Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England,
in 1812, the second of eight children of John and Elizabeth Dickens.
He spent his early years at Chatham, in Kent. In 1823, the family
moved to London, where John Dickens—never financially stable—was
eventually committed to Marshalsea Prison for debt, remaining there
for three months. While his parents and siblings lived in the debtor's
prison, as was common practice at the time, Charles was sent to
work at Warren's Blacking (a manufacturer of shoe-polish), where
he worked pasting labels on bottles. During the separation from
his family, Dickens managed to support himself on the meager wages
(six shillings a week) of his work as a child laborer, but he was
alone as a child in an enormous city, and was frequently hungry.
This youthful experience haunted him all his life. Although he never
revealed the experience publicly—telling only his close friend
(and future biographer) John Forster—he often made veiled
references to it and to the period of his family's indebtedness
in his fiction.
this shattering experience, Dickens was able to return to school
until the age of 15, after which he began work as an office boy.
He soon taught himself shorthand and entered journalism as a parliamentary
reporter. In addition to his reports on the House of Commons, he
began to contribute articles and sketches, and quickly gained a
reputation as the popular journalist "Boz." His first long work
of fiction The Pickwick Papers was serialized in 1836-7.
The publishers Chapman and Hall originally commissioned Dickens
to provide a text to run alongside plates by a popular artist, but
Dickens's writing soon became the focus of the serial, proving immensely
popular. Upon receiving the commission, Dickens married Catherine
Hogarth (the wedding took place two days after the first installment
appeared); the marriage unfortunately was never happy, though it
produced ten children.
The serial format of Pickwick proved so successful that Dickens
continued to use the form for all his novels. His next work, Oliver
Twist (1837), began running before Pickwick ended, and
was followed in short succession by Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39)
and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41). His phenomenal early
success led to an extremely busy period of travel and writing; Dickens's
entire career was marked by enormous energy and a propensity to
take on vast number of projects. After the mid-1840s, his novels—including
Dombey and Son (1846-8), David Copperfield (1849-50),
and Bleak House (1852-3)—were not only longer but also
more serious in theme and more complex and ambitious in design.
This shift, together with the demands of weekly journalism after
Dickens founded Household Words, left him nearly exhausted
after the run of Bleak House. He intended to take a rest
from writing (though he continued his busy schedule of giving readings,
editing, and producing amateur theatricals, among other activities),
but Dickens's printers and partners in Household Words were
disappointed by the journal's declining sales, and in December 1853
they convinced him to write another novel to boost circulation.
The result was Hard Times, which began publication in Household
Words on April 1, 1854, running for twenty weekly numbers. The
numbers were strikingly short, because of the short format of Household
Words, and Dickens—now accustomed to writing at length
in the more luxurious format of the long monthly serial—chafed
under the restrictions. In a letter written in February 1854, a
few weeks into the novel's composition, he wrote:
The difficulty of space is CRUSHING. Nobody
can have any idea of it who has not had an experience of patient
fiction-writing with some elbow-room always, and open places in
perspective. In this form, with any kind of regard to the current
number, there is absolutely no such thing.
Hard Times may be short, but it continues
in the vein of serious social criticism established in Bleak
House. In part, the serious subject matter and air of reportage
in Hard Times may be attributable to its context in Household
Words, where the major issues of the day were frequently considered.
Such topics as industrialism, unions and strikes, the divorce law,
and education were all considered in the journal's pages before
and indeed during the run of Hard Times. Although Household
Words employed many writers (none of whom received bylines,
in accordance with common practice of the day), Dickens had editorial
control over the articles published there. Just before writing Hard
Times, Dickens traveled to the industrial north—specifically
to the town of Preston, where there was a major strike in 1853-4,
and to Birmingham and Wolverhampton. In Preston, Dickens observed
a labor meeting, on which he drew for scenes in Hard Times;
in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and particularly on the railway
journey there, he found many of the key images he used in the novel.
The serialization of Hard Times accomplished its goal of
increasing the circulation of Household Words, which rose
to 70,000 to 80,000 copies by the end of the novel's run—the best
sales to date by far. Dickens followed Hard Times with Little
Dorrit (1855-57), and then with two works that were to become
among his best-known: A
Tale of Two Cities (1859; serialized last year
by Discovering Dickens) and Great
Expectations (1860-61; serialized in 2003 by Discovering
Dickens). This period, however, was not a happy one for him personally.
He separated from his wife in 1858 and appears to have had an affair
with a young actress, Ellen Ternan. His next—and last—major
novel, Our Mutual Friend, appeared in 1864-65. By then, his
health was no longer good, in large measure because of his punishing
schedule of public readings and other work. He traveled to America
in 1867-8 for a lecture tour that caused his health to decline still
further, and upon his return to England he collapsed in the middle
of a reading. His novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood was appearing
serially in 1870 when Dickens suffered a stroke and died. He was
buried in Westminster Abbey.