Charles Dickens – A Biographical Sketch
During his lifetime itself Charles Dickens became famous all over the world as a prolific author of short stories,plays,novells,and essays.The remarkable characters through which he told his stories were his original depictions of social classes,mores, and values of his times. The telling representation of society he made through his writings with tremendous sympathy and consideration made some people consider him the spokesman for poor and downtrodden.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on February 7, 1812 ,the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. John Dickens was a clerk in the Naval Pay Office.He made some grave mistakes in managing his finances, and ran into heavy debts.Consequently, in 1824 he was imprisoned for debt.His wife and children joined him in residence at the Marshal sea Debtor’s Prison, but Charles did not, as he found work at Warren’s Blacking Factory.
With the salary of six shillings a week he earned , he managed his own affairs as well as supported the family for a few years until John inherited a sum of money from his mother and settled his debts and got out of the prison.Yet the twelve- year old Charles, already scarred psychologically by the experience at the boot polish factory, was further wounded by his mother’s insistence that he should continue to work there.His father how ever,rescued him from there and sent him to Wellington House Academy in North London.
His Little Dorrit, whose title character’s father is a prisoner, was inspired by the prison experiences he had during this time and the appalling pedagogical conditions of Wellington House Academy are embodied in Mr. Creakle’s Establishment in David Copperfield.
In May 1827 , Dickens began works as a junior clerking the law office of Ellis and Blackmore attorneys of Holborn Court, Gray’s Inn. He remained there until November 1828. Having mastered Gurneys system of shorthand, he left the law office to become a freelance reporter. A distance relative, Thomas Charlton, was a freelance reporter at Doctors’ Commons, and Dickens was invited by him to share his box there in order to report the legal proceedings. The experience he gathered while moving with the institutions of law provided material for his vivid portrayals of the endless machinations, lethal maneuverings, the injustice of chronic exploitation of the poor forced by circumstantial urge for litigation, and the strangling bureaucracy of 19 century Britain in Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, and especially Bleak House.
In 1830, Charles Dickens met his first love,Maria Beadnell.It is believed that she was the model for the character Dora in David Copperfield.Maria’s parents disapproved of the courtship and effectively ended the relationship by sending her to school in Paris.
In 1833, he managed to get his very first story, A Dinner At Popler Walk, published in the London periodical, Monthly Magazine.The following year he starts reporting on parliamentary debate and traveling across Britain by stagecoach to cover election campaigns for the Morning Chronicle.His journalism , in the from of sketches which appeared in periodicals,formed his first collection of pieces Sketches by Boz and led to the serialization of his first novel The Pickwick Papers ,in March 1836.
In 1836 ,Dickens accepted the editorship of Benetly’s Miscellancy and kept it until he fell out with the owner.At the same time,his success as a novelist continued,producing Oliver Twist(1837-39),Nicholas Nickelbey(1838-39), The Old Curiosity Shop and, finally, Barnaby Rudge (1840-41)all published in monthly installments before being made into books.
On 2 April 1836, he married Catherine Thomson Hogarth(1816-1879),the daughter of George Hogarth, editor of the Evening Chronicle.They set up home in Bloomsbury and had ten children.
On 25 March 1837, Dickens moved with his family into 48 Doughty Street, London,where he would remain until December 1839.A new addition to the household was Dickens’s younger brother Fredrick.Also, Catherine’s 17 years old sister Mary moved with them from Furnivall’s Inn to offer support to her newly married sister and brother in-law.Dickens become very attached to Mary, and she died in his arms after a brief illness in 1837.
In 1842, Dickens made his first trip to America traveling with his wife to the United States and Canada, a journey which was successful in spite of his support for the abolition of slavery,The trip is described in the short travelogue American Notes for General Circulation and is also the basis of some of the episodes in Martin Chuzzlewit.
Dickens’s work continued to the popular, especially A Christmas Carol written in 1843,the first of his Christmas books, which was reputedly written in a matter of weeks to meet the expenses of his wife’s fifth pregnancy. After living briefly abroad in Italy(1844) and Switzerland (1846), Dickens continued his success with Dombey and Son (1848) and David Copperfield(1849-50). In late November 1851,Dickens moved into Tavistock House where he would write Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times(1854) and Little Dorrit(1857). It was here he acted in the amateur theatricals.
In 1856 ,his income from his writing had allowed him to buy Gad’s Hill place.This large house in Higham, Kent,had a particular meaning to Dickens as he had walked past it as a child and had dreamed of living in it.
That summer of 1858,after separating from his wife, Dickens would undertake his first series of public readings in London for pay which ended on 22th July.Major works, A Tale of Two Cities (1859);and Great Expectations(1861) soon followed and would prove resounding success with both his critics and his fans.During this time he was also the publisher and editor of, and a major contributor to, the journals Household Words(1850-1855) and All the Year Round(1858-1870).
On 9th June 1865 while returning from Paris with Ternan, Dickens was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash in which the first seven carriages of the train plunged off a cast iron bridge that was being repaired.That only first-class carriage to remain on the task was the one in which Dickens was traveling.Dickens spent some time trying to help the wounded and the dying before rescuers arrived.Before living,he remembered the unfinished manuscript for Our Mutual Friend,and he returned to carriage to retrieve it.Although unharmed, Dickens never really recovered from the trauma he had during the crash , and his normally prolific writing shrank to completing Our Mutual Friend and starting unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood after a long interval.
Between 1868 and 1869, Dickens gave a series of “farewell readings” in England, Scotland, Ireland until he collapsed on 22 April 1869, at Preston in Lancashire shoving symptoms of a milt stroke.After future cancelling provincial readings, he began work on his final novel, The Mistery of Edwin Drood.In an opium den in Shadwell, he witnessed and elderly pusher known as “Opium Sal”, who subsequently featured in this mystery novel.
On 8th June 1870 , Dickens suffered another stroke at his home, after full day’s work on Edvin Drood.The next day ,on 9th June, an five years two the day after the Staplehurst crash, he died at Gad’s Hilss Plays never having regained consciousness.
The great author was mourned by all his readers.Dickens universality remains unchallenged even after nearly two and half centuries.On many occasions he put into practice the insights he achieved in his novels,in terms of social service and charity work which addressed the “fallen woman” and “mishandled children”. So he did not live just a man of words.
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Sasindu Jayasri is an Engineering student at Faculty of Engineering, University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka.