Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, on 7 February 1812, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. He was the second of eight children.

In 1821, Charles began his education at William Giles’ school in Chatham,  but his easy childhood existence was disrupted in 1822 when his father, a Navy Office clerk, transferred the family to London. Impecunious and irresponsible, if generally well intentioned, John Dickens was imprisoned in the Marshalsea prison for debt, where he was joined shortly afterwards by his family. John’s financial ineptitude finds its fictional correlative in Mr. Micawber. Though Fanny, the oldest child, was permitted to continue her education at the Royal Academy of Music, Charles, then only 12 years old, was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse – a degrading experience that was to resurface in many of his later works.

Following an inheritance John was released from prison, but Elizabeth Dickens was sufficiently concerned for the family’s precarious finances to insist that her son remain in the workhouse. When Dickens eventually resumed his education, he did so at Wellington House Academy, a switch that improved his immediate circumstances but did little to advance his learning.

In 1827, Charles Dickens began his adult working life as a junior clerk in the law office of Ellis and Blackmore. He left this post in 1828 to become a freelance reporter.

In 1830, Dickens met Maria Beadnell, but Maria’s parents disapproved of the courtship, which soon ended. In 1833, Dickens met his future wife, Catherine Hogarth, whose father, George Hogarth, was an influential critic and editor.

In 1833, Dickens published his first short story, ‘A Dinner at Poplar Walk’. Between 1834 and 1836, Dickens worked as a reporter for the Morning Chronicle. In 1836, he published a collection of pieces as Sketches by Boz, and was soon approached to write his first serialized novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.

On 2 April 1836, Charles and Catherine Dickens married and set up house in Bloomsbury. In 1837 they welcomed the first of their ten children. It was also during this year that Catherine’s younger sister died. Dickens had become very fond of Mary, and he greatly grieved her death.

Dickens continued to gain success as a writer, with a quick succession of popular serializations including The Adventures of Oliver Twist, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop.

His success as an author grew abroad, and in the first days of 1842, Dickens and his wife embarked on a six-month tour of America. Some of his impressions from this trip later appeared in his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation and his serialized novel, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. Some of his more cutting character portrayals upset sections of his American readership.  

Not long after the completion of David Copperfield, by far the most autobiographical of his novels, he went through a period of emotional hardship when both his father and daughter died, and his wife suffered a nervous breakdown.

Over the years, Dickens had become increasingly dissatisfied with his marriage. Biographers suggest that Catherine made every attempt to be a considerate spouse, but she found it impossible to keep pace with the frenetic activities of her ceaselessly toiling husband, who often had several projects on the go at once. His literary productivity was matched by an energetic interest in social problems, including capital punishment, working conditions and the reform of prostitutes.    

In 1856, Dickens bought a house in Gad’s Hill Place, Kent, which would become his primary residence for the remainder of his life.

In 1857, he became interested in a young actress called Ellen Ternan, though the exact nature of this relationship remains disputed. A year later, Charles and Catherine separated. Their troubled relationship is explored in Gaynor Arnold's Man Booker longlisted Girl in a Blue Dress.

That same year, he began a series of public readings that were to prove remarkably popular, and which led him to America again in 1867. (Read more about Dickens in America)

In 1863, Dickens again suffered a double blow with the death of his mother and a son, and in 1865, to crown the misery, Dickens was involved in a horrific rail crash in Staplehurst, Kent, an accident from which (it is generally thought) he never quite recovered. Nevertheless in his last years he did complete Our Mutual Friend, though not The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was only half finished when he died on 9 June 1870. He was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.




Dickens campaigned tirelessly on  behalf of those to whom life had not been kind.


Charles Dickens according to the BBC

David Perduc's Charles Dickens Page

The Charles Dickens Museum Homepage

Charles Dickens: An overview

Wikipedia entry for Charles Dickens

A Dickens glossary

Dickens on the Web (+ details of relevant events, locations, articles, publications etc)