Born to a poor family in Portsmouth, England on February 7, 1812, Charles John
Huffam Dickens would become one of the most famous authors in English literature.
The second of nine children, Dickens struggled with poor health as a child, and the
frequency with which his family relocated interfered with any regular schedule of
education. Instead, Dickens read widely on his own. He especially enjoyed fairy tales
and adventure stories. He was himself forced to work at an early age in order to help
support his family; at age 12, Dickens was labeling bottles of shoe polish in a London
factory. This background-which was not a matter of public knowledge when Dickens
achieved his later success and renown-clearly influences much of his writing. Dickens
remained attuned to the problems of the poor and marginalized in Victorian society
because he had been among them in his early years.
Although he began his literary career as a journalist, Dickens gained success at age 24
with the publication of The Pickwick Papers (serialized, 1836-37). While this book was
comical in tone, Dickens tackled more serious subjects in a more serious tone in the
works that followed. For example, both Oliver Twist (1837-39) and Nicholas Nickleby
(1838-39) attack greedy persons who abuse the poor, particularly poor children. Martin
Chuzzlewit (1843-44) contains humorous characters, but the book is a critique of what
Dickens perceived to be the uncivilized nature of American society. Chuzzlewit alienated
many of Dickens' American fans, of whom there had been many when the author first
toured the United States in 1842, to much public fanfare. A Christmas Carol (1843),
produced in this period of Dickens' career, presents in vivid and direct ways Dickens'
preoccupation with social inequity. Its direct, heartfelt challenge to society to care more
for the less privileged continues to account, in no small degree, for the book's enduring
popularity. The plot of the Carol, if not its actual text, is most likely the best-known of
Dickens' stories, due to its numerous stage and screen adaptations. (In fact, both
authorized and unauthorized theatrical adaptations of A Christmas Carol premiered soon
after the book's publication.)
Some critics sense a shift in Dickens' career during and after the 1840s. His views on
society and politics seem, they argue, to grow darker. Bleak House (1852-53), which
many regard as Dickens' finest work, focuses on society's ills, especially its neglect of
the marginalized. Other important works Dickens wrote in this period include the
autobiographical fiction David Copperfield (1849-50), the historical novel A Tale of Two
Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860-61), in which protagonist Pip must
reexamine his values and priorities. Dickens died from a stroke on June 9, 1870, before
he could finish his final book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
The stroke was the culmination of a period of bad health that had begun while Dickens
undertook a public reading tour in America in 1867. Dickens loved to read his works to
the public; he would adopt the voices and mannerisms of various characters as he spun
his stories. His fascination with and involvement in the theater lasted his entire life.
Charles Dickens is buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. He and his wife,
the former Catherine Hogarth, separated in 1858 after an unhappy marriage that
nevertheless produced ten children.