Dickens, Charles 1812-1870
(Full name Charles John Huffam Dickens; also wrote under the pseudonym of Boz) English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist.
Although Dickens is perhaps best known for his novels, he wrote short fiction throughout his career, from the early Sketches by Boz to the acclaimed Christmas stories and the journalistic Uncommercial Traveller. Dickens's short stories, like his longer works, mix humor with macabre imagery to create vivid illustrations of the lives of ordinary people. Designed to uncover social injustices and promote reform in his own time, the endearing characterizations and moving situations presented in Dickens's shorter pieces have appealed to audiences up to the present day; indeed, his short story A Christmas Carol is one of his most enduring works. For much of the Englishspeaking world, this tale has played an important role in defining the Yule spirit; according to May Lamberton Becker, "every year at Christmas time, thousands of families wherever the English language is known would scarcely think Christmas really Christmas without listening to this story read aloud."
Dickens was the son of John Dickens, a minor government official who, because he continually lived beyond his means, was briefly imprisoned for debt. During his father's confinement, the twelve-year-old Dickens was forced to leave home and work in dreadful conditions in a blacking (shoe polish) warehouse. This experience left an indelible impression on Dickens, who portrayed the difficulties of the poor in most of his writings. Late in his teens, Dickens learned shorthand and worked as a reporter. In 1833 he began contributing sketches and short stories to various periodicals. These were eventually compiled into two volumes under the title Sketches by Boz. He continued to use serial publication for all of his works, including his novels, for he cherished the constant contact with his readers the method provided. Throughout his career, Dickens gave numerous public readings from his works in both England and America, an activity that left him exhausted. Many believe that increasing physical and mental strain led to the stroke Dickens suffered while working on the novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he left unfinished at his death.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In his short fiction, Dickens variously combines humor, sentiment, autobiography, spirituality, and both Gothic and realistic elements. Sketches by Boz, provides comic and closely observed characterizations drawn from Victorian London's lower and middle classes. Celebrated stories from this compilation include: "A Visit to Newgate," which details a criminal's final hours before his execution; "The Black Veil," a tale about a woman whose life is evaluated according to the worth of her husband; and "Mr. Minns and His Cousin," which shows that adherence to social conventions can cause misery. Continuing to focus on the lives of ordinary people, Dickens began writing Christmas stories, which include A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain. His intention for these tales was, he wrote, "a whimsical kind of masque which the good humor of the season justified, to waken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land." Generally, these books feature fallen protagonists who, through a chain of remarkable, even otherworldly, events, realize the mistakes they have made in life. For example, A Christmas Carol chronicles the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge (Dickens's most famous character) from a miser to a generous being after he receives startling visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. In The Chimes Toby Veck represents members of the lower class who have acceded to society's opinion that the poor are inferior; his conversion involves restoring faith in himself and his class. The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain—the most sophisticated version of the common theme in the estimation of many critics—portrays Mr. Redlaw's realization that his new-found ability to erase memories is harmful to others. After writing these holiday tales, Dickens, using material from his own life, penned the more journalistic The Uncommercial Traveller. One story in this collection, "Dullborough Town," describes the setting of Dickens's childhood, and another, "City of London Churches," recounts a love affair similar to the writer's first relationship.
Hailed for his comic and journalistic abilities, powerful and provoking depictions of the poor, unforgettable characters, and the moral-filled Christmas stories, Dickens was one of the most successful writers of his time. Enormously popular in England, he was, before he turned thirty, honorably received in America as well. Dickens wrote of the reception: "There never was a king or emperor upon the earth so cheered and followed by crowds, and entertained in public at splendid halls and dinners, and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds." Although some critics have asserted that Sketches by Boz focuses too heavily on the lower class and that the author's stories are at times too sentimental and laden with exaggeration, many have extolled them for their expressions of a fundamental faith in humanity and their unflagging censure of social injustice. A. Edward Newton perhaps best summarized the high esteem in which countless readers hold Dickens when he declared that "in the resplendent firmament of English literature there is only one name I would rank above his for sheer genius: Shakespeare."
Robert McCrum introduces the series
David Copperfield was the first book Sigmund Freud gave his fiancee, Martha Bernays, on their engagement in 1882. It was the gift of a lifelong Anglophile to his beloved, a book encrypted with peculiar meaning to a man with a special fascination for the complicated relation of autobiography to storytelling.
Freud's choice – and Dickens's own opinion that David Copperfield was "of all my books" the one he liked "the best" – helps clarify an impossible selection midway through the 19th century. At the outset, I'm going to anticipate your howls of rage. Some Dickens aficionados will be dismayed. Why not Pickwick Papers? Or, better still, Great Expectations? Or Bleak House? Or Little Dorrit? And why not, here in the holiday season, that festive evergreen A Christmas Carol? Or the granite brilliance of Hard Times? Yes, in different ways, all masterpieces. Everyone has their favourite. This is mine.
I love David Copperfield because it is, in some ways, so un-Dickensian. The story – so appealing to Freud – is of a boy making his way in the world, and finding himself as a man and as a writer. In the first half, before Dickens's irrepressible storytelling kicks in and the motor of the novel starts to hum with incident, we find him almost meditating on his literary beginnings. Dickens is one of the first to acknowledge the inspiration of the emerging English canon: Robinson Crusoe, The Adventures of Roderick Random and Tom Jones, the books he finds in his father's library. His own early novels (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and so on) are largely comic picaresques. But here, he focuses on the interior life of his hero, as if saving the plot for later.
The second half of David Copperfield displays Dickens at his magnificent, and often uneven, best. There are the characteristic prose arpeggios, the virtuoso similes and metaphors, and the parade of timeless characters: Mr Micawber, Mrs Gummidge, Betsey Trotwood, Barkis, Uriah Heep, Steerforth, Mr Spenlow (of Spenlow and Jorkins) and Miss Mowcher.
At the same time, Copperfield and Dickens, autobiographer and novelist, become so indistinguishable, the one from the other, that the novelist no longer has the necessary detachment from his material. When the lovely, tranquil reflections on boyhood of the opening pages become replaced by the urgent demands of plot-making, protagonist and author morph together in ways that are not completely successful, though always revealing. As the novel builds to a climax, in which Heep is imprisoned and Mr Micawber, free of his debts, finds redemption as a colonial magistrate in Australia, Dickens succumbs to the pressure to please a hungry public with a satisfying fictional feast. Henceforth in his work, Dickens will become the supreme Victorian entertainer and moralist, the author of those mature, and darker, masterpieces, Bleak House, Hard Times and Great Expectations.
And so, as a key transitional text, David Copperfield becomes the antechamber to his subsequent mastery. But the door into the past is shut for ever; he can never go back. The young man daydreaming about literature among his father's old books has been replaced by the bestselling writer, "the Inimitable". Perhaps this was the poignant truth about creativity that so moved Freud.
Note on the text
The novel that Dickens described as his "favourite child" went through many titles, from Only Once A Year and Mag's Diversions to The Copperfield Survey, The Copperfield Confessions and The Last Will and Testament of David Copperfield. Eventually, with serial publication looming, he settled on The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to be Published On Any Account).
It is hard definitively to identify the true first edition. Following serial publication from May 1849 to November 1850 – in 19 monthly one-shilling instalments, each containing 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz") – the novel, now simply inscribed David Copperfield on the title page, was published in a single volume of 624 pages on 14 November 1850 by Bradbury & Evans of Bouverie Street.
In any event, Dickens's MS, which is now in the V&A, had already undergone significant revision in the transition from magazine to book form. Three further editions (1858, 1859 and 1867) saw additional changes. The most scholarly edition to date is probably the text edited by Nina Burgis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).
Other essential Dickens titles
Pickwick Papers (1837); A Christmas Carol (1843); Bleak House (1853); Hard Times (1854); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); Great Expectations (1861); Our Mutual Friend (1865)