Bleak House: Biography: Charles Dickens

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Charles John Huffam Dickens was born February 7, 1812 in Portsmouth, England, to John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow, the second of eight children. His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, and the family was fairly prosperous. The family moved to Chatham, Kent, where Dickens was sent to private school at the age of five.

Later the family moved to Camden Town, London, when he was ten. When his father lost money and was imprisoned for debt at the Marshalsea Prison, his mother and siblings joined him there, and he alone was sent to work at a boot-blacking factory at the age of twelve to help the family out. With the disgrace of being pulled from school and made to work as a child laborer long hours, living on his own, the trauma of abandonment haunted his life and fiction. He kept this part of his life a secret, and it did not come out until after his death. This incident accounts for his focus on orphans, mistreatment of children, and the shame of slum and working class conditions.

In 1827, Dickens became a law clerk with the idea of eventually becoming a lawyer. He became a court stenographer at the age of seventeen. In 1834 Dickens traveled through Britain as a journalist writing of the elections for the Morning Chronicle. His journalism inspired a collection of descriptive pieces called Sketches by Boz (his early pen name) in 1836. The same year he married Catherine Thompson Hogarth, the daughter of the editor of the Evening Chronicle. They lived in Bloomsbury and had ten children.

In 1836, he became editor of Bentley’s Miscellany, while producing his early novels in periodical installments, later published as books: Oliver Twist (1837-39); Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39); The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. His work was phenomenally popular in England and America, and in 1842, he made his first trip to America, satirizing American habits in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. A Christmas Carol (1843) began his series of Christmas books.

The family lived in Italy and Switzerland between 1844-1846, and then he published his great masterpieces, Dombey and Son (1848); David Copperfield (1849-50); Bleak House (1852-53); Hard Times (1854); Little Dorrit (1857); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); Great Expectations (1861). Dickens also managed to found and contribute to two journals: Household Words (1850-1859); and All the Year Round (1858-1870).

Dickens organized amateur theatricals; when he met actress Ellen Ternan, he fell in love with her, and the two were companions for the rest of his life, after he separated from his wife in 1858. Dickens often toured, reading his fiction in performances that were very popular in England, Scotland, Ireland, and America. During readings in 1869, he collapsed from a minor stroke, and died June 9, 1870, from another stroke at the age of 58. He was buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, universally mourned.

His fiction dealt with pressing social issues in entertaining format, using both realism and fantasy. Dickens is sometimes faulted for excessive sentimentalism and plot co-incidences, but his work has never been out of print, and he is counted a fictional master the world over.

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