For the next twenty years, Charles Dickens did two things really well: write novels, and make children (ten altogether). On the novel front, he produced Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Barnaby Rudge (1841), A Christmas Carol (1843), Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Dombey and Son (1848), David Copperfield (1850, and by far his most autobiographical work), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times (1854), and Little Dorrit (1857). He also continued to nurse his love of the theater by writing plays and occasionally acting in them himself. He was a champion of the poor and lent his name and efforts to many fundraising efforts for London's needy.
Dickens was a literary rock star. "Mr. Dickens has written so much and so well that the severest ordeal any thing new that he writes has to undergo is the comparison with what he has written before," gushed Harper's Weekly in 1860. "His published stories are so popular that people will hardly admit that they can be equaled."5
All of his novels shared distinct characteristics that marked them as "Dickensian." His characters played into popular Victorian stereotypes: the innocent orphan, the unscrupulous businessman, and the sleazy criminal. They spoke with a strong social conscience, and reminded everyone that the much-heralded progress of the Industrial Revolution was also leaving some people in the gutter. Dickens unambiguously criticized the system of workhouses, debtor's prisons, and orphanages that kept England's poor virtually enslaved. His writing relied heavily on cliffhangers and suspense (a function of their publication in monthly parts). They were also extremely popular. Dickens's descriptions of poverty defined the way that Victorian England saw poverty. A Christmas Carol defined the concept of the Christmas spirit. Dickens was a tastemaker in a way few novelists – if any – have done before or since.
Families were rarely warm and huggy in Dickens's novels. They were neglectful, abandoning their children to orphanages and workhouses a la Oliver Twist; abusive, as in David Copperfield; shrewish and unfaithful, like the women of Bleak House; or just chronically unable to get their act together, like Little Dorrit's father. The frequent unflattering portrayals of family life in his novels seemed to reflect Dickens's frustrations with his own relations. "'Why was I ever a father! Why was my father ever a father!"6 Dickens once lamented – not exactly a Hallmark-worthy sentiment. Once he became successful, his father hounded him constantly for money. Dickens complained that his extended family saw him as "something to be plucked and torn to pieces for their advantage. . . . My soul sickens at the thought of them."7 His marriage turned sour, and he wasn't all that impressed with his children, either. He joked near the end of his life that there should be an award "for having brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves."8
There was one bright spot in his personal life. In 1857, Dickens met the actress Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, who was working on a production of one of his plays. The actress was eighteen; Dickens was 45. Despite this age gap, the two began a romantic relationship that lasted for the rest of Dickens's life. The two traveled together frequently, though their relationship was kept a secret from the prim-and-proper Victorian public. Dickens and his wife Catherine agreed to separate the following year.