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He was the most famous writer in England in his lifetime. Yet the historical details of Charles Dickens's biography were largely unknown when he was writing his insanely popular novels in mid-nineteenth century London. Profiles of Dickens neatly skipped over the tragedies of his childhood, including his stint as a child worker in a bootblack factory, his father's terms in debtor's prison, and his family's dire poverty. Public profiles focused instead on his prodigious writing talents and his compassion for the poor. Few suspected that within the characters of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Pip, and the other inhabitants of Dickens's fiction were remnants of himself. Dickens's acute sensitivity to social injustice was not a fluke, and the powerful realism of his fiction was not just guesswork. It was born of his own hard-earned experience.
The workhouses and debtor's prisons of Charles Dickens's London are no more. The importance of Dickens's novels, however, lives on. The gap between the rich and poor in our country and across the world grows wider every day. Economic progress and technological advances for some still mean that others are left behind. Our responsibility to take care of the poor, sick, and vulnerable has not lessened. There's a reason that Dickens's novels have never gone out of print in the 140 years since his death in 1870. His social consciousness is as relevant as ever. And best of all – this is the real reason he was so popular – he sure knows how to tell story.