The son of a Naval Clerk, Charles Dickens had, in an often brutal age, an idyllic early childhood. Growing up in Chatham he spent much of his time outdoors relishing the beauty of the North Kent Marshes. Books by Charles Dickens often had characters and settings formed by his early life, with the landscape of his childhood later immortalised in his book Great Expectations.
His happy childhood came to a dramatic end when the Dickens family moved to London in 1822 and Dickens’ father, in financial difficulties, was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalea debtors prison. The family moved into the prison with him, though Dickens was able to lodge with an elderly spinster, who would later be immortalised as ‘Mrs Pipchin’ in Dombey and Son. The 12 year old Dickens was forced to work in a factory, sticking labels onto pots of boot-blacking. The terrible conditions at the factory, which stood on the site now occupied by Embankment tube station, deeply affected him as he worked long hours for meagre pay in a building overrun with rats. It is there that his sympathy for the plight of the working-class took shape, a theme which runs throughout all his work.
Dickens’ great-grandmother died a few months after he began his job, leaving enough money to save the family and allowing Dickens to finally go to school. The school he would attend provided ample characters for his future works, the sadistic school masters and gloomy atmosphere can be found displayed in David Copperfield, his most autobiographical novel.
After leaving school Dickens became a junior clerk in a law firm and began to write in his spare time, submitting sketches and political articles to London periodicals. His first collection was published in 1836, Sketches by Boz (‘Boz’ being a family nickname he used as a pseudonym). The collection was successful and Dickens immediately started working on his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. The novel was published in monthly one-shilling instalments with illustrations by the artist ‘Phiz’ (their collaboration would continue throughout Dickens's career). The book became a publishing phenomenon with thousands of instalments sold (including innumerable bootleg copies), theatrical adaptations and even joke books inspired by the characters.
With the huge popularity of Pickwick Dickens was able to marry his fiancée Catherine Hogarth, moving into a house in Bloomsbury where they would have 10 children together. Following his new found success, Dickens began work on what would become one of his best-loved novels, Oliver Twist. After its publication and acclaim, he and his wife toured the world giving readings and lectures on issues from slavery to international copyright law, leaving the care of their children to Catherine’s sister Georgina.
Dickens had always been involved in the theatre, writing plays in his early career. In 1857 the 45 year old Dickens began rehearsals for The Frozen Deep, written jointly with his protégé Wilkie Collins. It was during this production that he met and fell deeply in love with Ellen Ternan, an 18 year old actress. The extent to which this love was reciprocal is open to speculation as both Dickens and Ternan subsequently destroyed all their correspondence. It has been suggested by biographers that Ternan had a child with Dickens. What is known is that for the rest of her life Ternan would be supported financially by Dickens. A number of Dickens characters were inspired or named after Ternan – notably Bella in Our Mutual Friend and the cool calculating Estella in Great Expectations.
Charles and Catharine agreed to separate in 1858 and she left the house never to see him again.Catherine outlived her husband, leaving a collection of his letters. "Give these to the British Museum," it is claimed she asked her executor “that the world may know he loved me once".
At death Dickens was the most successful writer of the age. His novels, including A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House and Hard Times, were all bestsellers, and he toured extensively giving readings and promoting charitable causes (most famously as one of the early supporters of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital). Books by Charles Dickens were massively effective in changing public attitudes towards the poor during the industrial revolution, so much so that George Bernard Shaw later commented that Little Dorrit was a more revolutionary and seditious book than Marx’s Das Kapital. Dickens died of a stroke on 9 June 1870 and was buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey with the epitaph “England’s most popular author”, a title he could arguably still lay claim to today.