The Life of Charles Dickens

A Brief Biography

The Biography of Charles Dickens in One Sentence

A Dickens Minibiography


A very quick outline of Dickens’s life has to list several episodes and crises that have achieved a quasi-legendary status among "Dickensians": there is his happy childhood in seaside country towns where his father is a minor civil servant working in the Naval Pay Office—a childhood full of soldiers and sailors and theaters, toys, and fun; many moves (fourteen in as many years), climaxing in a move to London, where he experiences misery, trauma, and shame as his improvident father, John, who affects gentility, is imprisoned for debt and the twelve-year-old Charles pawns the family possessions (including the little set of his father’s books he had avidly read and that had become his chief companions); working in a blacking factory (where shoe polish is made) and spending such free time as he has visiting the Marshalsea prison and desolately wandering the streets, despairing of the distinguished career he had, even at that young age, already imagined for himself; bitterness about his parents’ apparent complacency and jealousy of his older sister Fanny, who, during all this unhappy time, is a boarding pupil on partial scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music and well on the road to a musical career; return to something like normal boyhood (and schooling) upon his father’s release; brief employment as an attorney’s clerk trying out the law; passionate infatuation with Maria Beadnell and, after three or four years, failure of his courtship; after a period intensely studying the mysteries of shorthand, working as a reporter recording parliamentary debates alongside his father, whose retirement from the civil service has allowed him to take up a second career; an aborted move towards professional acting; first efforts at writing (a moderately successful series of sketches of London life); marriage to Catherine Hogarth, the eldest of three daughters by whom Dickens has been charmed not long after his rejection by Maria; the smashing success of The Pickwick Papers, making him almost overnight the English-speaking world’s favorite novelist and very soon thereafter virtually the whole world’s favorite novelist; the sudden, tragic death in his arms of his beloved teenage sister-in-law, Mary, who frequently paid extended visits to the young married couple (her younger sister Georgina supplied her place a few years after by actually moving into the household); a quick succession of continuously popular works (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge); quarrels with publishers; lots of babies; a whirlwind tour of the United States, where he is as popular as in England (though he manages to make himself unpopular with some by complaining publicly about the lack of an international agreement on copyrights and denouncing slavery); more novelistic successes (Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son) and the inauguration of a series of small annual Christmas books (of which A Christmas Carol is the first); travels in Italy; experiments in therapeutic mesmerism with Madame La Rue, an emotionally unstable married woman, leading to Catherine’s jealousy; forays into journalism, beginning with the brief editorship of The Daily News and then the founding of his very own weekly periodical, Household Words, which he edits and writes for; forays into philanthropy, including becoming in effect private secretary and chief advisor to the Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, an immensely rich heiress devoted to good works, such as the reformation of prostitutes in Urania Cottage, a home for "fallen" women zealously overseen by Dickens on her behalf; forays into amateur theatricals (elaborate benefit productions which Dickens acts in, directs, produces, stage-manages, and sometimes writes); more novelistic successes (Bleak House, Hard Times); buying Gad’s Hill Place, a house he had admired as a very small boy in Rochester, and which his father had long ago told him he might one day attain if he persevered and worked very hard; strains upon the marriage that come to bursting when Dickens becomes infatuated with yet another woman in her teens, Ellen Ternan (or Nelly as she was almost always known), an actress whom he has come to know through the theatricals; painful and public separation from Catherine and setting up Nelly secretly in her own establishment, frequently visited by Dickens; more quarrels with publishers, leading to a new weekly edited by Dickens, All the Year Round; more successful novels (Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend), and a whole new career as a public reader of his own works, initially for charity, and then for (considerable) profit; heroism in a dreadful railway accident at Staplehurst that leaves him seriously unnerved; a very successful second visit to the United States with a frenzied reading tour; ominous signs that the readings are literally killing him, but he is unable to leave them alone and becomes morbidly attached to the most demanding and violent of the performances, "The Murder of Nancy" from Oliver Twist; after a final farewell round of readings, sudden death at only 58 from stroke in the middle of writing Edwin Drood; burial in Westminster Abbey after thousands visit the open grave, and the world mourns his loss—it will be months before the site is not daily marked by mounds of flowers left by a steady train of mourners.—adapted from Robert Newsom, Charles Dickens Revisited (New York: Twayne Publishers, 2000), pp. 21-23.

Reprinted with the kind permission of Robert Newsom