This greatest of Victorian writers was born in Landport, Portsmouth, on February 7, 1812. His father John worked as a clerk in the Navy Payroll Office in Portsmouth. The elder Dickens was transferred several times, first to London, then to Chatham, and finally, in 1822, back to London, where the family lived in Camden Town.

John Dickens was constantly in debt, and in 1824 he was imprisoned in Marshalsea debtor's prison (Southwark). Charles was forced to leave school at the age of 12 and go to work in a bootblack factory to help support the Dickens family.

Debtors' Prisons

The English practised a peculiar form of punishment for someone who could not pay their bills; a special prison where the offender was incarcerated indefinitely until his creditors could be satisfied. The fact that a person in prison was unable to work to earn the necessary money to repay those debts did not enter into their logic. Debtors often died in these prisons due to the terrible living conditions.

It was his personal experience of factory work and the living conditions of the poor that created in Dickens the compassion which was to mark his literary works such as Oliver Twist.

Dickens was released from the purgatory of Warren's Blacking Factory when his father received a legacy from a relative, and could finally pay his debts and be set free from Marshalsea. Charles went to Wellington House Academy for two years, then took work at Gray's Inn as a clerk.

Dickens worked as a Parliamentary reporter before finally moving on to The Morning Chronicle in 1834. His first published work appeared in Monthly Magazine in December 1833, and he followed it with nine more, penning his name as "Boz" to the last two articles. The pseudonym "Boz" was drawn from a pet name for his younger brother when they were children. In 1836 his articles were compiled and published as "Sketches by Boz".

Shortly after Boz was published, Dickens married, to Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a co-worker at the Morning Chronicle newspaper. Together they had 10 children before they separated in 1858, but it was not Catherine but her younger sister, Mary, who was to prove the inspiration for many of Dicken's literary heroines. She remained to him an ideal of womanhood that found expression in his characters such as Rose Maylie (Oliver Twist), and Agnes Wickfield (David Copperfield).

Dickens followed up "Sketches" with his first commercial success, "Pickwick Papers" (more properly The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club). This collection of 20 short stories appeared in monthly instalments and it became a publishing phenomenon - easily the most widely read literary work in English to that date.

Although the series was largely humorous, it also dealt with the grim social iniquities of the time, and it was this awareness and concern for the plight of the lower classes that was to mark much of Dickens' life work.

Dickens was working on another serialised novel while Pickwick Papers was running. This work proved to be one of his most enduring, a tale of innocence amid the squalor of London's criminal classes, Oliver Twist, which was published from 1837-38.

Dickens kept up his prodigious output, and Nicholas Nickleby followed quickly on the heels of Oliver Twist. In his new work, Dickens tried to combine the humour of Pickwick with the cry for social reforms of Oliver. It worked, and sales of Nicholas Nickleby reached 50,000 copies every month.

Dickens started his own magazine, a weekly titled Master Humphrey's Clock. In MHC he introduced the tragic heroine, Little Nell, in the serialised tale of The Old Curiosity Shop. It was this work which gave him international fame, and the name of Charles Dickens spread to the USA, where he was enormously popular.

In December 1843 Dickens wrote one of his most enduring works, the short story entitled A Christmas Carol. Lesser-known Christmas tales followed in subsequent years, such as The Chimes (1844) and The Cricket and the Hearth (1845). In these stories and his longer works, Dickens constantly returned to themes of social inequality and oppression of the poor.

The largely autobiographical David Copperfield followed in 1850. In that year he also helped found the Guild of Literature and Arts to assist struggling artists. The Guild raised money through public theatrical performances, and Dickens was a regular performer at Guild events. He loved the stage, and it was this love of dramatic performance which he brought to public readings of his works.

Dickens literary output remained prolific, with later works including A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860-61), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-5). Charles Dickens died on June 9, 1870, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Principle Works by Charles Dickens

Sketches by Boz - 1836
The Pickwick Papers - 1837
Oliver Twist - 1838
Nicholas Nickleby - 1839
The Old Curiosity Shop - 1841
Barnaby Rudge - 1841
Martin Chuzzlewit - 1843
A Christmas Carol - 1843
Dombey and Son - 1848
David Copperfield - 1850
Bleak House - 1853
Hard Times - 1854
Little Dorrit - 1857
A Tale of Two Cities - 1859
Great Expectations - 1861
Our Mutual Friend - 1865
The Mystery of Edwin Drood - 1870

Web Resources:
Dickens Fair - Anglophiles in Victorian costume recreate Victorian London

The Dickens Museum - 48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF