About Charles Dickens
The tribute to Charles Dickens engraved in Westminster Abbey’s honored Poet’s Corner calls him “a sympathizer with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death one of England’s greatest writers.” Even today, over one hundred years later, Dickens’s stature has not diminished, and he is still admired for his complex characters, brilliant imagery, and themes of human suffering and social responsibility.
Many scholars believe that Dickens’s insight and sensitivity stemmed from a kaleidoscope of contrasting experiences throughout his lifetime. The second of eight children born to a Navy clerk, Charles Dickens grew up in coastal dockyard towns like Portsea and Chatham, and also in Rochester, with its Norman Cathedral towers and Elizabethan mansion at Cobham Wood. His early environs encouraged him to explore the work of English novelists, as well as the delights of the theater.
These positive images of Dickens’s first twelve joyful years soon became a memory when his father fell into debt. The Dickens family moved, first to a shabby tenement in Camden Town, London, then finally to the debtors prison. During his family’s imprisonment, Dickens was forced to work as a child laborer in a dirty boot-blacking warehouse. His despair over his family’s situation led him to lament, “my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man were crushed in my breast.” However, it was just this experience that would figure heavily in his writing, and ultimately it determined the course of his life.
A fleeting financial comeback for the Dickens family allowed Charles to get out of the warehouse, and he went on to make early career attempts in theater, law clerkship and newspaper reporting before finding, in a writing career, an outlet for his creative energies and a means of exorcising his own painful past.
Many of Dickens’s novels, including Oliver Twist (1837-39), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), David Copperfield (1849-50), Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1855-57), illustrate the author’s sympathy for human suffering and the struggle against social injustice. Dickens called on his own experiences to document the horrors of child labor and the effect of English industrialization on the nation’s poor, championing England’s oppressed throughout his work. W. Walter Crotch writes that:
Dickens’s view of the poor was simple…he refused absolutely to think of them as a class apart, conspicuous either for wickedness or inertia. He held that the fault of their condition lay not in them, but in bad laws, defective social arrangements, inefficient administration and general neglect. In short, they were the creatures of their environment. Believing this, he set to work, and, in the space of a few short years, affected sweeping and enduring reforms in housing, in education, and in the general treatment of children, by the community.
In 1858, Charles Dickens separated from Kate, his wife of twenty years and the mother of his ten children. At this personally trying time, Dickens’s restless and depressed spirit found release in the theater. Over a period of twelve years, he toured the British Isles and America with his one-man grand tour—a series of dramatic readings of his most outstanding characters and poignant dramatic prose pieces, receiving rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.
Exhausted by his obsession to breathe theatrical life into his characters, Dickens ended his final tour with the words, “I now vanish evermore.” He died three months later at the old mansion in Cobham Wood that had been his childhood dream home and which he had recently purchased.
Like the haunting humanizing spirits of A Christmas Carol, Dickens lives on through work that is a continuing testament to his poetic vision, artistic accomplishment and hope for a more humane world.