Charles John Huffam Dickens (Feb. 7, 1812 – June 9, 1870) was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world’s best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century, critics and scholars had recognized his literary genius. His novels and short stories remain popular.
Born in Portsmouth, Dickens left school to work in a factory when his father was incarcerated in a debtors’ prison. Despite his lack of formal education, he edited a weekly journal for 20 years; wrote 15 novels, five novellas, and hundreds of short stories and nonfiction articles; lectured and performed extensively; was an indefatigable letter writer; and campaigned vigorously for children’s rights, education, and social reforms.
Dickens’s literary success began with the 1836 serial publication of “The Pickwick Papers.” Within a few years he had become an international celebrity, famous for his humor, satire, and keen observation of character and society. His novels, mostly published in monthly or weekly installments, pioneered the series genre — the dominant mode for the publication of novels in the Victorian era.
The installment format allowed Dickens to evaluate his audience’s reaction, and he often modified his plot and character development based on such feedback. For example, when his wife’s chiropodist expressed distress at the way Miss Mowcher in “David Copperfield” seemed to reflect her disabilities, Dickens improved the character with positive features. His plots were carefully constructed, and he often wove elements from topical events into his narratives.
Masses of the illiterate poor chipped in ha’pennies to have each new monthly episode read to them, opening up and inspiring a new class of readers.
Dickens was regarded as the literary colossus of his age.
His 1843 novella, “A Christmas Carol,” remains popular and continues to inspire adaptations in every artistic genre. “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations” are also frequently adapted, and, like many of his novels, evoke images of early Victorian London. His 1859 novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” set in London and Paris, is his best-known work of historical fiction.
Dickens’s creative genius has been praised by fellow writers — from Leo Tolstoy to George Orwell and G. K. Chesterton — for its realism, comedy, prose style, unique characterizations, and social criticism. On the other hand, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf complained of a lack of psychological depth, loose writing, and a vein of saccharine sentimentalism.
The term “Dickensian” is used to describe something reminiscent of Dickens and his writings, such as poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters.