Charles Dickens was born near Portsmouth on February 7,
1812. The happiest years of his childhood were spent in
Chatham, Kent, where his family lived between 1817 and
1823. It was in Chatham that Dickens was first introduced
to the world of literature and drama. In 1823, his family
moved to London, where his father was suddenly arrested
for debt and incarcerated in Marshalsea Debtors' Prison.
For the three months that John Dickens and his family
lived in a single, cramped room in the Marshalsea, Charles
-- then only eleven -- was left to live alone in lodgings,
and was sent to work at Warren's Blacking Factory.
These three months changed Dickens as a person and shaped
his outlook as a writer and social critic. It was at Warren's
that Dickens met the boy on whom he would later base the
Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist. The misery of the Warren
experience is reflected in several chapters of the semi-autobiographical
David Copperfield. Many of his broad novelistic images
and themes -- prisons, degraded conditions of labor, children
lost in the city -- grew out of this traumatic childhood
Dickens returned to school after the family's situation
improved. He attended the Wellington House Academy from
the years of 1824-1827 and, at fifteen, entered the world
as a solicitor's clerk. He studied shorthand at Doctors'
Commons, which lead to work as a Parliamentary reporter:
his speed and accuracy amazed his contemporaries. By 1833,
he had contributed his first sketches of urban life to
the Monthly Magazine and other periodicals. These were
soon collected in his first book, Sketches by 'Boz' (1836),
and in that same year, on the crest of this wave of success,
he married Catherine Hogarth.
Now twenty-four, Dickens started the weekly serial publication
of Pickwick Papers (1836-37) which quickly made him a
literary phenomenon. While Dickens wrote his next novel,
Oliver Twist (1837-39), and edited Bentley's Miscellany,
the Dickens family moved from their first home at Furnival's
Inn to 48 Doughty Street. The death of Catherine's sister
Mary, to whom both were very attached, troubled the couple
deeply during this active time: images of her are later
reflected in Dickens's portraits of saintly, diminutive
female characters like Little Nell and Little Dorrit.
Nicholas Nickleby appeared in 1838, and the family moved
up again, to 1 Devonshire Terrace. Setting the pattern
of industriousness that would typify his entire career,
Dickens edited (and ultimately authored) the weekly periodical
Master Humphrey's Clock (1840-41), which included Barnaby
Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop.
In 1842, Dickens took America by storm. His six-month
trip bore literary fruit: the controversial and unflattering
American Notes (1842) and the slyly devastating American
episode in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4). He published A
Christmas Carol in December 1843, the first of five widely
popular Christmas books. In the mid to late 1840s, the
Dickens family lived in Italy, Switzerland, and Paris
as well as maintaining residence in London. He published
Pictures from Italy in 1846, Dombey and Son in 1848, and
his 'favourite child,' David Copperfield, in 1850. Also
during this decade, in 1847, Dickens's commitment to philanthropic
causes led him to help establish Miss Coutts's Home for
Homeless Women, where he 'booked' the degraded but fascinating
In 1851, the Dickens family moved to Tavistock House.
But by now, Dickens's marriage had grown increasingly
troubled. Catherine had born Dickens ten children, but
by the end of the decade he separated permanently from
her, and in 1858, he made the acquaintance of the actress
Ellen Ternan, with whom he maintained a close relationship
until his death.
The fifties marked a return to journalism for Dickens,
and increasing attention to social problems. He launched
Household Words in 1850, a periodical that spanned the
decade (and was incorporated into All the Year Round
in 1859). In 1852-3 Bleak House appeared, one of his
most famous novels and a frontal attack on the foggy
and wasteful English legal system. Hard Times (1854)
and Little Dorrit (1855-57) shortly followed, lambasting
exploitative industrialism and rapacious financial greed.
The benefit of all this social criticism, however, was
his purchase in 1856 of the gentleman's residence he'd
always dreamed of owning, Gad's Hill Place in Kent.
He then detoured into historical fiction, publishing
A Tale of Two Cities in 1859.
Dickens began his immensely popular public readings
in 1858. The stress and strain of these performances,
which he toured in both England and the United States,
led to a breakdown in 1869. The sixties saw the publication
of more journalistic essays in The Uncommercial Traveller
(1860), the weekly-serialised novel Great Expectations
(1860-61), and his last twenty-number monthly novel,
Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). After a farewell season
of public readings early in 1870, he began The Mystery
of Edwin Drood in April. His persistent illness would
not relent, however; Dickens died on 9 June, 1870. Edwin
Drood was left uncompleted. Our Mutual Friend became
his last finished work.