Charles Dickens: A Life Excerpt
Every novelist seeks, both consciously and unconsciously, to extend his range of expression. Dickens was especially energetic in seeking out dramatic incidents and unusual characters and new material; he also possessed a constitutional restlessness that brought him into contact with a range of classes and individuals almost uniquely broad. In his twenties, he was not unlike other youthful authors. Even though he was a genius, he had artistic ambitions that he was not yet technically equipped to fulfill, and he used his first three books to write his way toward fulfilling them. The Sketches expressed the plenitude of his interests but did not unify them. Pickwick gave voice to his very rich and ready comic sensibility but suffered from a certain bland digressiveness. Oliver Twist allowed him access to a wide variety of strong emotions, both through and about his characters and their world, but was too vividly colored and suffered from a lack of the very naturalness that the other books had possessed.
Nevertheless, between December 1, 1833, when his first piece ran in the Monthly Magazine, and November 9, 1838, when Oliver Twist was published in three volumes, Charles Dickens had become the most important literary figure of his day, the first Victorian novelist. Victoria herself was only newly crowned (as of January 1837). Novelists who were later to emerge as Dickens's contemporaries and rivals, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot, were still at home or in school. Even Elizabeth Gaskell, close in age to Dickens, hadn't begun to write. In a very real sense, he was in the process of creating the literary age that the others would be part of. He was so popular and so dominant a figure as both author and editor that the others would have to create their literary sensibilities more or less in reference to his.
But Charles Dickens was not only a famous author, he was also a self-conscious and responsible citizen, who never forgot that his fame gave him an unusual opportunity to comment upon and influence political events. Already by 1839, at the age of twenty-seven, Dickens was being honored by his friends for his active benevolence—Macready declared that Dickens "had made the amelioration of his fellow man the object of all his labors." Consciousness of the sufferings of the impoverished classes ran through all his activities, from the walks he took that carried him into every neighborhood, to the issues, such as the New Poor Law, that he wrote about, both in fiction and in his journalism, to the public speeches that he made and the fund-raisers that he organized to benefit fellow artists or their dependents.