Charles Dickens, one of the most eminent and distinguished writers of the Victorian era, was born in Landport, Portsmouth, on 7 February 1812. He was not from an affluent background; in fact, from the days of his childhood, his family was shrouded in poverty. His family lived in Kent during the early years of his life. Later, they settled in Camden Town, a poor neighbourhood in London, due to financial difficulties.
The defining moment of Dickens’ life occurred when he was 12 years old. His father was a clerk by profession in the Navy Pay Office; however, he spent his days in extravagance. Since he had a difficult time with money and was constantly in debt, he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison in 1824. As a result, Dickens had to leave school and was compelled to work in a warehouse, where he polished shoes in order to sustain his family. This experience left a profound psychological impact on young Dickens and gave him a firsthand account of poverty. This was the beginning of his journey to become the most vigorous and influential voice among the working classes during that time.
Having spent a part of his life amidst impoverishment, Dickens grew sympathetic and compassionate towards the poor, wretched and oppressed people of society. Thus, the pain of the downtrodden became the subject of almost all his novels.
After a few months, his father was released from prison, and Dickens could finally resume his schooling.
At age 15, his formal education came to an end and he found employment as an office boy at an attorney’s office. While he worked there, he also studied shorthand typing at night. He went on to work as a shorthand reporter in courts, and then as a newspaper reporter. As he passed his years working as a journalist, many influential events occurred in his life, including a couple of matrimonial proposals for him which he declined.
His literary career began in 1833, when Dickens began to contribute short stories and essays to periodicals. His first published story, called A Dinner at Popular Walk, appeared in a monthly magazine. Dickens’s first book, a collection of stories titled Sketches by Boz, was published in 1836. In the same year, he got married to Catherine Hogarth, daughter of the editor of Evening Chronicle. At the same time, he continued his life as a journalist and he editing some wonderful magazines and newspapers, like The Daily News, Household Words, and All the Year Round. Even though he began his literary career a long time ago, he was proclaimed a literary genius and a writer of repute only after his first fiction book, called The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, was published in 1837. After achieving success as a novelist, he embarked on a journey of producing works of immense proficiency, like Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, as part of the Master Humphreys Clock. All of these were published in monthly installments before being turned into books.
His writing style was marked by profuse linguistic creativity. Dickens worked extensively on developing interesting names for his characters that would reverberate with associations for his readers. His literary style was also a mixture of fantasy and realism. In fact, his talent was so profound that he became a literary celebrity within just a few years of starting to write. His works were also renowned for their humourous and satiric tones. More than anything else, his ability to reflect a mirror to the society of that time is unparalleled. Within the next two decades, his most famous novels included David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, Hard Times, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House. All of these gained him immense popularity and prominence in the 19th century. Dickens was also well-known for the relevant themes that he used in his novels.
Some of his main themes included the exploitation of children in the form of child labour, the awful conditions of workers in factories, the alienation of industrial cities, the injustice of the penal code and the selfishness and greed of the upper middle class. He was conscious of the wickedness and injustice that faced society, and chose to portray these pertinent aspects in his novels.
However, he always had an optimistic view of life and hope in a good future. Even though the protagonists of his stories are children who are victims of an unjust society, they always find happiness in the end. Some of Dickens’ novels also include mystifying backdrops: for example, the backdrop of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. His novels are often set in cities, because his aim was to highlight the problems related to industrialisation and pollution. The descriptions in his novels of industrial cities and towns are vivid and fascinating.
In the last few years of his life, Dickens’ health started to worsen. During his readings in 1869, he had a mild stroke and collapsed as a result. To recover, he retreated to his estate in Gad’s Hill and began working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he couldn’t finish. Dickens died in his house on 9 June 1870 after suffering another stroke. Contrary to his wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, he was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. On the day of his death, the world suffered the fatal loss of a literary genius.
(Class IX, Don Bosco School, Park Circus)