CHARLES DICKENS, the most popular of English novelists, was born at Portsea, near Portsmouth, on February 7, 1812. His boyhood was one of extreme hardship, and his educational opportunities were very meager. His father, a clerk in the navy pay department, was a poor manager; and though he was at one time in receipt of a fair salary, he got deeper and deeper into financial difficulties, became insolvent, and was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea. His son has immortalized some of his traits in the easy-going optimism of Mr. Micawber, who, though not an absolute portrait, is admitted to be in many respects a striking likeness of John Dickens.
Charles was a sickly boy, more given to reading than sports. While he ought to have been at school he was kept at home to run errands and look after the younger children; and when his father went to prison the boy of ten became a drudge in a blacking factory at six shillings a week. The misery of his situation is pictured in David Copperfields experiences in the wine warehouse of Murdstone and Grinby. Through the week he lodged in a small attic; on Sundays he visited his family in the prison. With his fathers release better days came, and Charles enjoyed a few years of schooling. From fifteen to seventeen he was a lawyers clerk, and it was during this period that he picked up the knowledge of law and lawyers that is shown in his attacks on legal abuses and in his portraits of members of the legal profession. Meantime, the elder Dickens had become a parliamentary reporter, and his son, like David Copperfield, set himself to learn shorthand and enlarge his reading with a view to following the same occupation. In 1831 he obtained a position on a newspaper, and by 1836, when he gave up reporting, he was regarded as the greatest expert in the gallery of the House.
From early boyhood Dickens had shown a fondness for playacting and story-telling. When he was eighteen, he made an attempt to go upon the stage, and only the accident of an illness prevented an interview with the manager of Covent Garden Theatre which might have lost Dickens to literature. Later he found some scope for his passion for acting in private theatricals and platform readings. He began to publish his stories in the Monthly Magazine in 1833, and in 1836 appeared his first book, Sketches by Boz. The success of this volume marks the close of his period of hardship. In March of the same year he issued the first number of the Pickwick Papers, and three years later he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a journalist who had given him substantial aid. The story of the origin of the Pickwick Papers is a curious one. The publishers, Chapman & Hall, proposed to Dickens that he should write some account of the adventures of an imaginary Nimrod Club of unlucky sportsmen to supply subjects for plates by the comic draftsman Seymour, and the club of Pickwick and his friends was Dickenss modification of this idea. The original suggestion left traces in the misadventures of Mr. Winkle. Seymour committed suicide after the first number, and H. K. Browne was chosen in preference of Thackeray to continue the illustrations. The book rapidly won amazing popularity; it remains a comic masterpiece.
The author was now fairly launched on a successful literary career. Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge followed in quick succession, and in 1842 Dickens made his first visit to America. Landing at Boston, he went as far west as St. Louis and as far north as Montreal, received everywhere with enthusiasm. He attempted, without success, to rouse the Americans to the justice of international copyright; and he was shocked at what he saw of slavery. American ways and institutions on the whole did not impress him favorably, and his criticism of these in his American Notes, as well as the satire in Martin Chuzzlewit, gave considerable offense on this side of the Atlantic.
On his return to England he produced his Christmas Carol, the first of his five Christmas stories, and in the following year, 1844, made a visit to Italy. For a short time in 1846 he edited The Daily News, but speedily returned to fiction in Dombey and Son and David Copperfield, this last the most autobiographical and perhaps the most popular of all his writings. He founded the weekly journal, Household Words, in 1849; and the years 185257 saw the publication of Bleak House, Hard Times, and Little Dorrit. In 1853 he gave with great success the first of his public readings from his works, and this form of activity he kept up till his death. He found it financially extremely profitable, and in his anxiety to provide for a large family, he continued it after his health was no longer equal to the strain, so that the practice is considered to have shortened his life. Domestic unhappiness, which had been growing more and more intolerable, culminated in 1850 in his separation from his wifean affair which, though without scandal, created much unpleasant comment. With all this he continued his writing of novels, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend appearing between 1859 and 1865. In 186768 he returned to America, where he earned by his readings about $100,000. He was engaged in the composition of Edwin Drood when in 1870 he dropped dead from the bursting of a blood vessel in the brain. He was buried privately in Westminster Abbey.
Dickens was a man of great kindliness and sympathy with weakness and suffering, and these characteristics led him not only to engage in practical philanthropies, but also to use his art for the purpose of social reform. The maladministration of the poor laws, the red tape of government bureaus, the laws delays, the brutality and incapacity of a certain type of private schoolmaster, the hypocrisy of insincere ministers of religionthese and many other wrongs and abuses were exposed and satirized in his novelsnot always to the advantage of truth or beauty. The same side of his temperament led to the frequent introduction into his works of pathetic characters and scenes, and no small part of his contemporary vogue was due to his power of making his readers cry. Often his pathos is achieved with real tenderness and great poignancy, but at times it strikes the modern reader as somewhat too deliberate and even forced. His humor has better stood the test of time. He had genuine comic genius, which manifested itself in both the creation of character and in the description of incident; and in his earlier works especially there is a rollicking sense of fun and such abundant and spontaneous high spirits that few can resist their contagion. He cannot be called a great thinker, and his reflective power is decidedly inferior to his observation and memory. In his social propaganda there is never any doubt that his heart is in the right place, though one may occasionally question whether he saw to the bottom of the evils he combated. He had a keen eye and a great relish for oddities of character, and in conveying into his novels the results of his observation he at times copied the reality so closely as to cause distress to his models, at times accented peculiarities to a point where he ceased to convince. Thus there has arisen the charge of caricature, a charge which cannot always be refuted.
With all these defects, however, of occasional overemphasis and straining, Dickens remains a great novelist. His vast canvases are thronged with a wonderful variety of creations, and his plots, though lacking classical clearness of outline, are of captivating interest. David Copperfield exemplifies his art at its best. To the picturing of Davids youth he brought the vivid recollection of his own pitiful boyhood; Dora is a portrait of his own first love; Micawber, as has been said, is largely painted from his father; and in many other details of this absorbing tale he drew upon the persons and events that had made the deepest impression on his own life. The book as a whole shares with the best of his other novels that throbbing vitality and that sense of being almost crowded with life which makes most recent fiction seem in comparison pale and thin.