Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812 in Landport, Portsmouth, England. His father, John Dickens, was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office at Portsmouth, and his wife Elizabeth Dickens (née Barrow, 1789–1863) was a housewife. In 1814, John Dickens was transferred to London, and in 1817, the whole family moved to Chatham, near the naval docks. When he was ten, the family relocated to 16 Bayham Street, Camden Town in London.
Dickens’s life during the next five years was stable and happy; he was tutored by his mother and later went to school in Chatham. His father had a small collection of books, and Dickens read them avidly. He spent his time outdoors, reading voraciously with a particular fondness for the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. He talked later in life of his extremely poignant memories of childhood and his continuing photographic memory of people and events that helped bring his fiction to life. His family was moderately wealthy, and he received some education at the private William Giles’ school in Chatham. However, this time of prosperity came to an abrupt end. In 1822, Dickens’s father was transferred back to London, but he had gotten himself deeply in debt after spending too much money entertaining and retaining his social position, was imprisoned at Marshalsea debtors’ prison, or workhouse, along with his wife and Dickens’s siblings.
As the second of eight children from now on in a very poor family, Dickens lived a difficult childhood. Dickens, who at twelve was considered old enough to work, had to quit school and began working 10 hour days in a boot-blacking factory, a place where shoe polish is made, located near the present Charing Cross railway station. He earned six shillings a week pasting labels on the jars of thick polish. This money paid for his lodging in Camden Town and helped support his family.
Dickens lived on his own and continued to work at the factory for several months. The horrific conditions in the factory haunted him for the rest of his life, as did the experience of temporary orphanhood. Apparently, Dickens never forgot the day when a more senior boy in the warehouse took it upon himself to instruct Dickens in how to do his work more efficiently. For Dickens, that instruction may have represented the first step toward his full integration into the misery and tedium of working-class life. The more senior boy’s name was Bob Fagin. Dickens’s residual resentment of him reached a fevered pitch in the characterization of the villain Fagin in Oliver Twist. Alone in a strange city, separated from his family, he endured harrowing experiences that marked him with a hatred for the social system and the desire to succeed so that he would never have to live this way again.
This troublesome time scarred Dickens deeply and provided him with substantial material for such stories as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield, judged to be his most clearly autobiographical novel. Steeped in social criticism, Dickens’s writing provides a keen, sympathetic chronicle of the plight of the urban poor in nineteenth-century England.
After a few months his family was able to leave Marshalsea but their financial situation did not improve until later, partly due to money inherited from his father’s family. His mother did not immediately remove Charles from the boot-blacking factory, which was owned by a relation of hers. Dickens never forgave his mother for this, and resentment of his situation and the conditions under which working-class people lived became major themes of his works. Eventually he attended the Wellington House Academy in North London.
In May 1827, Dickens began work in the office of Ellis and Blackmore as a law clerk, a junior office position with potential to become a lawyer, a profession for which he later showed his dislike in his many literary works. He later became a court stenographer at the age of 17.
In 1834, Dickens became a journalist, reporting parliamentary debate and travelling Britain by stagecoach to cover election campaigns for the Morning Chronicle. His experience as a journalist kept him in close contact with the darker social conditions of the Industrial Revolution, and he grew disillusioned with the attempts of lawmakers to alleviate those conditions. A collection of semi-fictional sketches entitled Sketches by Boz, which were published in 1836, earned him recognition as a writer. Dickens became famous and began to make money from his writing when he published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, which was serialized in 1836 and published in book form the following year. He continued to contribute to and edit journals throughout much of his subsequent literary career.
In 1830, Dickens met his first love, Maria Beadnell, who has been said to be the model for Dora in David Copperfield. Her parents disapproved of their courtship and they effectively ended the relationship when they sent her to school in Paris. On 2 April 1836, Dickens married Catherine Thompson Hogarth (1816–1879), the daughter of George Hogarth, editor of the Evening Chronicle. After a brief honeymoon in Chalk, Kent, they set up home in Bloomsbury where they had ten children.
In the same year, he accepted the job of editor of Bentley’s Miscellany, a position he would hold until 1839 when he fell out with the owner. In 1837, the first instalment of Oliver Twist appeared in the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany. It was accompanied by illustrations by George Cruikshank, which still accompany many editions of the novel today. Even at this early date, some critics accused Dickens of writing too quickly and too prolifically, since he was paid by the word for his serialized novels. Yet the passion behind Oliver Twist, animated in part by Dickens’s own childhood experiences and in part by his outrage at the living conditions of the poor that he had witnessed as a journalist, touched his contemporary readers. Greatly successful, the novel was a thinly veiled protest against the Poor Law of 1834, which dictated that all public charity must be channeled through workhouses. However, his success as a novelist continued, producing Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), then The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge as part of the Master Humphrey’s Clock series (1840-41), all being published in monthly instalments before being made into books.
In 1842, he travelled with his wife to the United States, a journey which was successful despite 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. Shortly thereafter, he began to show interest in Unitarian Christianity, although he remained an Anglican, at least nominally, for the rest of his life.  Dickens’s work continued to be popular, especially A Christmas Carol written in 1843, the first of his Christmas books, which was reputedly written in a matter of weeks.
After living briefly abroad in Italy (1844) and Switzerland (1846), Dickens continued his success with Dombey and Son (1848); David Copperfield (1849-50); Bleak House (1852-53); Hard Times (1854); Little Dorrit (1857); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); and Great Expectations (1861). Dickens was also the publisher and editor of, and a major contributor to, the journals Household Words (1850–1859) and All the Year Round (1858-1870).
In 1856, his popularity 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. The area was also the scene of some of the events of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1 and this literary connection pleased him.
In 1857, in preparation for public performances of The Frozen Deep, a play on which he and his protégé Wilkie Collins had collaborated, Dickens hired professional actresses to play the female parts. With one of these, Ellen Ternan, an actress many years his junior, Dickens formed a bond which was to last the rest of his life. The exact nature of their relationship is unclear, as both Dickens and Ternan burned each other’s letters, but it was clearly central to Dickens’s personal and professional life. On his death, he settled an annuity on her which made her a financially independent woman.
When Dickens separated from his wife in 1858, divorce was almost unthinkable, particularly for someone as famous as he was, and so he continued to maintain her in a house for the next 20 years until she died. Although they appeared to be initially happy together, Catherine did not seem to share quite the same boundless energy for life which Dickens had. Nevertheless, her job of looking after their ten children, and the pressure of living
with a world-famous novelist and keeping house for him, certainly did not help. Catherine had her sister Georgina move in to help her, but there were rumours that Charles was romantically linked to his sister-in-law, possibly fuelled by the fact that she remained at Gadshill to look after the younger children when Catherine left.
Dickens’s participation in Collins’s play led not only to a shift in his personal life, but also to a career development, for it was this play that first inspired him to write A Tale of Two Cities, originally published from April through November of 1859, appeared in a new magazine that Dickens had created called All the Year Round. Dickens started this venture after a falling-out with his regular publishers. In the play, Dickens played the part of a man who sacrifices his own life so that his rival may have the woman they both love; the love triangle in the play became the basis for the complex relations between Charles Darnay, Lucie Manette, and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Moreover, Dickens appreciated the play for its treatment of redemption and rebirth, love and violence. He decided to transpose these themes onto the French Revolution, an event that embodied the same issues on a historical level. In order to make his novel historically accurate, Dickens turned to Thomas Carlyle’s account of the revolution. Contemporaries had considered Carlyle’s version to be the first and last word on the French peasants’ fight for freedom.
Dickens had forayed into historical fiction only once before, with Barnaby Rudge (1841), and the project proved a difficult undertaking. The vast scope and somewhat grim aspects of his historical subject forced Dickens largely to abandon the outlandish and often comic characters that had come to define his writing. Although Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross embody some typically Dickensian quirks – exaggerated mannerisms, idiosyncratic speech – they play only minor roles in the novel. While critics continue to debate the literary merits of the novel, no one denies the light that the novel sheds on Dickens’s development as a novelist. More experimental than the novels that precede it, A Tale of Two Cities shows its author in transition. Dickens would emerge from this transition as a mature artist, ready to write Great Expectations (1860–1861) and Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865).
On June 9, 1865, while returning from France with the actress Ellen Ternan, Dickens was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash in which the first seven carriages of the train plunged off of a bridge that was being repaired. The only first-class carriage to remain on the track was the one in which Dickens was travelling. Dickens spent some time tending the wounded and the dying before rescuers arrived. Before leaving, he remembered the unfinished manuscript for Our Mutual Friend, and he returned to his carriage to retrieve it. Typically, Dickens later used this experience as material for his short ghost story The Signal-Man in which the central character has a premonition of his own death in a rail crash. He based the story around several previous rail accidents, such as the Clayton Tunnel rail crash of 1861.
Dickens managed to avoid an appearance at the inquiry into the crash, as it would have become known that he was travelling that day with Ellen Ternan and her mother, which could have caused a scandal. Ellen had been Dickens’s companion since the breakdown of his marriage and she continued to be his companion, and likely mistress, until his death. The dimensions of the affair were unknown until the publication of Dickens and Daughter, a book about Dickens’s relationship with his daughter Kate, in 1939. Kate Dickens worked with author Gladys Storey on the book prior to her death in 1929, and alleged that Dickens and Ternan had a son who died in infancy, though no contemporary evidence exists.
Dickens, though unharmed, never really recovered from the Staplehurst crash, and his normally prolific writing shrank to completing Our Mutual Friend and starting the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood after a long interval. Much of his time was taken up with public readings from his best-loved novels. Dickens was fascinated by the theatre as an escape from the world, and theatres and theatrical people appear in Nicholas Nickleby. The travelling shows were extremely popular and, after three tours of British Isles, Dickens gave his first public reading in the United States at a New York City theatre on December 2, 1867.
Charles Dickens died at home at Gad’s Hill Place, Higham, Kent, England of a stroke five years to the day after the Staplehurst crash on June 9, 1870, at the age of 58, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished.
Contrary to his wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, he was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads: “He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.” Dickens’s will stipulated that no memorial be erected to honour him. The only life-size bronze statue of Dickens, cast in 1891 by Francis Edwin Elwell, is located in Clark Park in the Spruce Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia.