot, rather than through dialogue as he had done in the past. Read more about A Tale of Two Cities, an Oprah's Book Club selection for 2010.

Great Expectations: This novel, the story of the orphaned Pip, has been adapted for the stage and screen more than 250 times. Read more about Great Expectations, an Oprah's Book Club selection for 2010.

Persistent Popularity

Dickens' popularity led to more than 472 reading events in the last 12 years of his life—and sometimes thousands had to be turned away. In the fall of 1867, he visited the United States for close to six months, giving readings and visiting with the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and even President Andrew Johnson. In the years before his death, Dickens also wrote Our Mutual Friend (1864–5), which many consider his best comedy, as well as his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was never completed.

When he died, the writer Anthony Trollope, one of the most successful English novelists of the Victorian era, claimed Dickens' novels had an enormous impact on society "from the highest to the lowest, among all classes that read." His popularity was such that, at the time of his death, critic Janice Carlisle estimated that his magazine All the Year Round was "selling 300,000 copies a week and reaching, by one estimate, half the population of London."

Dickens' Dying Wish

Dickens died at his home, Gad's Hill Place, near Rochester in Kent, on June 9, 1870, leaving behind his 10 children and a wealthy estate of 93,000 pounds.

Dickens specified in his will "that my name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb. I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works." His simple tomb marker can be found in the Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey. Each year on the anniversary of his birth, a wreath is laid on his grave.

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


Next Story