Greatest Literature banner

Dickens pic

Charles Dickens

Life and career details ▽ Life and career details △

Landport, Hampshire, England, 1812

Higham, Kent, England, 1870

Novels, stories, plays, poetry, history, travelogues, journalism, essays, memoirs

Literary, horror, fantasy, mystery

Writing language

Place of writing
London, England; Higham, Kent, England

On greatest lists ▽ On greatest lists △
Greatest Literature

Oliver Twist (1838)

A Christmas Carol (1843)

David Copperfield (1850)

Bleak House (1853)

Little Dorrit (1857)

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Great Expectations (1861)

Greatest Novels

Oliver Twist (1838)

Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

David Copperfield (1850)

Bleak House (1853)

Hard Times (1854)

Little Dorrit (1857)

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Great Expectations (1861)

Our Mutual Friend (1865)

Greatest Novellas

A Christmas Carol (1843)

Greatest Stories

• "The Signal-Man" (1866)

Crime and Mystery

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

Charles Dickens


The writer to emulate—or to beat

Chances are, you think of Charles Dickens in one of two opposite ways.

As the writer, the very icon of the great and popular author for the masses, against whose work all subsequent fiction is to be measured.

Or as the epitome of an old-fashioned, wordy, sentimental style that had to be swept away before real modern writing could flourish.

In either case, you've got good company. Among those with the former view are Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, both great Dickens fan. In the present era, wonderful writers like John Irving still strive to present vast novels of quirky, interrelated characters like those Dickens became famous for. At least one recently popular novel (The Quincunx) by Charles Palliser, 1989) has created an entire Dickensian world, complete with characters and setting typical of Dickens' works.

On the other hand, novelists since Dickens have generally striven to strip from their writing many of the features associated with Dickens's work (long descriptions, authorial intrusions, incredible narrative coincidences, leisurely pace, overt sentimentality) to produce terser, more realistic, understated prose appropriate for jaded twentieth-century readers with shorter attention spans. The narrator of J.D. Salinger's ground-breaking The Catcher in the Rye (1951) famously refused to relate "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" about his childhood.

Yet Dickens remains the author in ways that both sides recognize. No other fiction writer has created so many characters that people still know today: Little Nell, Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger, Fagin, Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Little Dorrit, David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep, Pip, Mr. Gradgrind.... Apart from Shakespeare, no other writer in English has ever produced as many major works considered classics today, with ten novels and novellas on our Greatest Literature and Greatest Novels lists—and arguments to be made for including several more.

You may know my tendency to sort writers into those who mythologize (build up, simplify, transcend, create things to believe in) and those who demythologize (break down, ground, debunk, expose the nuances in things). Dickens, like other great authors but more so than anyone, does both at once.

He is a social realist, revealing the seamy side of Victorian culture, undercutting lofty notions of civilization and progress, exposing poverty and injustice. Many of his memorable negative characters embody the hypocrisies of British class and the cruel practices of commercial enterprise.

But Dickens also propounds new, supposedly more humane, lofty notions of Victorian romanticism. Goodness of heart wins out over the evils he exposes. Conscience and noble intentions may cause their holders to suffer for a time but eventually they have an almost magical effect in countering socially embedded injustices.

To read Dickens is often to become so absorbed by the positive characters and their plights that we willingly accept the most outrageously unbelievable outcomes. We accept them because we love the characters. We want the destinies Dickens prepares for them, even if it means accepting glorious notions of the unfettered human heart triumphing over narrow-minded interests. We want the new myth to replace the destroyed one.

When this romantic drive is too obvious, we criticize Dickens for being sentimental, for constructing ridiculous coincidences, for going on and on. But when it works, we are transported.

(You can see better how this dichotomy of demythologizing and re-mythologizing plays out in some of the commentaries on individual works, such as David Copperfield.)

How did he do it?

What is most amazing is the sheer volume of work he accomplished at this high level. Only Walter Scott was more prodigious in the nineteenth century, but Dickens has proven more enduring. Scott's writing has remained largely unread over the past hundred years while Dickens's writing has continued to compel new readers, study, and multiple adaptation into newer media.

Dickens created his massive works—with all their memorable characters, grand narratives, and complexly romantic style—at a rate of almost one per year, which must seem an incredible feat to today's literary authors who are lucky to produce slighter volumes every three or four years. And at the same time he was publishing travelogues, histories and dozens of shorter pieces, including stories, essays, poetry and memoirs. Not to mention his continual periodical editing, his public readings, plus his writing, producing and acting in plays. And his voluminous letter writing.

No wonder he died relatively young at fifty-eight, looking like a worn-out man of seventy.

Given that display of superhuman energy over three decades, critics are quick to pounce on his alleged weaknesses. He was writing mainly for serial publication, publishing chapters of his novels every week and so the finished, collated works contain more than their share of meandering passages and hastily stitched together plots, it is said.

But I am not sure you can't find that in the works of most other, less productive writers of his time—and of most times.

You can also read critics' complaints of inconsistency over the years, with some claiming Dickens lost his early ability to generate fresh characters and situations in his later, overburdened years. Others dismiss his early work as flimsy and improbable, compared with the masterpieces of his latter life.

Yet every period of his career seems to have produced work that public consensus has declared great—with Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol near the beginning, David Copperfield and Bleak House in the middle, and A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations near the end, to pick out the most obvious examples.

In between, yes, the inspiration for some of his work seemingly flagged as he was pressed to meet demands—from publishers, the public and his own psyche—to produce work of all kinds. You can find numerous instances of the workaday writer hacking out his weekly quota. But with Dickens, instead of killing his muse, this incessant production seems to have stirred him to his greatest heights.

In everything he wrote, even in his less substantial works, he was always trying something new, something that intrigued him. Read only his greatly acclaimed works if you want, but the perceptive reader can discover something of interest in almost every Dickens morsel.

He was much more innovative and artistic in the sense of revelling in craftmanship—experimental, if you will—than he is given credit for. Sure, Dickens was producing scads of prose for a readership that thirsted for memorable characters in grand and tawdry romantic plots, and he met those demands happily. But within those strictures he kept finding new ways of telling his stories. I am amazed when reading Dickens to continually come across strange new juxtapositions of plot elements, novel turns of phrase, unusual points of view collapsing the gap between reader and narrator/author, clever and cutting rhetoric, poetic paragraphs that take flight from the most mundane situations, telling psychological insights that later writers would fill chapters with thrown off in a sentence or two....

I'm not saying he was a post-modern writer before his time. He is still Dickens, the epitome of Victorian era literature. And still a hard slog for some modern readers to get through. But the slog is worth it and pays back in surprising ways.

Short life, long work

Charles Dickens's life is probably more widely known than that of any other writer, except perhaps that of Hemingway in the next century. But in case you are unfamiliar with it, here's a bare outline [see THE WORKS for complete list of books]:

1812   Born in Landport, Hampshire, in England.

1824   Father thrown into Marshalsea debtor's prison (experiences used in Little Dorrit). Charles sent to work in a blacking warehouse at age twelve.

1824–1836   Studied at schools, worked as a law office clerk and then as a shorthand reporter at Doctor's Commons, and then as a parliamentary reporter for several periodicals (all experiences used in David Copperfield). Short stories, sketches and essays started appearing in periodicals under his pen name Boz in 1833.

1836–1837   Collection of pieces, Sketches by 'Boz', published in book form. Also The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, a connected string of stories, published in a monthly serial, about blithely humorous characters travelling together. The Pickwick Papers, as it is known, won Dickens great fame and readership in his day, although it is difficult for today's readers to follow.

1836   Married Catherine Hogarth with whom he had ten surviving children. Dickens is thought also to have been in love with two of Catherine's sisters, one of whom, Mary, died in his arms while still young and was probably the model for Dora in David Copperfield.

1837–1839   Novel Oliver Twist appeared in monthly instalments in Bentley's Miscellany which Dickens edited, depicting the hard life of a guileless orphan caught up in the London underworld. Also Nicholas Nickleby, about a young man fighting injustices against his family and friends, is serialized.

1840–1841   Weekly magazine Master Humphrey's Clock, written entirely by Dickens, launched with instalments of The Old Curiosity Shop, telling the travails of young Nell raised by her junk-store owning grandfather, and Barnaby Rudge, an historical novel set during England's anti-Catholic riots of 1780.

1842   Upset caused by Dickens's American Notes, concerning his disillusionment with United States after a visit. He criticized slavery, among other things.

1843–1845   A Christmas Carol (1843) published, his first of five consecutive annual Christmas novellas, later, including The Chimes (1844) and The Cricket on the Hearth (1845). Novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1845) caused further controversy in United States for its perceived stereotyped presentation of Americans. Dickens lived in Italy, Switzerland and France in 1844–1845.

1846–1848   Founded radical paper London Daily News. Contributed article "Pictures from Italy". Wrote Dombey and Son.

1849–1850   Semi-autobiographical David Copperfield appeared in monthly instalments. Often considered his masterpiece, the novel again follows the harsh life and loves of an orphaned boy who in this case grows into a famous writer with an unfulfilling marriage.

Charles Dickens older pic 1850–1857   Founding editor of the weekly Household Words, until it was incorporated into All the Year Round. Published chapters of A Child's History of England (1851–1852) with a radical view of British History. Classic novels published in this decade include Bleak House (1852–1853), Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1855–1857).

1857–1858   Became intensely involved in theatrical productions, meeting actress Ellen Ternan. Separated from wife Catherine and thought to have henceforth lived a double life split between the home he shared with his children and residence with Ternan, possibly including retreats in France. Kept his relationship with Ternan secret the rest of his life.

1858–1860   Highly popular lecture tours in Britain and the United States. In 1859 he started editing All the Year Round, which succeeded Household Words and continued until his death. He also began a series of collaborations with other writers, that was to continue over the next decade, publishing A Haunted House, a collection of ghost stories which he edited and to which he contributed three stories and the framing device. A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution, also published in this period.

1860–1861   Great Expectations published, once again following the childhood and early adult life of a young man, in this case one who has a mysterious wealthy benefactor.

1864–1865   Our Mutual Friend, which starts with a murder mystery and features a secret, double life.

1867–1869   Another highly acclaimed reading tour of the United States and the British provinces. Also worked with Wilkie Collins on the play and subsequent novel No Thoroughfare, one several collaborations between the two in the 1860s.

1870   The Mystery of Edwin Drood left unfinished when Dickens died of a stroke and probably exhaustion. Based on Dickens's skimpy notes (which did not reveal the ending) Edwin Drood has been finished by various authors, from immediately after Dickens's death up to 1980, although none have satisfied Dickens fans.

Now that's a literary life that makes niggling over whether every word he wrote was perfect seem petty indeed.

— Eric McMillan