Works in Biographical and Historical Context
First Major Novels
Works in Literary Context
Works in Critical Context
Responses to Literature
BORN: 1812, Portsmouth, England
DIED: 1870, Kent, England
Oliver Twist (1837–1839)
A Christmas Carol (1843)
Bleak House (1852–1853)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Great Expectations (1860–1861)
Charles Dickens wrote fourteen full novels as well as sketches, travel, and Christmas books, and was at work on his fifteenth novel when he died. He took chances, dealt with social issues, and did not shy away from big ideas. Almost all of Dickens's novels display his comic
gift, his deep social concerns, and his talent for creating vivid characters. Many of his creations, most notably Ebenezer Scrooge, have become familiar English literary stereotypes, and today many of his novels are considered classics.
Poverty and the Birth of Boz Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, at Port-sea (later part of Portsmouth) on the southern coast of England. He was the son of a lower-middle-class father whose lack of financial foresight Dickens would later satirize in David Copperfield. Dickens's father constantly lived beyond his means and was eventually sent to debtor's prison, a jail specially reserved for people who could not pay back their debts. This deeply humiliated young Dickens, and even as an adult he was rarely able to speak of it. At the age of twelve he was forced to work in a factory for meager wages. Although the experience lasted only a few months, it left a permanent impression on Dickens.
Dickens returned to school after an inheritance relieved his father from debt, but he became an office boy at the age of fifteen. He learned shorthand and became a court reporter, which introduced him to journalism and aroused his contempt for politics. By 1832 he had become a reporter for two London newspapers and, in the following year, began to contribute a series of impressions and sketches to other newspapers and magazines, signing some of them “Boz.” These scenes of London life helped establish Dickens's reputation and were published in 1836 as Sketches by Boz, his first book. On the strength of this success he married Catherine Hogarth. She eventually bore him ten children.
In 1836 Dickens began to publish The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in monthly installments. Pickwick became one of the most popular works of the time. The comic heroes of the novel, the antiquarian members of the Pickwick Club, scour the English countryside for local points of interest and become involved in a variety of humorous adventures that reveal the characteristics of English social life. Later, however, the chairman of the club is involved in a lawsuit that lands him in debtors' prison. The lighthearted atmosphere of the novel changes, and the reader is given hints of the gloom and sympathy with which Dickens was to imbue his later works.
During the years of Pickwick's serialization, Dickens became editor of a new monthly, Bentley's Miscellany. When Pickwick was completed, he began publishing his new novel, Oliver Twist (1837–1839), in its pages—a practice he later continued. Oliver Twist traces the fortunes of an innocent orphan through the streets of London. It seems remarkable today that this novel's fairly frank treatment of criminals, prostitutes, and “fences” (receivers of stolen goods) could have been acceptable to the Victorian reading public. But so powerful was Dickens's portrayal of the “little boy lost” amid the lowlife of the East End that the limits of his audience's tolerance were stretched.
Dickens was now firmly established in the most consistently successful career of any nineteenth-century author after the Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott. He could do no wrong as far as his readership was concerned, yet for the next decade his books would not achieve the standard of his early triumphs. These works include Nicholas Nickleby (1838–1839), still cited for its exposé of brutality at an English boys' school; The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841), remembered for hitting a high (or low) point of sentimentality in its portrayal of the sufferings of Little Nell; and Barnaby Rudge (1841), still read as a historical novel, set as it is amid the anti-Catholic riots of 1780. Dickens wrote all these novels before he turned thirty, often working on two or three at a time.
In 1842 Dickens, who was as popular in America as he was in England, went on a five-month lecture tour of the United States, speaking out strongly for the abolition of slavery and other reforms. He returned to England deeply disappointed, dismayed by America's lack of support for an international copyright law, its acceptance of slavery, and what he saw as the general vulgarity of American people. On his return he wrote American Notes, which sharply criticized the cultural backwardness and aggressive materialism of American life. In his next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–1844), the hero retreats from the difficulties of making his way in England, only to find that survival is even harder on the American frontier. During the years in which Chuzzlewit appeared, Dickens also published two Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol (1843) and The Chimes (1844), which became as much a part of the Christmas season as the traditional English plum pudding.
After a year in Italy, Dickens wrote Pictures from Italy (1846). After its publication, he began writing his next novel, Dombey and Son, which continued until 1848. This novel established a new standard in the Dickensian tradition and may be said to mark the turning point in his career. As its full title indicates, Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, the novel is a study of the influence of the values of a business society on the personal fortunes of the members of the Dombey family and those with whom they come in contact. It takes a somber view of England at midcentury, and its mournful tone becomes characteristic of Dickens's novels for the rest of his life.
Dickens's next novel, David Copperfield (1849–1850), combined broad social perspective with an effort to take stock of himself at the midpoint of his literary career. This autobiographical novel fictionalized elements of Dickens's childhood degradation, pursuit of a journalistic and literary vocation, and love life. It shows the first comprehensive record of the typical course of a young man's life in Victorian England.
In 1850 Dickens began to edit a new periodical, Household Words. His editorials and articles for this magazine cover the entire span of English politics, social institutions, and family life. The weekly magazine was a great success and ran to 1859, when Dickens began to conduct a new weekly, All the Year Round. He published some of his major novels in both these periodicals.
In 1851 Dickens was stricken by the death of his father and one of his daughters within two weeks. Partly in response to these losses, he embarked on a series of works that have come to be called his “dark” novels. The first of these, Bleak House (1852–1853), has perhaps the most complicated plot of any English novel, but the narrative twists create a sense of the interrelationship of all segments of English society. The novel offers a humbling lesson about social snobbery and personal selfishness.
Dickens's next novel is even more didactic in its criticism of selfishness. Hard Times (1854) was written specifically to challenge the common view that practicality and facts were of greater importance and value than feelings and persons. In his indignation at callousness in business and public educational systems, Dickens laid part of the charge for the heartlessness of Englishmen at the door of the utilitarian philosophy then much in vogue. This philosophy held that the moral worth of an action is defined by how it contributes to overall usefulness. But the lasting applicability of the novel lies in its intensely focused picture of an English industrial town in the heyday of capitalist expansion and in its keen view of the limitations of both employers and reformers.
The somber tone of Bleak House and Hard Times reflected the harsh social reality of an England infatuated with industrial progress at any price. Ironically, many of the societal ills that Dickens wrote about in such novels had already been righted by the time of their publication.
Some claim Little Dorrit (1855–1857) is Dickens's greatest novel. In it he provides the same range of social observation he had developed in previous major works, but he creates two striking symbols as well. Dickens sums up the condition of England both specifically in the symbol of the debtors' prison, in which the heroine's father is entombed, and also generally in the many forms of personal servitude and confinement that are exhibited in the course of the plot. Second, Dickens raises to symbolic stature the child as innocent sufferer of the world's abuses. By making his heroine not a child but a childlike figure of Christian loving kindness, Dickens poses the central question of his work—the conflict between the world's harshness and human values.
The year 1857 saw the beginnings of a personal crisis for Dickens when he fell in love with an actress named Ellen Ternan. He separated from his wife the following year, after many years of marital incompatibility. In this period Dickens also began to give much of his time and energy to public readings from his novels, which became even more popular than his lectures on topical questions.
In 1859 Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel of the French Revolution. While below the standard of the long and comprehensive “dark” novels, it evokes the historical period and tells of a surprisingly modern hero's self-sacrifice. Besides publishing this novel in the newly founded All the Year Round, Dickens also published seventeen articles, which appeared in 1860 as the book The Uncommercial Traveller.
Dickens's next novel, Great Expectations (1860– 1861), tells the story of a young man's moral development in the course of his life—from childhood in the provinces to gentleman's status in London. Not an
autobiographical novel like David Copperfield, Great Expectations belongs to the type of fiction called, in German, Bildungsroman (the novel of someone's education or formation by experience).
The next work in the Dickens canon took an unusual three years to write, but in 1864–1865 Dickens published Our Mutual Friend. In it, the novelist thoroughly and devastatingly presents the vision of English society in all its classes and institutions.
In the closing years of his life, Dickens worsened his declining health by giving numerous readings. He never fully recovered from an 1865 railroad accident, but insisted on traveling throughout the British Isles and America to read before wildly enthusiastic audiences. He broke down in 1869 and gave a final series of readings in London in the following year. He also began The Mystery of Edwin Drood but died in 1870, leaving it unfinished. His burial in Westminster Abbey was an occasion of national mourning. His tombstone reads: “He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world.”
Charles Dickens's death on June 9, 1870, reverberated across the Atlantic, causing the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to say that he had never known “an author's death to cause such general mourning.” English novelist Thomas Carlyle wrote: “It is an event world-wide, a unique of talents suddenly extinct.” And the day after his death, the newspaper Dickens once edited, the London Daily News, reported that Dickens had been “emphatically the novelist of his age. In his pictures of contemporary life posterity will read, more clearly than in contemporary records, the character of nineteenth century life.”
Oliver Twist With Oliver Twist, Dickens chose to write a kind of novel that was already highly popular, the so-called Newgate novel, named after London's well-known Newgate prison. Two previous stories of crime and punishment had been Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford (1830) and Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834). Inevitably, Dickens did lose some readers who found the criminal aspect to be “painful and revolting,” as one said. A different kind of reader was put off by the prominence of the social criticism in the opening chapters, in which Dickens exposes the cruel inadequacies of workhouse life as organized by the New Poor Law of 1834. The law made the workhouses, where people who could not support themselves were forced to live and work, essentially prisons with degrading conditions, and mandated the separation of families upon entering.
Bleak House This work boils with discontents sometimes expressed in fiery abuse, discontents that are also prominent in other Dickens novels of the 1850s and 1860s. What is strange about the chronology is that the 1850s and 1860s, economically and in other areas, were not a dark period, but rather decades when the English seemed at last to have solved some of the big problems that had looked to be insoluble in the 1830s and 1840s.
Dickens preferred to write as an angry outsider, critical of the shortcomings of mid-Victorian values. Predictably, his “dark period” novels cost him some readers who felt that the attacks on institutions were misguided, unfair, and finally, tiresome. Obviously, not all of Dickens's contemporaries felt the same, for among the reading public, from Bleak House onward, his novels fared well, as they have continued to do. In fact, these are the novels that have been chiefly responsible for the remarkable “Dickens boom,” as author Hillis Miller called it, of the 1960s and after.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Dickens's famous contemporaries include:
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910): Born in Italy, this Englishwoman was a nursing pioneer who headed a volunteer nursing staff during the Crimean War and worked for more sanitary living conditions. She was awarded the Order of Merit in 1907.
Mark Twain (1835–1910): American writer, humorist, and satirist.
Louis Daguerre (1787–1851): French artist who invented an early form of photography, the daugerrotype.
Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850): French novelist and playwright. He is regarded as one of the founders of the realist school of literature.
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910): Russian novelist and philosopher. He is one of the masters of realist fiction.
Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898): Prime minister of Prussia and later chancellor of the German empire. As chancellor, von Bismarck promoted anti-Catholic and anti-Polish sentiment but also pushed through a federal old-age pension and an accident insurance plan.
The English critic and writer Angus Wilson noted that “perhaps more than any other,” Oliver Twist “has a combination of sensationalism and sentiment that fixes it as one of the masterpieces of pop art.” Critics of the day, such as that at the Quarterly Review, were quick to point out that Dickens dealt in hyperbole: “Oliver Twist is directed against the poor-law and workhouse system, and in our opinion with much unfairness. The abuses which [Dickens] ridicules are not only exaggerated, but
in nineteen cases out of twenty do not exist at all.” Jack Lindsay in Charles Dickens: A Biographical and Critical Study wrote that “the last word … must be given to Dickens's power to draw characters in a method of intense poetic simplification, which makes them simultaneously social emblems, emotional symbols, and visually precise individuals.” The book is also one of the more enduring classics of the Dickens canon, immortalized both by its 1948 film adaptation and the 1968 musical comedy Oliver!.
Many Victorian readers welcomed this novel for its humor after the “dark period” novels. But most critical discussions since 1950 argue that the Victorians were misled by some of its great comic scenes and also by Pip's career. Unlike the Victorians, modern critics see Great Expectations as a brilliant study of guilt, another very sad book—another “dark period” novel, that is. Dickens, author Philip Hobsbaum noted, “warns us to put no trust in the surface of illusions or class and caste. Our basic personality is shaped in youth and can never change. … Every hope of altering his condition that Pip, the central character, ever entertained is smashed over his head.”
- The idea of childhood as a formative period is relatively modern. In the Victorian era and before, children were thought of as mini versions of adults and were expected to behave as such. Do you think that the relative freedom you have as a teenager helps you develop your strengths and sense of self, or does it encourage irresponsible behavior?
- Using the Internet and library sources, research utilitarianism. On what basis do you think actions should be judged? Is the good of society more important than the happiness of specific individuals?
- Dickens was deeply ashamed of his father's time in debtor's prison, but transformed it through his art. Using your library's resources and the Internet, research the concept of “psychological resilience,” the ability to recover from difficult experiences. Write an essay outlining how a person can become more resilient, using specific examples of situations that you may have experienced yourself.
- The Victorians believed that owing money and being unable to pay it was a moral failing. Research the current mortgage crisis in the United States, and write an essay examining modern-day attitudes toward owing money. Is owing money still seen as a moral issue, or just bad luck? Where do you think personal responsibility lies?
- Nike was one of several companies whose manufacturers were exposed as using child labor in 2001. Nike has since changed their labor practices. Research what changes they have made, and write an essay analyzing whether they have done enough to ensure that their products do not result from exploitative labor practices. Where should a company's standards lie—with the countries that produce its products, which might have laxer regulations, or with the country it is based in, which might result in more expensive products?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Themes of social injustice usually result from the author's own experiences or observations and most often reflect the author's dissatisfaction with the way a certain class or group is treated. Here are some works that deal with issues of social injustice.
Nickel and Dimed (2001), a nonfiction book by Barbara Ehrenreich. This memoir provides an account of the author's attempt to live off minimum-wage earnings in various U.S. states in 1998.
The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), a nonfiction work by Leo Tolstoy. This work by the Russian novelist argues that nonviolence is the only answer to oppression. It was a major influence on the thinking of Indian activist Mohandas Gandhi.
To Sir, with Love (1959), a novel by E. R. Braithwaite. This semiautobiographical novel tells of a black teacher from Guyana and his working-class white students in a poor neighborhood of London.
Black Beauty (1877), a novel by Anna Sewell. This novel exposes the hardship and mistreatment during the life of a horse in Victorian England.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), by J. K. Row-ling. In the fourth installment in the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger takes up the cause of rights for the oppressed house-elves, forming the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare, to the dismay of her friends.
Hobsbaum, Philip. A Reader's Guide to Charles Dickens. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.
House, Humphry. The Dickens World. London: Oxford University Press, 1941; 2nd ed. 1950.
Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. New York: Viking, 1977.
Leavis, F. R., and Q. D. Leavis. Dickens the Novelist. London: Chatto & Windus, 1970.
Lindsay, Jack. “At Closer Grips,” Charles Dickens: A Biographical and Critical Study. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.
Marcus, Stephen. Dickens from Pickwick to Dombey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965.
Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Murch, A. E. The Development of the Detective Novel. London: Owen, 1958; New York: Philosophical Library, 1958.
Schlicke, Paul, ed. Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Sucksmith, Harvey Peter. The Narrative Art of Charles Dickens: The Rhetoric of Sympathy and Irony in His Novels. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Trilling, Lionel. The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism. New York: Viking, 1955.
Wilson, Angus. The World of Charles Dickens. New York: Viking, 1970.
Smiley, Jane. “Review of Charles Dickens.” Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 6 (2002): 395.
Excerpt from American Notes
Reprinted from Charles Dickens: American Notes for General Circulation, edited by Patricia Ingham
Originally published in 1842; excerpt taken from 2000 reprint
With the U.S. Constitution protecting American citizens from cruel and unusual punishment, a search for more humane forms of punishment began in the late 1800s. The idea of incarceration had been in use since the late 1700s, but by the early 1800s two different types of prison systems were being tried in the United States. One was known as the "Philadelphia" plan and the other, the "Auburn" plan. They were named after the cities where two new state prisons were located—in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Auburn, New York.
"The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong."
Under the Philadelphia plan, also known as the Separate System, prisoners were kept isolated in their cells both day and night. They were allowed certain books, especially the Bible, and sometimes allowed to perform certain handcrafts. Most of all they were left to think about their crimes. Food was pushed into the cell through hatches. Prisoners never saw or spoke with anyone except the prison guards who did not know their names or why they were there. Prisoners exercised in their own individual yards, and very few visitors were allowed. Critics called this prolonged solitary confinement cruel and unusual punishment, especially for those serving sentences of many years.
In January 1842 thirty-year-old Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine set sail from Liverpool, England, to begin a tour of America. Internationally famous for his novels, Dickens was well received upon his arrival in the port of Boston. Given his personal interest in criminal law and prisons, U.S. officials gave him tours of several modern American prisons.
Among the prisons was the world famous Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia known as Cherry Hill. Opened in 1830 Cherry Hill was an international showplace for using methods of prisoner isolation. Dickens visited Cherry Hill on March 8, 1842, and denounced the Separate System as intolerably cruel in American Notes, published in October 1842. He was convinced the prison inflicted far more harm on its victims than other prison systems.
Things to remember while reading excerpts from American Notes:
- By the 1840s Charles Dickens was the most popular author in Britain and had achieved international fame. His recent novels included The Pickwick Papers (1837) and Oliver Twist (1838).
- Books about America were very popular in England at the time. British citizens were intrigued with America's new democratic government and wanted to know more. Dickens' publishers provided him a contract to travel to America and write about his adventures. He was to compare American and British institutions.
- In contrast to the system at Cherry Hill prisoners in the Auburn plan, known as the Silent System, were allowed to be among other inmates though only to work in groups during the day and under very strict supervision. They were able to make products sold in the outside world. Like the Philadelphia plan, inmates could not speak or communicate with one another and spent their nights sleeping in separate cells. Guards stayed with the prisoners night and day to make sure they obeyed the strict silence rules, requiring a large staff. The Philadelphia plan required a more expensive building but a much smaller staff.
- Dickens strongly opposed slavery. His outspokenness on the trip met with increasing resistance from the American public. By June, when Dickens set sail back to England, his popularity in the United States had sharply declined.
Excerpt from American Notes
My stay in Philadelphia was very short, but what I saw of its society, I greatly liked. . . .
In the outskirts, stands a great prison, called the Eastern Penitentiary: conducted on a plan peculiar to the state of Pennsylvania. The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.
In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom , and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow anddaily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably more than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying "Yes" or "No," I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honors could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree.
I was accompanied to this prison by two gentlemen officially connected with its management, and passed the day in going from cell to cell, and talking with the inmates. Every facility was afforded me, that the utmost courtesy could suggest. Nothing was concealed or hidden from my view, and every piece of information that I sought was openly and frankly given. The perfect order of the building cannot be praised too highly, and of the excellent motives of all who are immediately concerned in the administration of the system, there can be no kind of question.
Between the body of the prison and the outer wall, there is a spacious garden. Entering it, by a wicket in the massive gate, we pursued the path before us to its other termination, and passed into a large chamber, from which seven long passages radiate . On either side of each, is a long, long row of low cell-doors, with a certain number over every one. Above, a gallery of cells like those below, except that they have no narrow yard attached (as those in the ground tier have), and are somewhat smaller. The possession of two of these, is supposed to compensate for the absence of so much air and exercise as can be had in the dull strip attached to each of the others, in an hour's time every day; and therefore every prisoner in this upper story has two cells, adjoining and communicating with, each other.
Standing at the central point, and looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver's shuttle, or shoemaker's last , but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness moreprofound. Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He never hears of wife or children; home or friends; the life or death of any single creature. He sees the prison-officers, but with that exception he never looks upon a human countenance , or hears a human voice. He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the mean time dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.
His name, and crime, and term of suffering, are unknown, even to the officer who delivers him his daily food. There is a number over his cell-door, and in a book of which the governor of the prison has one copy, and the moral instructor another: this is the index to his history. Beyond these pages the prison has no record of his existence: and though he lives to be in the same cell ten weary years, he has no means of knowing, down to the very last hour, in what part of the building it is situated; what kind of men there are about him; whether in the long winter night there are living people near, or he is in some lonely corner of the great jail, with walls, and passages, and iron doors between him and the nearest sharer in its solitary horrors.
Every cell has double doors: the outer one of sturdy oak, the other of grated iron, wherein there is a trap through which his food is handed. He has a Bible, and a slate and pencil, and, under certain restrictions, has sometimes other books, provided for the purpose, and pen and ink and paper. His razor, plate, and can, and basin, hang upon the wall, or shine upon the little shelf. Fresh water is laid on in every cell, and he can draw it at his pleasure. During the day, his bed-stead turns up against the wall, and leaves more space for him to work in. His loom, or bench, or wheel, is there; and there he labors, sleeps and wakes, and counts the seasons as they change, and grows old.
The first man I saw, was seated at his loom, at work. He had been there, six years, and was to remain, I think, three more. He had been convicted as a receiver of stolen goods, but even after this long imprisonment, denied his guilt, and said he had been hardly dealt by [ignored]. It was his second offence. . . .
In another cell, there was a German, sentenced to five years' imprisonment for larceny, two of which had just expired. With colors procured in the same manner, he had painted every inch of the walls and ceiling quite beautifully. He had laid out the few feet of ground, behind,with exquisite neatness, and had made a little bed in the center, that looked by the bye like a grave. The taste and ingenuity he had displayed in everything were most extraordinary; and yet a more dejected, heart-broken, wretched creature, it would be difficult to imagine. I never saw such a picture of forlorn affliction and distress of mind. My heart bled for him; and when the tears ran down his cheeks, and he took one of the visitors aside, to ask, with his trembling hands nervously clutching at his coat to detain him, whether there was no hope of his dismal sentence being commuted , the spectacle was really too painful to witness. I never saw or heard of any kind of misery that impressed me more than the wretchedness of this man.
There was one man who was allowed, as an indulgence , to keep rabbits. His room having rather a close smell in consequence, they called to him at the door to come out into the passage. He complied of course, and stood shading his haggard face in the unwonted sunlight of the great window, looking as wane and unearthly as if he had been summoned from the grave. He had a white rabbit in his breast, and when the little creature, getting down upon the ground, stole back into the cell, and he, being dismissed, crept timidly after it, I thought it would have been very hard to say in what respect the man was the nobler animal of the two. . . .
I went from cell to cell that day; and every face I saw, or word I heard, or incident I noted, is present to my mind in all its painfulness. . . .
I took that opportunity of inquiring how they conducted themselves immediately before going out; adding that I presumed they trembled very much.
"Well, it's not so much a trembling," was the answer—"though they do quiver—as a complete derangement of the nervous system. They can't sign their names to the book; sometimes can't even hold the pen; look about 'em without appearing to know why, or where they are; and sometimes get up and sit down again, twenty times in a minute. This is when they're in the office, where they are taken with the hood on, as they were brought in. When they get outside the gate, they stop, and look first one way and then the other: not knowing which to take. Sometimes they stagger as if they were drunk, and sometimes are forced to lean against the fence, they're so bad:—but they clear off in course of time.". . .
My firm convictions, that independent of the mental anguish it occasions—an anguish so acute and so tremendous, that all imagination of it must fall far short of the reality—it wears the mind into
a morbid state, which renders it unfit for the rough contact and busy action of the world. It is my fixed opinion that those who have undergone this punishment, must pass into society again morally unhealthy and diseased. There are many instances on record, of men who have chosen, or have been condemned, to lives of perfect solitude, but I scarcely remember one, even among sages of strong and vigorous intellect, where its effect has not become apparent, in some disordered train of thought, or some gloomy hallucination. What monstrous phantoms, bed of despondency and doubt, and born and reared in solitude, have stalked upon the earth, making creation ugly, and darkening the face of Heaven!. . .
It seems to me that the objection that nothing wholesome or good has ever had its growth in such unnatural solitude, and thateven a dog or any of the more intelligent among beasts, would pine, and mope, and rust away, beneath its influence, would be in itself a sufficient argument against this system . . . there is surely more than sufficient reason for abandoning a mode of punishment attended by so little hope or promise, and fraught, beyond dispute, with such a host of evils.
What happened next . . .
After Dickens's 1842 journey the effectiveness of each of the two prison systems was hotly debated in the United States. Some emphasized inmate reform while others favored deterring crime through severe punishment. A major concern of the Separate System at Cherry Hill was the cost of solitary confinement. Each prisoner had to have his own cell and exercise yard, and food and other necessities were provided individually. At this time criminologists began investigating the psychological character of criminals. As a result, concern increased over the effects of such pronounced isolation on individuals, as expressed so vividly by Dickens.
Dickens remained active in social reform movements following his trip to America. He used some profits from his highly popular novels to publish a newspaper called the Daily News beginning in January 1846. With Dickens as editor, the newspaper promoted social issues including free public education for the poor, various forms of civil and religious liberty, low-cost housing, and equal rights legislation. The newspaper was a financial failure and lasted only until 1850.
Dickens also wrote several significant works after his trip, including A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1850), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860).
Did you know . . .
- Dickens's book American Notes was highly unpopular in the United States. Not only did he denounce the prison system at Cherry Hill, but he was also outspoken against slavery, corrupt American politics, and the slanderous press. The U.S. press blasted the book in reviews.
- Dickens was also a strong opponent of the death penalty. He claimed justice was not fairly applied with much depending on a person's wealth. The poor and uneducated generally received harsher treatment in the criminal justice system, including punishment. In addition, he argued that judges and juries made mistakes that could not be corrected if the accused was dead.
- Dickens returned to the United States twenty-five years later in November 1867. He received a grand welcome in Boston Harbor including a shower of rockets and flares. Dickens toured sixteen eastern cities using his own writings for public readings. It was highly successful and past hard feelings over his previous trip had been forgotten.
- Dickens died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at home in Kent, England, in 1870. He was buried in the Poet's Corner of London's Westminster Abbey.
Consider the following . . .
- Divide the class into two groups and debate the benefits and drawbacks of the two prison systems being tested in America at the time of Dickens's trip—the Philadelphia and the Auburn plans.
- Write an essay describing what it would be like in the Cherry Hill prison, seeing no one, hearing no one, not receiving any news from the outside. What would your thoughts be if you were mistakenly convicted of a crime and sentenced to years at Cherry Hill? Imagine the hood taken from your head after being escorted to your cell for the first time.
- Is solitary confinement still used in U.S. prisons? Under what conditions is it applied?
Benevolent: Having good intentions.
Palpable: Easily seen.
Extorts: Brings forth or causes, usually by pain.
Wicket: Small door within the larger entrance.
Radiate: Extend out from a central point.
Compensate: Make up for.
Communicating: Open passage.
Repose: Lack of movement.
Last: A wooden or metal model of a foot used to shape and repair shoes and boots.
Countenance: Face or facial expression.
Indulgence: A toleration of something.
Wane: Faded, through loss of strength or stature.
For More Information
Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime. London: Macmillan & Company, Ltd., 1962.
Dickens, Charles. American Notes. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1988.
Silverman, Ira. Corrections: A Comprehensive View. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001.
"National Institute of Corrections (NIC)." U.S. Department of Justice.http://www.nicic.org (accessed on August 19, 2004).
Charles John Huffam Dickens
Charles John Huffam Dickens
The English author Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870) was, and probably still is, the most widely read Victorian novelist. He is now appreciated more for his "dark" novels than for his humorous works.
Charles Dickens was born on Feb. 7, 1812, at Port-sea (later part of Portsmouth) on the southern coast of England. He was the son of a lower-middle-class but impecunious father whose improvidence he was later to satirize in the character of Micawber in David Copperfield. The family's financial difficulties caused them to move about until they settled in Camden Town, a poor neighborhood of London. At the age of 12 Charles was set to work in a warehouse that handled "blacking," or shoe polish; there he mingled with men and boys of the working class. For a period of months he was also forced to live apart from his family when they moved in with his father, who had been imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtors' prison. This experience of lonely hardship was the most significant formative event of his life; it colored his view of the world in profound and varied ways and is directly or indirectly described in a number of his novels, including The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Little Dorrit, as well as David Copperfield.
These early events of Dicken's life left both psychological and sociological effects. In a fragmentary autobiography Dickens wrote, "It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. … My father and mother were quite satisfied. … My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life."
The sociological effect of the blacking factory on Dickens was to give him a firsthand acquaintance with poverty and to make him the most vigorous and influential voice of the lower classes in his age. Despite the fact that many of England's legal and social abuses were in the process of being removed by the time Dickens published his exposés of them, it remains true that he was the most widely heard spokesman of the need to alleviate the miseries of the poor.
Dickens returned to school after an inheritance (as in the fairy-tale endings of some of his novels) relieved his father from debt, but he was forced to become an office boy at the age of 15. In the following year he became a free-lance reporter or stenographer at the law courts of London. By 1832 he had become a reporter for two London newspapers and, in the following year, began to contribute a series of impressions and sketches to other newspapers and magazines, signing some of them "Boz." These scenes of London life went far to establish his reputation and were published in 1836 as Sketches by Boz, his first book. On the strength of this success he married; his wife, Catherine Hogarth, was eventually to bear him 10 children.
In 1836 Dickens also began to publish in monthly installments The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. This form of serial publication became a standard method of writing and producing fiction in the Victorian period and affected the literary methods of Dickens and other novelists. So great was Dickens's success with the procedure—summed up in the formula, "Make them laugh; make them cry; make them wait"—that Pickwick became one of the most popular works of the time, continuing to be so after it was published in book form in 1837. The comic heroes of the novel, the antiquarian members of the Pickwick Club, scour the English countryside for local points of interest and are involved in a variety of humorous adventures which reveal the characteristics of English social life. At a later stage of the novel, the chairman of the club, Samuel Pickwick, is involved in a lawsuit which lands him in the Fleet debtors' prison. Here the lighthearted atmosphere of the novel changes, and the reader is given intimations of the gloom and sympathy with which Dickens was to imbue his later works.
During the years of Pickwick's serialization, Dickens became editor of a new monthly, Bentley's Miscellany. When Pickwick was completed, he began publishing his new novel, Oliver Twist, in this magazine—a practice he continued in his later magazines, Household Worlds and All the Year Round. Oliver expresses Dickens's interest in the life of the slums to the fullest, as it traces the fortunes of an innocent orphan through the London streets. It seems remarkable today that this novel's fairly frank treatment of criminals like Bill Sikes, prostitutes like Nancy, and "fences" like Fagin could have been acceptable to the Victorian reading public. But so powerful was Dickens's portrayal of the "little boy lost" amid the lowlife of the East End that the limits of his audience's tolerance were gradually stretched.
Dickens was now embarked on the most consistently successful career of any 19th-century author after Sir Walter Scott. He could do no wrong as far as his faithful readership was concerned; yet his books for the next decade were not to achieve the standard of his early triumphs. These works include: Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), still cited for its exposé of brutality at an English boys' school, Dothe boys Hall; The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), still remembered for reaching a high (or low) point of sentimentality in its portrayal of the sufferings of Little Nell; and Barnaby Rudge (1841), still read for its interest as a historical novel, set amid the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780.
In 1842 Dickens, who was as popular in America as he was in England, went on a 5-month lecture tour of the United States, speaking out strongly for the abolition of slavery and other reforms. On his return he wrote American Notes, sharply critical of the cultural backwardness and aggressive materialism of American life. He made further capital of these observations in his next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), in which the hero retreats from the difficulties of making his way in England only to find that survival is even more trying on the American frontier. During the years in which Chuzzlewit appeared, Dickens also published two Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, which became as much part of the season as plum pudding.
First Major Novels
After a year abroad in Italy, in response to which he wrote Pictures from Italy (1846), Dickens began to publish Dombey and Son, which continued till 1848. This novel established a new standard in the Dickensian novel and may be said to mark the turning point in his career. If Dickens had remained the author of Pickwick, Oliver Twist, and The Old Curiosity Shop, he might have deserved a lasting reputation only as an author of cheerful comedy and bathetic sentiment. But Dombey, while it includes these elements, is a realistic novel of human life in a society which had assumed more or less its modern form. As its full title indicates, Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son is a study of the influence of the values of a business society on the personal fortunes of the members of the Dombey family and those with whom they come in contact. It takes a somber view of England at mid-century, and its elegiac tone becomes characteristic of Dickens's novels for the rest of his life.
Dickens's next novel, David Copperfield (1849-1850), combined broad social perspective with a very strenuous effort to take stock of himself at the midpoint of his literary career. This autobiographical novel fictionalized elements of Dickens's childhood degradation, pursuit of a journalistic and literary vocation, and love life. Its achievement is to offer the first comprehensive record of the typical course of a young man's life in Victorian England. Copperfield is not Dickens's greatest novel, but it was his own favorite among his works, probably because of his personal engagement with the subject matter.
In 1850 Dickens began to "conduct" (his word for edit) a new periodical, Household Words. His editorials and articles for this magazine, running to two volumes, cover the entire span of English politics, social institutions, and family life and are an invaluable complement to the fictional treatment of these subjects in Dickens's novels. The weekly magazine was a great success and ran to 1859, when Dickens began to conduct a new weekly, All the Year Round. In both these periodicals he published some of his major novels.
In 1851 Dickens was struck by the death of his father and one of his daughters within 2 weeks. Partly in response to these losses, he embarked on a series of works which have come to be called his "dark" novels and which rank among the greatest triumphs of the art of fiction. The first of these, Bleak House (1852-1853), has perhaps the most complicated plot of any English novel, but the narrative twists serve to create a sense of the interrelationship of all segments of English society. Indeed, it has been maintained that this network of interrelations is the true subject of the novel, designed to express Thomas Carlyle's view that "organic filaments" connect every member of society with every other member of whatever class. The novel provides, then, a chastening lesson to social snobbery and personal selfishness.
Dickens's next novel is even more didactic in its moral indictment of selfishness. Hard Times (1854) was written specifically to challenge the prevailing view of his society that practicality and facts were of greater importance and value than feelings and persons. In his indignation at callousness in business and public educational systems, Dickens laid part of the charge for the heartlessness of Englishmen at the door of the utilitarian philosophy then much in vogue. But the lasting applicability of the novel lies in its intensely focused picture of an English industrial town in the heyday of capitalist expansion and in its keen view of the limitations of both employers and reformers.
Little Dorrit (1855-1857) has some claim to be regarded as Dickens's greatest novel. In it he provides the same range of social observation that he had developed in previous major works. But the outstanding feature of this novel is the creation of two striking symbols of his views, which operate throughout the story as the focal points of all the characters' lives. The condition of England, as he saw it, Dickens sums up in the symbol of the prison: specifically the Marshalsea debtors' prison, in which the heroine's father is entombed, but generally the many forms of personal bondage and confinement that are exhibited in the course of the plot. For his counterweight, Dickens raises to symbolic stature his traditional figure of the child as innocent sufferer of the world's abuses. By making his heroine not a child but a childlike figure of Christian loving-kindness, Dickens poses the central burden of his work—the conflict between the world's harshness and human values—in its most impressive artistic form.
The year 1857 saw the beginnings of a personal crisis for Dickens when he fell in love with an actress named Ellen Ternan. He separated from his wife in the following year, after many years of marital incompatibility. In this period Dickens also began to give much of his time and energies to public readings from his novels, which became even more popular than his lectures on topical questions.
In 1859 Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel of the French Revolution, which is read today most often as a school text. It is, while below the standard of the long and comprehensive "dark" novels, a fine evocation of the historical period and a moving tale of a surprisingly modern hero's self-sacrifice. Besides publishing this novel in the newly founded All the Year Round, Dickens also published 17 articles, which appeared as a book in 1860 entitled The Uncommercial Traveller.
Dickens's next novel, Great Expectations (1860-1861), must rank as his most perfectly executed work of art. It tells the story of a young man's moral development in the course of his life—from childhood in the provinces to gentleman's status in London. Not an autobiographical novel like David Copperfield, Great Expectations belongs to the type of fiction called, in German, Bildungsroman (the novel of a man's education or formation by experience) and is one of the finest examples of the type.
The next work in the Dickens canon had to wait for the (for him) unusual time of 3 years, but in 1864-1865 he produced Our Mutual Friend, which challenges Little Dorrit and Bleak House for consideration as his masterpiece. Here the vision of English society in all its classes and institutions is presented most thoroughly and devastatingly, while two symbols are developed which resemble those of Little Dorrit in credibility and interest. These symbols are the mounds of rubbish which rose to become features of the landscape in rapidly expanding London, and the river which flows through the city and provides a point of contact for all its members besides suggesting the course of human life from birth to death.
In the closing years of his life Dickens worsened his declining health by giving numerous readings from his works. He never fully recovered from a railroad accident in which he had been involved in 1865 and yet insisted on traveling throughout the British Isles and America to read before tumultuous audiences. He broke down in 1869 and gave only a final series of readings in London in the following year. He also began The Mystery of Edwin Drood but died in 1870, leaving it unfinished. His burial in Westminster Abbey was an occasion of national mourning.
The definitive biography of Dickens is Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (2 vols., 1952). This supersedes but does not render obsolete the long-standing "official" biography by John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (3 vols., 1872-1873; new ed., 2 vols., 1966). The most interesting psychological study is Edmund Wilson, "Dickens: The Two Scrooges," in The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature (1941). The best critical interpretation is J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (1958). F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist (1970), contains essays on Dickens's major novels. For the earlier novels the most informative reading is Steven Marcus, Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey (1965). The most useful book on the social and historical background of the novels is Humphry House, The Dickens World (1941; 2d ed. 1950). □
Born February 7, 1812 (Portsmouth, England)
Died June 9, 1870 (Kent, England)
Social reformer, novelist
Charles Dickens is considered by many as the most important writer of his time and remained the most widely recognizable British author, after William Shakespeare (1564–1616), throughout the twentieth century. He ushered in an age of serious attention to novelists with his dynamic writing, detailing the Victorian era (a very conservative period of formality among upper classes) in which he lived. Dickens's imaginative characters gave him the platform he needed to address the social reforms he had championed for over thirty years.
Dickens worked toward political and educational reform within Britain and was involved internationally in the promotion of prison reform and opposition of capital punishment. His popularity with the general public never declined during his lifetime, and he was seen as an advocate for the poor man. When the Dickens Fellowship was founded in 1902, it focused on Dickens's goal of remedying existing social evils to help the poor, oppressed, and unfortunate.
"I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment [solitary confinement], prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers."
Early life of poverty
On February 7, 1812, Charles John Huffam Dickens was the second of seven children born to Elizabeth Barrow Dickens
and John Dickens. His elder sister Fanny proved to be his best friend and had a profound influence on Charles his entire life.
John Dickens was a clerk at the navy pay office of Portsmouth when Charles was born, but the growing family moved often due to John's frequent transfers. Charles began his education at William Giles's school in Chatham, Kent. When his father was transferred to London in 1822, the family once again packed up and moved on.
By 1824 John Dickens had fallen behind with his creditors. He was arrested and sent to debtors prison, often referred to simply as The Marshalsea. At age twelve Charles found work at Warren's Blacking Factory wrapping bottles of black shoe polish. Six months later an inheritance provided enough money for John to leave prison and Charles resumed his education at a nearby private school, Wellington House Academy. When his father again fell into financial difficulties in 1827, young Charles left the academy and found employment as a clerk for the law firm of Ellis and Blackmore. Although he disliked the work, Charles enjoyed what was to become a lifelong habit of walking the streets of London in the late night hours gathering characters to inhabit his stories.
Seeking to improve his lot in life, Charles learned shorthand (a system of rapid handwriting using symbols to represent words) and started working as a freelance reporter in 1828 at the age of sixteen. By 1831 he was working for the Mirror of Parliament, a newspaper that reported the daily proceedings of the British Parliament. This marked the beginning of his interest in social reform. Dickens also began contributing articles to the radical newspaper True Sun. Using his considerable knowledge of what went on in the House of Commons, he worked to promote parliamentary reform.
Dickens's first story, "A Dinner at Popular Walk," was published in 1833 in the Monthly Magazine, using the pen name "Boz." He married Catherine Hogarth in April 1836, and by 1837 the first of their ten children was born. By 1840, Dickens was the most popular author in Britain. Novels such as The Pickwick Papers (1836–37) and Oliver Twist (c. 1838) were soon followed by A Christmas Carol (1843). His fame spread across the world. In January 1842 the thirty-year old Dickens and his wife Catherine set sail from Liverpool to begin a tour of America.
Landing in Boston, Dickens received a warm welcome but as a staunch abolitionist (one who opposes slavery) he soon upset his hosts by condemning slavery. His writings were considered public property and had been adapted, imitated, and stolen on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result Dickens received no financial gain from the immense sale of his novels in the United States.
In the early 1830s, two main disciplinary systems influenced the field of penitentiaries. Both came from America and were often referred to as the Philadelphia and the Auburn systems. They were named after the famous prisons in Pennsylvania and New York that had popularized them.
Under the Philadelphia, or Separate System, prisoners occupied individual cells day and night. They were sometimes given instructional books or handcraft exercises to do, but mostly they were left to meditate on their crimes and the consequences. Food was pushed into the cell through hatches and the prisoner never saw or spoke with anyone except the officers and a few approved prison visitors. Exercise took place in separate, individual yards.
Under the less strict version of the Separate System, prisoners left their cells for instruction or exercise but had to wear masks or veils to prevent seeing or being seen by fellow prisoners. The idea was that eliminating knowledge of fellow prisoners would reduce corruption upon release back into society. Critics used the term "solitary confinement" to describe the system and labeled it cruel and unusual punishment, especially for those whose sentences were for years or decades.
Under New York's Silent System, prisoners were allowed to work together but under very strict supervision. They were forbidden to speak or otherwise communicate with one another. Ideally, they were to sleep in separate cells but often they continued to sleep in the old dormitories of institutions unwilling to pay to replace the buildings. Wardens were required to be with the prisoners night and day, watching for any infringement of the rules.
The advantage of the Silent System was that it was easier to adopt in existing institutions, although it needed a very large staff to enforce discipline. The Separate System required an expensive building project, but required a much smaller staff to operate it. The merits of the two systems were hotly debated, with one side in favor of reforming offenders versus the other side in favor of deterring crime with severe punishment.
He had come prepared to advocate for an international copyright agreement to protect British authors as well as encourage budding American novelists. His speeches on the subject met with little response and the general opinion was in favor of continuing the existing practice. By June, when Dickens set sail for England aboard the George Washington, the enthusiasm that had greeted him was not evident at his farewell.
A substantial reading audience existed in England for books about America. Dickens's publishers had sent him off with a contract to write about his American adventures and compare American institutions to British ones. Dickens had expected to find a model democratic society against which British failures could be measured and criticized.
During Dickens's visit, his reputation in criminal law and prison reform (see sidebar) gave him access to tour several modern American prisons. His tour included the world famous Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia called Cherry Hill on March 8, 1842. Opened in 1830, it had become the international showplace for prisoner isolation, called the Separate System. It was the favorite method of more advanced nations of the period. Dickens denounced the Separate System as intolerably cruel in American Notes, published in October 1842. He was convinced that the suffering the Separate System inflicted on its victims produced no better results than other systems and probably far more harm.
Dickens noted that justice was not necessarily dealt out fairly. Much depended on a person's physical and financial resources. The poor and uneducated were always at a disadvantage. Dickens claimed this inequality especially held true in the case of the death penalty. He contended that executions were cruel, inefficient, and unevenly administered. He called for the death penalty to be abolished, arguing that judicial mistakes happened and were irreversible if the victim is dead.
Dickens also speculated in his writings about the effect of capital punishment on all those involved. He claimed the horror of public executions brought ruin on the community and affected the entire nation. Dickens believed there was a horrible fascination with the death penalty, and that this fascination was as harmful as the death penalty itself.
Dickens also sharply criticized slavery in America, as well as condemned America's corrupt politics and slanderous (false statements that damage a person's reputation) press. Not surprisingly, his book produced a great deal of resentment in the United States.
Although an extremely successful novelist, Dickens maintained his interest in social reform. Searching for a way to make a difference, he invested some of his royalties in a new radical newspaper called The Daily News. The newspaper regularly advocated progress and improvement of education, civil and religious liberty, and equal rights legislation. The paper began publication January 21, 1846, with Dickens as its editor.
At the same time, Dickens began work on the novel David Copperfield. The novel contained an autobiographical element and vaulted Dickens to the top of the list of popular English authors. The Daily News, however, was not a commercial success and Dickens moved on in 1850 to edit the weekly magazine Household Words. He continued his interest in charitable enterprises, including free schools for inner-city children, a program to rehabilitate prostitutes, and a low-cost housing project. Dickens was a lifelong advocate of national schools, which were not approved by Parliament until after his death in 1870.
When Dickens had a disagreement with his partners in Household Words in 1859, he closed the journal and replaced it with All the Year Round that April. The new journal still covered social issues but also offered general interest articles and stories. Two of his most important works—A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1860–61)—first appeared as serialized novels in the magazine.
Dickens's continued practice of political agitation also kept him in the public eye. His fame led to a new adventure as an entertainer, using his own writings in public readings. The readings became an important part of his work and were made necessary, in part, by heavy financial obligations. The demands were due to his ever increasing family as well as the purchase of his dream home, Gad's Hill Place, in Kent.
Dickens's first public reading occurred in April 1858. His readings were so popular that he received an invitation to return to America and perform. He sailed for Boston aboard the Cuba on November 9, 1867, and landed ten days later amid a shower of rockets and flares welcoming him back. Both America and Dickens had changed in twenty-five years. Old resentments were forgotten during his tour of sixteen eastern cities.
Dickens triumphed on the stage as well as at the box office, but the schedule he kept exacted a heavy toll on his health. Returning to England in April 1868, the tour continued, as did his work as editor and publisher of All the Year Round. On June 9, 1870, Dickens died and was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London on June 14. Only about a dozen of his closest friends and family attended his funeral.
For More Information
Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime. London: Macmillan & Company, Ltd., 1962.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life andWork. New York: Checkmark Books, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. American Notes. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1988.
Stephen, Sir Leslie, and Sir Sidney Lee, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1938.
DICKENS, CHARLES (1812–1870), English novelist.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born near Portsmouth, England, on 7 February 1812, to Elizabeth Barrow and John Dickens. The happiest years of his early childhood were spent between 1817 and 1823 in Chatham, Kent, where he attended school and was first introduced to the world of literature and drama. In 1823, John Dickens moved his family to London, and the eleven-year-old Charles found himself suddenly catapulted into the excitement of big-city life and the trauma of financial hardship. In 1824, Dickens's father was arrested for debt and incarcerated in Marshalsea Debtors Prison. For the months that John Dickens and his family lived in a single, cramped room in the Marshalsea, Charles lived alone in lodgings and worked at Warren's Blacking Factory, where he spent ten hours a day pasting labels on bottles of shoe polish. The six shillings (less than a third of a pound) that Dickens earned weekly had to both pay for his keep and help support his family.
Dickens's time at the blacking factory importantly shaped his outlook as a writer and social critic. A great many of his novelistic images and themes—prisons, degraded conditions of labor, children lost in the city, the importance of education, the dangers of unstable capital in industrialized urban culture—grew out of this traumatic childhood experience. The Warren's factory experience can also be seen reflected specifically in Dickens's later writing: several chapters of the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield (1850) illustrate the misery of his time at the factory, and it was at Warren's that Dickens met the boy on whom he would base the infamous Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist (1837–1839).
Dickens was able to leave Warren's and return to school after a legacy improved his family's financial situation. He attended the Wellington House Academy during the years 1824 to 1827, and, at fifteen, entered the adult world as a solicitor's clerk. In his spare time, he studied shorthand at Doctors' Commons, which led to work as a parliamentary reporter and a position as a staff reporter for the Morning Chronicle. By 1833, Dickens had contributed his first sketches of urban life to the Monthly Magazine and other periodicals. These pieces were soon collected in his first book, Sketches by Boz (1836). Shortly after publishing this first book, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth.
In 1836, at the age of twenty-four, Dickens began the weekly serial publication of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836–1837), which grew to become a sensational success and solidified Dickens's literary fame and reputation. In 1837 Dickens began his next novel, Oliver Twist, edited Bentley's Miscellany, and celebrated the birth of his first child. The joys of this active time were dampened, however, by the death of Catherine's sister Mary, to whom both Catherine and Charles were deeply attached. Dickens's idealization of Mary can be seen in his many portraits of saintly, diminutive female characters, including Little Nell and Little Dorrit. Continuing the pattern of prolific industriousness that would typify his entire career, Dickens began to produce Nicholas Nickleby in 1838, and between 1840 and 1841 he published both The Old Curiousity Shop and his first historical novel, Barnaby Rudge, in the weekly periodical Master Humphrey's Clock.
In 1842, Dickens took America by storm. His six-month trip—during which he met such American literary lions as Washington Irving (1783–1859), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)—bore subsequent literary fruit: the controversial American Notes (1842) and the slyly devastating American episode in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–1844). A Christmas Carol, the first of five widely popular Christmas books, was published in December 1843. The mid- to late-1840s saw the publication of Pictures from Italy (1846), Dombey and Son (1848), and Dickens's "favorite child," David Copperfield (1850). During these years Dickens's marriage became increasingly troubled, while the ever-increasing Dickens family—by 1852, Catherine and Charles had ten children—lived in Italy, Switzerland, and Paris, as well as maintaining residence in London. Despite his family difficulties, extensive travel, and grueling writing schedule, Dickens also found time during this period to help establish and support such philanthropic causes as Miss Coutts's Home for Homeless Women.
The 1850s marked both increasing attention to social problems and a return to journalism. In 1850 Dickens launched the periodical Household Words, which was eventually incorporated into All the Year Round (1859–1893). Household Words combined informative journalism with fiction and published important contemporary novelists such as Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865) and Wilkie Collins (1824–1889). Bleak House, a frontal attack on urban poverty and the foggy and wasteful English legal system, was serialized between 1852 and 1853, and was followed immediately by Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1855–1857), novels that derided exploitative industrialism and rapacious greed. All this social criticism had the effect of pushing Dickens firmly toward the top of the social ladder: In 1856 Dickens found himself finally able to purchase the gentleman's residence he had once fantasized owning, Gad's Hill Place in Kent. The end of the decade saw both the publication of his second and final foray into historical fiction, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and his permanent separation from Catherine.
In 1858, Dickens both made the acquaintance of the actress Ellen Ternan, with whom he maintained a close relationship until his death, and began his immensely popular public readings. The stress and strain of these performances, which he toured in both England and the United States, led to a breakdown in 1869. The 1860s saw the publication of The Uncommercial Traveller (1860), a collection of journalistic essays, and the serializations of Great Expectations (1860–1861) and Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865). After a farewell season of public readings early in 1870, Dickens began The Mystery of Edwin Drood. His poor health, however, would not relent, and Dickens died on 9 June 1870, leaving Edwin Drood uncompleted. Dickens was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Dickens is well known for his humor, his social criticism, and his popularity. He was a comic master whose extravagant characters neatly eviscerated aristocratic snobbery, social stratification, and human fallibility. He is also renowned for his attention to social issues and his sympathy for the poor and underprivileged in the rapidly changing landscape of the industrialized nineteenth century. His impact spanned continents: his novel Bleak House was so widely embraced as a powerful indictment of social injustice that Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) saw fit to publish its serial installments in his American abolitionist paper. Dickens also contributed mightily to the development of the novel form. He significantly helped "reinvent" serial fiction, drawing on earlier eighteenth-century experiments in serialization for his publication of The Pickwick Papers and using the serial format for all subsequent novels. In addition to reaching back into the eighteenth century, Dickens responded in sensitive and nuanced ways to contemporary genre developments in narrative. Elements of the popular working-class "urban mysteries" novel, the protest novel, the detective novel, and the city novel inform his writing. Finally, Dickens's work was important to nineteenth-century theatrical development, and he is increasingly seen as a protomodernist writer (T. S. Eliot [1888–1965], for instance, originally named his famous modernist poem The Waste Land after a line from Our Mutual Friend, "He Do The Police in Different Voices"). From the publication of The Pickwick Papers to the twenty-first century, Dickens has not only had great impact on literary history but has also enjoyed an almost unprecedented and enduring literary fame.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion. London, 2002.
Chesterton, G. K. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens. London, 1911.
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London, 1872–1874.
Glavin, John. After Dickens: Reading, Adaptation and Performance. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.
Houston, Gail Turley. Consuming Fictions: Gender, Class, and Hunger in Dickens's Novels. Carbondale, Ill., 1994.
Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York, 1952.
Jordan, John O., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York, 1988.
Schor, Hilary M. Dickens and the Daughter of the House. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.
Stewart, Garrett. Dickens and the Trials of Imagination. Cambridge, Mass., 1974.
Vlock, Deborah. Dickens, Novel Reading, and the Victorian Popular Theatre. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.
Welsh, Alexander. The City of Dickens. Oxford, U.K., 1971.
English author Charles Dickens continues to be one of the most widely read Victorian (nineteenth-century) novelists. Scrooge, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickelby remain familiar characters today. His novels describe the life and conditions of the poor and working class in the Victorian era of England, when people lived by strict rules.
Childhood and schooling
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, at Portsea (later part of Portsmouth) on the southern coast of England, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. Charles was the second born of eight children. His father was a pay clerk in the navy office. Because of financial difficulties, the family moved about until they settled in Camden Town, a poor neighborhood in London, England. At the age of twelve Charles worked with working-class men and boys in a factory that handled "blacking," or shoe polish. While his father was in debtor's prison, the rest of the family moved to live near the prison, leaving Charles to live alone. This experience of lonely hardship was the most significant event of his life. It colored his view of the world and would later be described in a number of his novels.
Charles returned to school when his father received an inheritance and was able to repay his debts. But in 1827, at age fifteen, he was again forced leave school and work as an office boy. In the following year he became a freelance reporter and stenographer (using shorthand to transcribe documents) at the law courts of London. By 1832 he had become a reporter for two London newspapers and, in the following year, began to contribute a series of impressions and sketches to other newspapers and magazines, signing some of them "Boz." These scenes of London life went far to establish his reputation and were published in 1836 as Sketches by Boz, his first book. On the strength of this success Charles married Catherine Hogarth. Together they had ten children.
In 1836 Dickens also began to publish The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in monthly installments, a form of serial publication that became a standard method of writing and producing fiction in the Victorian period. So great was Dickens's success with the procedure that Pickwick became one of the most popular works of the time, and continued to be so after it was published in book form in 1837.
After Pickwick 's success, Dickens began publishing his new novel, Oliver Twist. He was also now editor of Bentley's Miscellany, a new monthly magazine. He continued publishing his novel in his later magazines, Household Worlds and All the Year Round. Oliver Twist expressed Dickens's interest in the life of the slums to the fullest, as it traced the fortunes of an innocent orphan through the London streets.
Though Dickens's career was successful, for the next decade his books did not achieve the standard of his early successes. These works include: Nicholas Nickleby (1838–1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841), and Barnaby Rudge (1841).
In 1842 Dickens, who was as popular in America as he was in England, went on a five-month lecture tour of the United States, speaking out strongly against slavery and in support of other reforms. On his return he wrote American Notes, a book that criticizes American life as being culturally backward and materialistic (characterized by the desire for wealth and material goods). His next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–1844), describes the hero finding that survival on the American frontier is more difficult than making his way in England. During the years in which Chuzzlewit appeared, Dickens also published two Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol and The Chimes.
First major novels
After a year abroad in Italy and writing Pictures from Italy (1846), Dickens published installments of Dombey and Son, which continued till 1848. This completed novel established a new standard in the Dickensian novel and marked the turning point in his career. As its full title indicates, Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son is a study of the influence of the values of a business society on the personal fortunes of a family and those with whom the family meets. It takes a somber view of England at mid-century, and its tone becomes characteristic of Dickens's future novels.
Dickens's next novel, David Copperfield (1849–1850), is the first complete record of the typical course of a young man's life in Victorian England. This autobiographical novel fictionalized elements of Dickens's childhood, his pursuit of a journalism career, and his love life. Though Copperfield is not Dickens's greatest novel, it was his personal favorite.
In 1850 Dickens began a new magazine, Household Words. His editorials and articles touched upon English politics, social institutions, and family life. They also spoke to the fictional treatment of these subjects in Dickens's novels. The weekly magazine ran to 1859, when Dickens began to conduct a new weekly, All the Year Round. In both these periodicals he published some of his major novels.
The 1850s were a sad and dark time for Dickens. In 1851, within a two-week period, Dickens's father and one of his daughters died. In 1858, a year after he fell in love with an actress, he separated from his wife.
Partly in response to the deaths, Dickens's next series of works were called his "dark" novels, though they rank among the greatest triumphs of the art of fiction. In Bleak House (1852–1853), perhaps the most complicated plot of any English novel, the narrative served to create a sense of the interrelationship of all segments of English society. In Hard Times (1854), Dickens describes an English industrial town during the height of economic expansion, and details an up-close view of the limitations of both employers and reformers.
Little Dorrit (1855–1857) may be regarded as Dickens's greatest novel. In it he portrays the conditions of England as he saw it, and the conflict between the world's harshness and human values in its most impressive artistic form.
In this period Dickens also began to give public readings from his novels, which became even more popular than his lectures. In 1859 Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel of the French Revolution. Besides publishing this novel in the newly founded All the Year Round, Dickens also published seventeen articles, which appeared as a book in 1860 entitled The Uncommercial Traveller.
Dickens's next novel, Great Expectations (1860–1861), is regarded by some as his most perfectly executed work of art. It is a story of a young man's moral development from childhood to adult life. Three years later he produced Our Mutual Friend, which provides an insight of how he viewed London.
For several years Dickens's health declined. He never fully recovered from a railroad accident in 1865. He tired himself out by continuing to travel throughout the British Isles and America to read before audiences. He gave a final series of readings in London that began in 1870.
Dickens died of a fatal stroke on June 9, 1870, leaving the novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished. The day of his burial was made a day of national mourning in England.
For More Information
Chesterton, G. K., and F. G. Kitton. Charles Dickens. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903. Reprint, London: Burns and Oates, 1975.
Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Dickens: Being a Good-Natured Guide to the Art and Adventures of the Man Who Invented Scrooge. New York: Viking, 1998.
Marcus, Steven. Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey. New York: Basic Books, 1965.
Sirabian, Robert. Charles Dickens: Life, Work, and Criticism. Toronto: York Press, 2002.
Smiley, Jane. Charles Dickens. New York: Viking, 2002.
DICKENS, Charles (John Huffham)
Characters and experimentsThe strength of Dickens is his characters, particularly the comics and eccentrics, who live largely through their speech and through catchphrases that helped fix them for readers who met them in monthly serials. Their names are notable and often say something about their bearers: Mr Bumble the Beadle, the benevolent brothers Cheeryble, Thomas Gradgrind the Utilitarian, the fawning clerk Uriah Heep, the convict Abel Magwitch, Mr McChoakumchild the teacher, the amiable nurse Clara Peggotty, the impostor Mr Pumblechook, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. His place-names are also often suggestive: Blunderstone, Coketown, Dotheboys Hall, Eatanswill. Like Scott, Dickens worked dialect into his novels, particularly COCKNEY, for which he used idiosyncratic spelling that nonetheless conveyed the sounds and cadences of London, as for example the style, dialect, and accent of Mr Pickwick's servant Sam Weller:
‘That a'nt the wost on it, neither. They puts things into old gen'lm'n's heads as they never dreamed of. My father, sir, wos a coachman. A widower he wos, and fat enough for anything—uncommon fat, to be sure. His missus dies, and leaves him four hundred pound. Down he goes to the Commons, to see the lawyer and draw the blunt—wery smart—top—boots on—nosegay in his button–hole—broad-brimmed tile—green shawl—quite the gen'lm'n. Goes through the archvay, thinking how he should inwest the money—up comes the touter, touches his hat—“Licence, sir, licence?”—“What's that?” says my father.—“Marriage licence,” says the touter.—“Dash my veskit,” says my father, “I never thought o' that.”—“I think you wants one, sir, ” says the touter’ (The Pickwick Papers, ch. 10).
Dickens learned shorthand for his work as a reporter and had a good ear for slang and colloquialism, and was accused of coarseness by contemporary critics. His experiments in the presentation of material included such non-traditional syntax and punctuation as:
Thomas Gradgrind, Sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over. Thomas Gradgrind, Sir—peremptorily Thomas—Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, Sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. (Hard Times, 1854, ch. 1).
Poetic proseDickens's general style is usually powerful and persuasive in direct narrative and description. He convinces the reader by an accumulation of detail that can be extravagant to the point of absurdity, but makes its effect in his imaginary world. His PROSE sometimes has an underlying rhythm close to blank verse, mimetic of sounds like the movement of coaches and trains. Some passages, with their nonclassical punctuation, such as the opening of Bleak House (1852–3), have almost the quality of free verse:
LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
StatureLike Chaucer and Shakespeare, Dickens is a giant of ENGLISH LITERATURE, his work known as much through cinema and television as through his books themselves. On his contemporary significance, David Parker, Curator of the Dickens House Museum in London, has observed: ‘For us Dickens stands where Homer did for earlier generations. We can no longer, without affectation, speak of the wisdom of Nestor, the beauty of Helen; we can, and we do, of a real Scrooge, a Micawberish attitude. Like Homer, Dickens gave us forms for the imagination, unconstrained by genre, affecting even the very language. Dramatizations of his novels were staged even before the final parts appeared, and the narratives he created now yield us, not only films and television serials, but also musicals, newspaper cartoons, Christmas cards, toby jugs, shop-window dressings, and annual festivals’ (letter to the Sunday Times, 26 Feb. 1989). See CIRCUMLOCUTION, HUMOUR, SAXONISM.
Charles Dickens, 1812–70, English author, b. Portsmouth, one of the world's most popular, prolific, and skilled novelists.
Early Life and Works
The son of a naval clerk, Dickens spent his early childhood in London and in Chatham. When he was 12 his father was imprisoned for debt, and Charles was compelled to work in a blacking warehouse. He never forgot this double humiliation. At 17 he was a court stenographer, and later he was an expert parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle. His sketches, mostly of London life (signed Boz), began appearing in periodicals in 1833, and the collection Sketches by Boz (1836) was a success.
Soon Dickens was commissioned to write burlesque sporting sketches; the result was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836–37), which promptly made Dickens and his characters, especially Sam Weller and Mr. Pickwick, famous. In 1836 he married Catherine Hogarth, who was to bear him 10 children; the marriage, however, was never happy. Dickens had a tender regard for Catherine's sister Mary Hogarth, who died young, and a lifelong friendship with another sister, Georgina Hogarth.
The early-won fame never deserted Dickens. His readers were eager and ever more numerous, representing every English social strata—from barely literate factory workers to Queen Victoria—and Dickens worked vigorously for them, producing novels that appeared first in monthly installments and then were made into books. Oliver Twist (in book form, 1838) was followed by Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and by two works originally intended to start a series called Master Humphrey's Clock:The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and Barnaby Rudge (1841). Throughout the mid-19th cent. Dickens was probably the best-known and most beloved man in England.
Dickens wrote rapidly, sometimes working on more than one novel at a time, and usually finished an installment just when it was due. Haste did not prevent his loosely strung and intricately plotted books from being the most popular novels of his day. When he visited America in 1842, he was received with ovations but awakened some displeasure by his remarks on copyright protection and his approval of the abolition of slavery. He replied with sharp criticism of America in American Notes (1842) and the novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843). The first of his Christmas books was the well-loved A Christmas Carol (1843). In later years other short novels and stories written for the season followed, notably The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth.
Dickens lived in Italy in 1844 and in Switzerland in 1846. Dombey and Son (1848) was the first in a string of triumphant novels including David Copperfield (1850), his own favorite novel, which was partly autobiographical; Bleak House (1853); Hard Times (1854); Little Dorrit (1857); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); Great Expectations (1861); and Our Mutual Friend (1865). In 1856 he bought his long-desired country home at Gadshill. Two years later, because of Dickens's attentions to a young actress, Ellen Ternan, his wife ended their marriage by formal separation. Her sister Georgina remained with Dickens to care for his household and the younger children.
Dickens was working furiously, editing and contributing to the magazines Household Words (1850–59) and All the Year Round (1858–70) and managing amateur theatricals. To these labors he added platform readings from his own works; three tours in the British Isles (1858, 1861–65, 1866–67) were followed by one in America (1867–68). When he undertook another English tour of readings (1869–70), his health broke, and he died soon afterward, leaving his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished. His grave is in Westminster Abbey.
Charles Dickens is one of the giants of English literature. He wrote from his own experience a great deal—the Marshalsea prison dominates Little Dorrit, and his father was at least partially the model for Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield. Although he was expert at journalistic reporting, he wrote nothing that was not transformed from actuality by his imagination. Sharp depiction of the eccentricities and characteristic traits of people was stretched into caricature, and for generations of readers the names of his characters—Mr. Pickwick, Uriah Heep, Miss Havisham, Ebenezer Scrooge—have been household words.
His enormous warmth of feeling sometimes spilled into sentimental pathos, sometimes flowed as pure tragedy. Dickens was particularly successful at evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of London, and the customs of his day. He attacked the injustices of the law and social hypocrisy and evils, but after many of the ills he pictured had been cured he gained still more readers. Some critics complain of his disorderliness in structure and of his sentimentality, but none has attempted to deny his genius at revealing the very pulse of life.
See his letters ed. by M. House et al. (12 vol., 1965–2002) and selected letters ed. by J. Hartley (2012). The old standard biography of Dickens is by his friend John Forster (3 vol., 1872–74; new ed. 1928, repr. 1969). See also biographies by E. Johnson (2 vol., 1952), P. Collins (1987), F. Kaplan (1988), P. Ackroyd (1990), M. Slater (2009), R. Douglas-Fairhurst (2011), C. Tomalin (2011), and R. L. Patten (2012); C. Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1991, repr. 2001), L. Nayder, The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth (2010), and R. Gottlieb, Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens (2012); studies by M. Engel (1959), I. Brown (1964 and 1970), A. Wilson (1970), A. E. Dyson (1971), J. Carey (1974), E. Johnson, (1986), and J. Smiley (2002); P. Collins, ed., Dickens: The Critical Heritage (1971); M. and M. Hardwick, The Charles Dickens Encyclopedia (1973, repr. 1993), P. Hobsbaum, A Reader's Guide to Charles Dickens (1973), N. Page, A Dickens Companion (1987), P. Ackroyd, Dickens' London (1988), and S. Ledger and H. Furneaux, ed., Charles Dickens in Context (2011).
Dickens, Charles (1812-1870)
Dickens, Charles (1812-1870)
The great novelist Charles Dickens, born on February 7, 1812, had a keen interest in the supernatural, although he was skeptical of Spiritualism, and wrote several thrilling ghost stories, notably To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt and The Signalman.
His novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood was interrupted in its monthly publication by the death of Dickens on July 8, 1870. Shortly thereafter, T. P. James, an uneducated American mechanic of Brattleboro, Vermont, obtained messages in automatic writing that he claimed emanated from the author.
Between Christmas 1872 and July 1873, scripts came from under his hand that continued Dickens's unfinished novel. The posthumous section was longer than the first and presented a surprising continuity of the manner of thought, style, and peculiarities of Dicken's writing. The two sections were published together in 1874 as The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with Charles Dickens given as the author.
Spiritualists the world over hailed the book as a most convincing proof of spirit return. However, psychologist Theodore Flournoy, in Spiritism and Psychology (1911), undertook to demonstrate that Dickens himself had nothing to do with the affair and that everything was easily explained by processes of latent incubation and subconscious imagination within the medium himself. He quoted the conclusions of Mme. K. Fairbanks, a distinguished member of the Geneva University, who observed that "there are certainly very successful passages such as the scenes between the two women, Billickin and Twinkleton. But there are others which are just the contrary."
Furthermore, John Forster, author of The Life of Charles Dickens (1911), discovered among the papers of the deceased author a whole scene in Edwin Drood, written in advance and destined to figure later in the novel. Flournoy found it incredible that the "spirit" of the author, who remembered so clearly the part of the volume already published that no more than three new persons are introduced in any part of the second section, should have completely forgotten the chapter written and left in manuscript.
Forster averred that as a striking proof of identity Dickens would have made an allusion to it from the spirit world. In the book itself and in the cover blurb, T. P. James does not pretend that he has not read Dickens and his last novel. "Now it is evident," stated Flournoy, "that if he had not read Dickens he would most probably have boasted of his accomplishment, because that would have rendered his performance much more extraordinary. Let us not forget," he finally remarked, "that the medium had two and a half years to imbibe the original work of the author, and in letting this 'simmer'—without counting the six months afterwards employed in automatic writing— three years in all were completed. We must confess that this greatly reduces its marvelous character."
Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his book The Edge of the Unknown (1930), concludes that "the actual inspiration of Dickens is far from being absolutely established…. It reads like Dickens gone flat." In the same book he recorded some personally obtained automatic contributions to the solution of the mystery of Edwin Drood.
Dickens had a special interest in mesmerism or animal magnetism, through his friendship with John Elliotson. In 1838 Dickens witnessed a demonstration by Elliotson of the "mighty curative powers of animal magnetism." During his tour in Italy in 1844, Dickens became acquainted with the family of Emile de la Rue, a Swiss banker residing in Genoa. Dickens actually practiced mesmerism on Madame de la Rue as a treatment for her neurasthenic disorders, even experimenting with treatment at a distance. On one such occasion, while he was concentrating on sending this force over a distance, his wife, Catherine, seated nearby, fell into a "mesmeric trance," her senses numbed and her extremities cold. When Dickens awakened her, she said she had been "magnetized."
Dickens's interest of in such occult subjects was often masked by his popular writings in a jocular vein. In 1848 he practiced mesmerism on the artist John Leech, who had suffered from a severe fall. Afterward, Dickens wrote to John Forster with the jocular comment, "What do you think of my setting up in the magnetic line with a large brass plate? 'Terms twenty-five guineas per nap."'
Fairbanks, K. "Le Cas Spirite de Dickens." Arch. de Psychol. T.I. (June 1892).
Jacobson, Wendy S. The Companion to "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." London: Allen & Unwin, 1986.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens and Mesmerism: The Hidden Springs of Fiction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.
Dickens, Charles John Huffam
Sue Minna Cannon