Study Guide

Charles Dickens Introduction

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Charles Dickens Introduction

Charles Dickens did not invent the urban poverty that we now call "Dickensian." He did not dream up the poor Victorian orphans that populate his fiction. Nor the appalling conditions in factories characterizing the Industrial Revolution. Nor the injustice of the debtors' prisons. Nor the class system that kept the poor trapped in wretched circumstances. He simply saw these things unfolding around him in mid-nineteenth century London, and then he thoroughly documented them in the form of truer-than-true novels such as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and Bleak House.

Dickens became one of the most popular and prolific writers of his time, and he remains the gold standard of English novelists. Charles Dickens knew how to write a page-turner. Almost all of his novels were written in the form of monthly installments in popular magazines. But he also had a keen eye for social injustice. While everyone else was yammering on about how super the Industrial Revolution was, Dickens made sure that the public remembered the middle class – the very class squeezed between industrial progress and its dark underbelly.

For all of his success, Dickens's personal life was like something out of . . . well, a Dickens novel. Dickens's cash-strapped parents sent him to work at a boot-blacking factory when he was just twelve years old, an experience that left a deep and painful impression upon him. His father was thrown into debtor's prison, a completely legal practice at that time when people could not pay their debts (declaring bankruptcy was not an option then). His mother was neglectful. Dickens and his wife had ten children before separating bitterly. And Dickens didn't seem to like being a father any more than being a husband.

By the time he died at age 58 in 1870, Dickens seemed always to be striving for some happiness just out of reach, very akin to his fictional characters. "Why is it," he wrote near the end of his life, "that as with poor David [Copperfield], a sense comes always crushing on me now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness I have missed in life, one friend and companion I have never made?" Charles Dickens was a complicated character. Could a novelist of his insight and talent be any other way?

Charles Dickens Trivia

A team of British researchers (who apparently had some time on their hands) examined Dickens's description of the gruel served in Oliver Twist's workhouse and found that the meals provided only 400 calories a day – enough to cause severe malnutrition and stunting of growth in a nine-year-old boy.

Fortunately, the real-life workhouse residents upon whom Dickens based the story of Oliver Twist lived better than their fictional counterparts. The same British team looked at historical records from the mid-nineteenth century and determined that most workhouse residents received a diet of gruel that, while not particularly tasty, contained a nutritious balance of carbohydrates and proteins and weighed in at an adequate 1,600 to 1,700 calories. (No word on whether headmasters actually smacked boys for asking for more.)

On 10 June 1865, the train in which Dickens and his mistress Nelly Ternan were riding careened off the rails on a bridge in France. Seven of the train's eight cars plunged into the river, killing many passengers, while Dickens's car dangled off the bridge. The writer remained calm, offering brandy to shaken passengers and working to free those trapped in the cars below.

Even as an adult, Dickens broke down in tears every time he passed the former site of the bootblacking factory where he was forced to work as a child.

Charles Dickens had a thing for naming his kids after literary figures. Among his ten children were Alfred Tennyson Dickens (born 1845), Henry Fielding Dickens (born 1849), and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (born 1852).

Should you find yourself in Chatham, England, be sure to stop by Dickens World, which has to be the only Charles Dickens-themed amusement park on the planet. Attractions include the Great Expectations Boat Ride, a replica Victorian schoolhouse (complete with snarling teacher) and a haunted house. No word on whether they offer smallpox face-painting, or sell gruel at the concession stand.

There's still quite a market out there for Dickens's stuff. In 2008, the mahogany desk and chair in which Dickens wrote many of his best-known novels sold at auction for a combined 433,250 British pounds – or about $848,000.

Charles Dickens Resources


Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861)
You run on dangerous ground when you start talking about Dickens's best novel, but there's a pretty strong case to be made that Great Expectations is it. The story of the orphan Pip and his long road to maturity is a grand soliloquy on ambition, love, class, and, yes, expectations. Creepy convicts, creepy jilted brides, and creepy objects of affection round out the cast.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Set amid the French Revolution, this novel explores that transformational event from multiple perspectives. Though today we associate that event mainly with guillotines and rolling heads, it's important to remember how exciting the revolution's aims were for idealistic young people in England and France. And how bitterly disappointing it was when it all went wrong. Dickens's novel is as key to understanding the French Revolution as any of the history books written since.

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1839)
Fifteen novels and bajillions of words later, little Oliver Twist remains one of Dickens's favorite characters, and this novel remains one of his best-beloved books. Though Oliver claims the headliner spot, it's the supporting cast that really steals the show in this novel – the scrappy Dodger, the calculating Fagin, wicked Bill Sikes, and the good-as-gold Nancy. Definitely worth reading – even if it's not required.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
This is the most autobiographical of Dickens's novels. Told from David's first-person perspective, it follows the young narrator as he is sent to work at an early age (like Dickens), falls for a young woman who does not return his love (like Dickens) and grapples with his absent parents (like Dickens). You see where this is going.

Jane Smiley, Charles Dickens (2002)
This book is Charles Dickens's entry in the Penguin Great Lives series, a fantastic collection of short biographies of interesting people by great writers. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley takes on Dickens, exploring the secrets, subterfuge and slights of hand that made up his personal and professional life. We like her because she says things like "[Great Expectations] is totally Dickensy, yet shorter than the real Dickensy novels."_CITATION27_


Charles Dickens Photograph
A daguerreotype of Dickens made when the writer was in his fifties.

Young Dickens
A photographic portrait of the writer, circa 1852.

Dickens at Work
An 1858 photograph of Dickens at his desk.

Great Expectations
First editions of the novel.

Oliver Twist
Title pages of the 1838 first edition.

Reading Poster
An advertisement for a reading Dickens gave in 1869, one year before his death.

Oliver Twist
An original drawing for the first edition by George Cruikshank.

The Death of Little Nell
An illustration by George Cattermole for The Old Curiosity Shop.

A Tale of Two Cities
An illustration for the serialized novel by artist Hablot Knight Brown.

Movies & TV

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Simply, the best adaptation of Dickens's Christmas classic – stage or screen – of all time, period. Gonzo plays narrator Charles Dickens. And if Baby Kermit doesn't tear your heart out with his portrayal of Tiny Tim, well then you, sir, have no soul.

Great Expectations (1998)
Dickens might not recognize the altered details of his classic novel – Pip is now named Finn, and the story takes place on the American Gulf Coast instead of broody England – but the bones of the story are the same. This adaptation of what is arguably Dickens's best novel is a weird, lovely, haunting version of the story. It stars Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Oliver! (1968)
Do you like singing orphans? I said, Do you like singing orphans?? If you answered yes, then get ready for the best two hours of your life. In all fairness, this musical adaptation of Oliver Twist is a really sweet movie (it won Best Picture at the 1969 Oscars) and you will find yourself rooting for Oliver and Nancy just as passionately as you hate Bill Sikes and Mr. Bumble.

Little Dorrit (2008)
Dickens grew up visiting his father during the old man's stints in debtor's prison. Those memories inspired Little Dorrit, a novel about little people who pay brutally for small financial mistakes, while the wealthy and powerful commit far greater crimes and get away with it. When this excellent PBS miniseries appeared in 2008, Bernie Madoff had just ruined thousands of people's lives with his fraudulent investment scheme, proving the Dickens's work is still relevant today.

Nicholas Nickleby (2002)
Nicholas Nickleby isn't one of Dickens's best-known novels, but it sure makes a good movie. This adaptation by director and writer, Douglas McGrath, streamlines the book into a compelling narrative that features all of Dickens's most familiar devices: a scrappy, orphaned protagonist, heartless adults, poverty, and morals. Okay, so it doesn't sound very exciting when we put it like that. But trust us, it's good.

The Mystery of Charles Dickens (2000)
This is the film version of the English actor Simon Callow's one-man show about Charles Dickens. The script blends anecdotes from Dickens's biography with scenes from his novels. Callow performs the role of Dickens himself, as well as those of several of his characters.


David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page
Dickens enthusiast David Perdue has put together this incredibly useful assortment of Dickens information. The tidy categories displayed on the left side of the page range from the fast facts of Dickens's biography to a glossary of his oft-used terms to sections on his time in London, America, and more. Definitely one to bookmark if you're doing a research project.

Charles Dickens — The Life of An Author
This site from the New York Public Library is a virtual seminar with Dickens expert Kenneth Benson. It offers a fascinating, comprehensive introduction to the writer's life. Definitely a must-read for students of Dickens.

The Charles Dickens Museum
Of the several homes that Charles Dickens occupied in London during his lifetime, only one – the townhouse at 48 Doughty Street that he occupied from 1837 to 1839 – still stands. Today, it is a museum dedicated to the writer's life and works. The website offers photos and a brief overview of Dickens's life during the time he lived there.

Charles Dickens Literature
This is the place to go for quick primary documents on Dickens. The site has a short biography of the writer, but its crowning achievement is the list of links to the full texts of pretty much everything Dickens wrote. And he wrote a lot.

A Charles Dickens Journal
This web journal was first created by an artist planning a one-man show about Charles Dickens. He gathered so much background material in the course of his research that he decided to share his findings with the whole Internet. It has a thorough timeline of Dickens's life, as well as an annotated list of his many works.

Victorian Web
This expansive site provides full background on Dickens in the context of his Victorian era. It explores in detail the sociological meaning of Dickens's fiction, as well as its literary merits. This is a great site to visit if you're doing research on the Victorians.

Video & Audio

The Tales of Charles Dickens
A strangely compelling promo for the PBS series. You'll see Dickens's characters differently when they are set to Coldplay.

Bleak House – BBC
An animated introduction to Charles Dickens's life.

Little Dorrit
The preview for the award-winning miniseries adaptation of Dickens's novel.

The Changing World of Charles Dickens
A (very) short but useful documentary that puts Dickens's world in context.

David Copperfield
The PBS movie of Dickens's novel.

Daniel Radcliffe in David Copperfield
Before he was Harry Potter, he was the young David Copperfield.

The Signal Man
A movie version of Charles Dickens's ghost story.

Gerald Dickens
Curious Sergey interviews Dickens's great-great-grandson. Worth every second.

Primary Sources

Great Expectations
E-text of the novel.

A Tale of Two Cities
E-text of the novel.

Oliver Twist
E-text of the novel.

Little Dorrit
E-text of the novel.

A Christmas Carol
E-text of the novel.

David Copperfield
E-text of the novel.

Bleak House
E-text of the novel.

Dickens's Biography
A biographical sketch of the writer that appeared in 1860.

Great Expectations Review
An 1861 review of the novel in The Atlantic.

The Life of Charles Dickens
A biography of the author written by his friend John Forster.

Charles Dickens on Schools
Text of an 1857 talk Dickens gave on education.

Mr. Dickens' First Reading
An 1867 review of a reading Dickens gave in New York City.

The Death of Charles Dickens
Dickens's 1870 obituary in the New York Times.

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