Charles Dickens 1812-1870

Charles Dickens was an extraordinary man. He is best known as a novelist but he was very much more than that. He was as prominent in his other pursuits but they were not areas of life where we can still see him today. We see him as the author of such classics as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House and many others. All of his novels are English classics.

Dickens had an almost unbelievable level of energy. In addition to writing all those lengthy books in long-hand, he had time to pursue what would have been full-time careers for most people in acting, literary editing social campaigning and philanthropic administration. He was also the father of a large family, as well as being involved in a love affair that lasted many years.

He began as a journalist, writing little pieces about daily life and developed very quickly into a best-selling novelist, avidly read throughout the English speaking world. At the same time he was appearing in plays and touring, reading from his novels. And editing his literary hournals, Household Words and All the Year Round, which featured the serialisation of his novels, with people queuing up to buy them, eager to find out how the previous episode would be concluded.

Charles Dickens photograph

Charles Dickens photograph

As a child Dickens saw his father imprisoned for debt and that led him to a lifelong interest in prisons and the need for the reform of the system. Many of his novels reveal the cold hard facts of the Victorian prison system and, with so many readers, the novels had a great effect on the consciousness of the public. In addition to that Dickens campaigned and lobbied for reform.

Dickens was a man who seemed to be able to direct his efforts in several directions and give each his full attention. He spent ten years running Urania Cottage, a home for ‘fallen women.’ And organisation aimed at helping the women get back to respectable life, either in England or Australia or America. He spent his own money on the project and gave it his full attention.

It is difficult to imagine English culture without the characters who inhabit Dickens’ novels. Just a mention of the name ‘Miss Havisham,’ brings up the image of someone embittered and socially marginalised, living in an unreal world that has stopped turning. ‘Mr Gradgrind’ creates the image of inflexibility and Mr McCawber the delusional optimist, always relying on his cheerful belief that something will turn up to solve his problems, makes us shake our heads with a mixture of amusement and pity.

Where would English culture be if there had been no Fagin, no Oliver Twist, no Ebenezer Scrooge? What graphic image would we have of a fawning, writhing, hypocritical functionary without Uriah Heep springing into our minds? And what about the pompous Mr Bumble and the cruel, cold-hearted Mr Murdstone and his iron sister, Miss Murdstone? The list of Dickens characters who have embedded themselves firmly in English culture is endless.

Dickens’ novels, which lend themselves to dramatisation for stage, television and film, are delightful to read and several are regarded as the greatest of English novels. Indeed, Bleak House is acclaimed by critics as being among the greatest of world novels, in the same category as Huckleberry Finn, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick.

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