Born: February 7, 1812, Portsmuth, England
Died: June 9, 1870, Gad's Hill Place, Higham, Kent, England
Charles Dickens was a celebrity of his time. He was born in Portsmuth, England in February of 1812. The Napoleanic wars were ending and the Victorian era was beginning. The Industrial Revolution led to gruesome working conditions. Charles Dickens was one of 8 children.
He was a highly imaginative child, and sought to entertain people. His father was careless with his money and got himself into debt. Dickens fictionalized many of his family and friends in the novel David Copperfield, which became his most autobiographical novel. At the age of 12 his father was arrested for debt and thrown in prison; he brought his entire family along except Charles.
Charles Dickens was sent to work in a shoe polish factory, in order to earn money to pay off his father’s debt. It crushed his dreams. He worked there for one year. He felt shame/guilt about this. Having guilty secrets is at the heart of many of his novels. His father and mother argued about whether Charles should continue to work, and use the money he made to support the family or to become educated/a gentleman.
At age 16, he went to work as a clerk in a lawyer’s office. He found the law boring, and considered lawyers to be awful people. A few years later he wanted to become an actor, but instead became a shorthand reporter for the newspaper. In this job he learned a lot about human behavior, government, and social conditions. His first love was Maria Beadnele. Maria toyed with his affections. He did not marry her because her father wanted her to marry someone who was wealthy.
The first step in his career was creating drawings accompanied by text. Originally posted around town, they were later gathered into his first publication called Sketches by Boz. It was after this success that he met Catherine Hogarth, and fell madly in love with her. They married in 1836. His career was taking off, and he was next asked to work on a project called The Pickwick Papers. He was to write text for descriptions of cockneyed sportsmen trying to be country gentry in London, but who were comically clumsy about it. Before the project was complete, the illustrator killed himself, allowing Dickens to make creative decisions about the project. It was wildly popular, and sold over 40,000 copies per month. His first “novel” was Nickolaus Nickelby, which was serialized, or sold in parts. This made the work more accessible to the public.
Charles Dickens was a workaholic. He was the most famous author in England, even though he was only in his twenties. At this time, Catherine’s younger sister, Mary, moved in with them to help with the children. Charles fell in love with her, and after she died he became obsessed with her, even expressing the desire to share her grave. Next he went on his first American tour. He found America to be crass and disappointing. Upon his return to England, he experienced his first drop in sales. At this point, he wanted to write something special for Christmas. A Christmas Carol was written in 1843, the same year the first Christmas card was published. After his next novel, Dombey and Sons, he was always successful and had no money troubles.
Despite a successful career, loving wife and ten beautiful children, he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his life. He received a letter from his first love, Maria Beadnele, and decided to meet her. Upon seeing her again, he realized she was fat, forty, and silly. While his early novels end happily, after Bleakhouse, none of the novels end tidily. In 1858, he became legally separated from his wife. Nine of the ten children lived with him. They became close to their mother again when Dickens died.
Charles Dickens was afraid of failure. He began doing public readings of his most popular works. In the 1860’s he made another trip to America. He wanted to milk the “Golden American Cow.” This took its toll, and Charles became physically exhausted. He started the novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But unfortunately, he never finished it. In June of 1870, Charles Dickens died of a stroke. He was buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, an honored resting place. Charles Dickens was haunted by “demons.” He felt loneliness, anger, and disappointment about so many events in his life, but realized that those feelings are what made him a great writer. He is known as one of the most influential writers of all time.
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