Early life, literary success and other interests
Charles Dickens lived a very intense life. He was born in Landport, near Portsea in the south of England, in 1812.
His family was a large one. The boy was twelve when he was withdrawn from school, in 1824, and sent to work in a shoe-blacking factory in London for a few months to help his father, imprisoned for debts. This unpleasant experience was never forgotten and marked the beginning of Dickens's social commitment and identification with the poor and the oppressed, which are constantly present in his fiction.
At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed in an attorney's office to study law, but soon gave up and learned shorthand to become a reporter in the courts of law. These experiences provided the material for the description of lawyers and their world in many of his novels.
He was only twenty-one when his first fictional work, Sketches by Boz (1836), appeared in instalments and had an enthusiastic reception from both critics and pub1ic. The publication of Pickwick Papers (1836-7) increased Dickens' popularity and brought in handsome profits, which enabled him to marry.
A frantic career as a novelist developed which was to continue all his life and which Dickens managed to combine with several other activities.
He travelled in America, Switzerland, France and Italy and wrote accounts of his journeys; kept a voluminous correspondence with all sorts of people; committed himself to a variety of social causes; was a keen amateur actor and theatrical producer; gave public readings from his works; fathered ten children and separated from his wife.
He died at the age of fifty-eight, in 1870, prematurely old and broken down by strain and exhaustion.
Novels, short stories, literary influences and themes
Dickens wrote fourteen novels, all characterised by elaborate plots and a unique sense of humour. 0liver Twist (1837-38) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) are periodicals adventure novels centred around the heroes that give title to the book; The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41) is a sentimental story which moved its readers to tears both in England and in America; Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) is party set in America which the writer makes an object of satire; Dombey and Son (1847-48) is about the decline and fall of a proud capitalist who loses his money but finds his heart; David Copperfield (1849-50) is Dickens's most autobiographical novel and revisits his painful childhood; Bleak House (1852-53) offers a satirical portrait of the world around the courts of law; Hard Times (1854) shows the class struggle in industrial society; Little Dorrit (1855-57) is mainly set in the Marshalsea prison where Dickens's father had spent some time; A Tale of Two Cities (1859) takes place in London and in Paris at the time of the French Revolution; Great Expectations (1860-61) is considered Dickens's masterpiece; Our Mutual Friend (1864-68) has a very complicated plot; and finally The Mistery of Edwin Drood, left unfinished in 1870 at the author's death, uses the conventions of the newly-horn genre of crime fiction.
Dickens also wrote many short stories - the most famous is A Christmas Carol (1843) - and was the editor of two periodicals, Household Words and All the Year Round.
For his use of humour and story planning he was indebted to the l8th-century tradition of the picaresque novel, which revolved around the life and adventures of a central character.
He borrowed descriptive techniques for people and landscapes from Walter Scott, while his interest in the theatre gave him a flair for dialogue and provided many of the sensational and melodramatic devices he used in his plots.
Dickens as a writer believed he had a reforming mission. Not only in his novels, but also in his magazines, he attacked what he considered the worst social abuses of his time, which are reflected in his recurrent themes: the exploitation of child labour, the ill-treatment of pupils in hideous schools, unsafe factory conditions, injustices caused by the ferocious penal code, imprisonment for debt, the unsanitary slums, the greediness and selfishness of the rich upper classes, the plight of the working class.
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