What Charles Dickens did... and why you should care
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?"1 Charles Dickens was a complicated character. Could a novelist of his insight and talent be any other way?