The second of eight children, John Charles Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. John Dickens, a clerk in the pay office of the Royal Navy, was never quite able to live on his income, a failing that profoundly affected the life of the future novelist. The family moved frequently, as John was sent to new posts. Dickens’s warmest memories were of the years in Chatham and Rochester, later the setting of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In 1823 the family moved to London, settling in Camden Town, a very poor area, where Charles got a first-hand knowledge of those who were down and out. He soon was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory, where, he assumed, he would have to perform menial tasks for the rest of his life when John Dickens was arrested for an unpaid debt and sent to the Marshalsea Prison, with no prospect of release. Fortunately, an inheritance gave John Dickens money to pay his debt and leave the prison. Charles, however, was left to work in the Blacking Factory for several additional weeks, before his father finally withdrew him and sent him to school. His experiences in the factory left psychological scars.
Dickens had little formal education, but was largely self-educated through extensive reading, particularly in 18th century English novels. At age fifteen he secured employment as a clerk in a law office. He taught himself a very difficult system of shorthand writing and became a reporter in the court known as Doctor’s Commons. In his late teens he fell hopelessly in love with Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a banker. This unhappy romance ended because Maria was flighty and because her father had no intention of letting her marry this young man with no prospects, so he sent her off to school in Paris. Meanwhile, Dickens’s excellence as a court reporter led to employment reporting Parliamentary debates. He also began writing vignettes, brief descriptive pieces published in London newspapers and magazines. By early 1836 he had enough of these writings that he published them pseudonymously as Sketches by Boz.
The Sketches attracted the attention of the publishers Chapman and Hall who hired Dickens to write a narrative to go along with a monthly series of engravings by Robert Seymour, a popular artist. The resulting work, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, got off to a slow start and was near being cancelled when Seymour committed suicide. Luckily, Dickens convinced the publishers to persevere. With the fourth monthly part in which Sam Weller was introduced, the sales skyrocketed, eventually reaching 40,000 copies each month. At the age of twenty-four Dickens found himself the most popular and most widely read novelist in English. He went on to write fourteen additional novels, all of them in serial format.
Dickens was shattered when in 1837 Mary Hogarth, his sixteen-year-old sister-in-law, was suddenly taken ill and died in his arms, creating an emotional wound that never healed. Mary was the inspiration for several of Dickens’s heroines, including Nell Trent in The Old Curiosity Shop.
Dickens had a wide variety of interests: he produced many theatrical performances in which he was often actor, producer, and director. Toward the end of his life he had a lucrative second career giving public readings from his works. He was always ready to help needy friends by organizing benefits. He was a tireless philanthropist, assisting Angela Burdell Coutts, the second richest woman in England, to set up Urania Cottage, a home for women wishing to escape from prostitution.
The Dickens marriage was a tragic mismatch and ended in a separation, after Catherine Dickens had given birth to ten children. Dickens had a young protege, Ellen Ternan, who was his companion for the last thirteen years of his life. Whether she was his mistress is unclear; he insisted that the relationship was platonic.
Charles Dickens died on June 9, 1870, following a stroke, and was buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey amid a nation in deep mourning.