The most popular storyteller of his time, a zealous social reformer, the esteemed leader of the English literary scene and a wholehearted friend to the poor, Charles Dickens was an unrestrained satirist who spared no one. His writings defined the complications, ironies, diversions and cruelties of the new urban life brought by the industrial revolution.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in 1812, the second of eight children. Dickens lived into the golden era of Pax Britannica (a roughly 100-year period of relative peace in Europe), dying in 1870 when Queen Victoria still had another 31 years to reign.
Dickens lived his life at high speed, working constantly and accomplishing an astonishing amount in his 58 years. According to one published source, he mentioned some 13,143 distinct characters (real and fictional) in his vast body of work. The father of ten children, Dickens was driven, obsessed, and haunted by the prospect of failure and poverty.
Dickens's own childhood was often difficult, and would later be alluded to in his work. One of Dickens's first novels, Oliver Twist (serialized in 1837-1839), follows the fortunes of a child heartlessly set adrift in life. This was in some measure Dickens's own story.
At age 12, Dickens began work at Warrens Blacking Warehouse, pasting labels onto bottles of shoe polish. He worked long hours and suffered in miserable conditions. The meager income young Dickens earned was not enough to keep his father out of debtor's prison, where the family patriarch served several months before the courts released him.
Young Dickens was later sent back to school at Wellington House Academy in London. Three years later at age 15, with his father again in financial straits, Dickens ended his formal education for good and took a job as a legal clerk. This position led to court reporting, journalism, and eventually fiction writing. Dickens was a celebrated author by the age of 24.
Many of the incidents, scenes, and personalities of Dickens' poignant boyhood are depicted in David Copperfield (1849-1850), his most autobiographical novel. Little Dorrit (1855-1857) also draws on his early years. In that book, Amy Dorrit cares for her father in debtor's prison with a mixture of innocence and fatalism that must have been manifest in the young Dickens.
Unhappy childhood incidents can be haunting over a lifetime, but Dickens seems to have laid the demons largely to rest through his writing, a therapy he adopted for other aspects of his life. For example, in middle age he reconnected with Maria Beadnell, his first love, only to be disillusioned by how she'd changed. He referenced Beadnell with a mixture of satire and charm in the character Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, who bears the same lost-love connection to the novel's hero, Arthur Clennam.
More cryptically, Dickens may have used fiction to work out anxieties and difficulties in his secret relationship with the young actress, Ellen Ternan, who appears to have been his mistress during the last dozen years of his life, after his separation from his wife in 1858. Some critics believe that the heroines of Dickens' later novels explore different sides of Ternan's character: the selfless and beautiful Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), the emasculating Estella in Great Expectations (1860-1861), and the mercenary Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865).
Dickens's spent his last days at his home, Gad's Hill. After working a full day, Dickens had a stroke on June 8, 1870, and died the next day. Some friends linked his death to public readings Dickens had given of the last violent scene between Nancy and Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. Dickens was buried at Westminster Abbey.
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