Dickens the successful writer and public figure

Early success as a writer

In 1828, Dickens decided to better himself by becoming a parliamentary reporter; he taught himself shorthand, and began to attend Parliament, transcribing the debates for the newspapers, for a salary many times his legal pay.

He began to write stories for newspapers, under the pen-name Boz. These stories were full of the life he observed in the city, people trying to get by and eccentric and memorable characters struggling to better themselves, financially and socially; the stories were immediately popular, and a publisher issued some of them as a book, Sketches by Boz (1836).

Marriage and family life

Catherine HogarthIn 1836, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, a gentle, placid young woman who was temperamentally his opposite. She bore ten children, as well as suffering several miscarriages; in 1852 their daughter Dora died aged eight months.

Dickens had a great admiration for his young sister-in-law, Mary, who came to live with him and Catherine. However, she died young, provoking in Dickens an outpouring of grief. He revered her memory for the rest of his life.

Later, Dickens became estranged from Catherine and in 1857 fell in love with a young actress, Ellen Ternan. He became obsessed with her and began a relationship that was to last the rest of his life. The following year, he and Catherine separated and never lived together again. Dickens unwisely tried to silence rumours about Ellen Ternan with a personal statement, but the press turned on him.

Dickens' sister-in-law Georgina lived with his family for many years, helping Catherine run the home. She stayed on to help when Catherine moved out, and it was rumoured, quite falsely, that she was Dickens' mistress.

The novels 1838-41

Dickens' novels appeared originally as serials, published monthly or weekly in newspapers or magazines. (See also Structure: Structure and narrative).

Sketched by Boz

  • Sketches by Boz appeared in book form in 1836, when Dickens was 24, and was an instant success
  • another publisher offered to pay him for 20 monthly stories, later published as The Pickwick Papers (1836-7); the book contains many of Dickens' hallmarks: slightly grotesque humour and memorable and quirky characters
  • he was soon earning enough from writing to give up work as a reporter
  • he became editor of Bentley's Miscellany magazine in which he published in instalments the novel that became Oliver Twist (1837-9)
  • Dickens' feelings for the sufferings of unprotected children led to his next novel, Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9), in which he attacked the terrible schools, many in Yorkshire, which were set up to provide a permanent dumping ground (with no holidays) for unwanted children
  • The Old Curiosity Shop, another story about a vulnerable child, Little Nell, was serialized in 1840-1
  • Barnaby Rudge, which contains scenes of extraordinary vitality and disorder in its depiction of the Gordon Riots of 1780, was also serialised in 1841.

Dickens the celebrity

Dickens was almost manic in his energy and drive.

  • by the age of 27, he had three best-sellers to his name, a growing family and rising fame
  • he bought a larger house and enjoyed being welcomed in the drawing rooms of the rich and the powerful
  • he had an almost frantic capacity for making friends, although he could be surly with them
  • his behaviour in company was often larger than life and overwhelming, and he had very strong emotional responses to life and people
  • by 1841, Dickens was a great celebrity, and made a triumphal tour in Scotland, where (not for the first time) he refused an invitation to stand for Parliament
  • in 1842, he visited America, where he had many devoted readers, but it was a mixed experience.
More on the American visit: Dickens toured the North-Eastern states and people turned out in thousands to welcome him at every stop, mobbing him and even cutting bits off his coat for souvenirs. However, he was angered by the fact that his work was pirated in America and also saddened by the poverty he found. He spoke out against slavery in the southern states and some American newspapers turned against him, though relations with his readers remained as warm as ever. He was very glad to return home.

The novels 1843-4: Martin Chuzzlewit and A Christmas CarolMr Pecksniff and his charming daughters

  • in Martin Chuzzlewit (serialized 1843-4), Dickens satirises the self-satisfaction, the selfishness and the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the powerful in their dealings with the poor.
More on Martin Chuzzlewit: Newly rich people, in Dickens' view, were congratulating themselves on their perception and their philanthropy, ignoring the poverty, suffering and exploitation that gave them their wealth. In some ways, it is a very sombre book, but the satire is often hilarious, especially the pictures of Mr. Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp.
  • in 1843 a Christmas Carol, one of Dicken's most famous books, was published, a triumphant assertion of the spirit of goodwill at Christmas banishing Ignorance and Want.

A period of restlessness 1844-50: The Chimes, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield

  • 1844 - Dickens’ restless personality took him and his family to Genoa for a year, where he began another Christmas story, The Chimes
  • 1846 - they returned to London for Dickens to become the editor of a new radical newspaper, Daily News, though he left after a few weeks following a disagreement with the proprietor, and soon afterwards Dickens began Dombey and Son (1848)
  • 1849-50 - David Copperfield was serialized, another novel in which he writes vividly about the vulnerability of children and the cruelties inflicted on them by uncaring adults.

During this time he took his family to various places (the Isle of Wight, Broadstairs, Brighton, back to London) in search of the right circumstances for composition:

  • from 1850 Dickens edited his own weekly magazine, Household Words.
  • in 1851 his wife’s health began to fail and his father and his little daughter, Dora, both died.

Social and political concerns: Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens was deeply concerned about the social and moral problems of his day including education, child poverty and abuse, and governmental stupidity and inefficiency:

  • he campaigned for the prevention of cholera, which was killing many in the 1850s because of bad sanitation
  • he belonged to the Administrative Reform Association, which wanted to change the system of government
  • he feared that revolution might come if nothing was done to reform Parliament (in 1848, there had been a wave of revolutions throughout Europe). (See also Social/political context: Dickens and politics).

From March 1852 to September 1853, Bleak House appeared in monthly instalments.

More on Bleak House: Bleak House is a merciless indictment of the basis of Dickens' society. It is full of fog and darkness, and at its centre is the judicial system, in particular the Chancery Court which delays the outcome of a case for years while the lawyers grow rich. Its breadth and scope mean many people see it as Dickens' greatest novel.

In 1854, Dickens began publishing Hard Times in which he attacked industrial capitalism for the exploitation of its workers.

More on Dickens' attacks: The famous second chapter, set in a school, is a memorable assault on destructive education, with the pupils seen as so many pitchers (jugs) to be filled with facts. The book also attacks the utilitarian calculation of human needs and actions, and insists that amusement and recreation are essential for happiness.
In 1855 he began Little Dorrit (completed 1857), which attacks the complacency of official life, where nothing gets done and careful use of the regulations allows new initiatives to fail through sheer inertia.

In 1859 Dickens replaced Household Words with a magazine called All the Year Round, in which he began to serialize A Tale of Two Cities, a tragic story set during the French Revolution.

Dickens the performer

In 1858, Dickens began to perform dramatic readings from his novels in halls and theatres:

  • all his extraordinary force and skill went into re-creating live memorable characters from his novels
  • the Victorians are often thought of as cold and unemotional, but the accounts of these performances show that the audiences were as ready as Dickens to show strong emotion in public, laughing and crying freely as his readings moved them
  • his audiences were both enthusiastic and immense and his reading tours could be very profitable
  • the physical and psychological cost for Dickens was considerable but he felt impelled to carry on at all costs, constantly travelling round the country to do so.

These readings continued to the end of his life.

Great Expectations

Mrs Havisham and PipIn 1860, Dickens began the serialization of Great Expectations in his periodical All the Year Round. It is a novel about the destructive effects of the desire for wealth and social advancement.

It was a difficult period. He had separated from his wife and only weeks before he began the novel he had burned many of his papers and letters, possibly in an attempt to free himself from the past. In the novel he deals with issues which were very personal and painful, rooted in his own early experiences: a deprived and lonely childhood, young love, a burning desire for self-improvement, education and social success.

Dickens' final years: Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

In 1865, Dickens took a house in London to continue work on Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), a dark book in which the effects of greed and the pursuit of money are powerfully shown.

His health began to show signs of failing. In the summer of 1865, on returning from France with Ellen Ternan, he was involved in a bad rail crash in Kent. He acted courageously, helping people out of the wrecked coaches, but the accident affected him psychologically for the rest of his life.

More public readings followed, in spite of his declining health, and he even managed a six-month trip to America (November 1867-April 1868), which was a triumph. Back in England, he insisted on more readings, despite warnings from his family and friends that he was harming himself.

In April 1870, The Mystery of Edwin Drood began to appear in monthly instalments and found an enthusiastic readership. It contains many of the concerns of his earlier works, but is also a mystery story. It has particularly intrigued readers, because it was unfinished, with its mystery still unsolved, when Dickens died of a cerebral haemorrhage at Gad's Hill Place on June 9. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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