Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in a middle-class family of a civil servant John Dickens who was an open-hearted and kind man.

Charles spent his childhood in atmosphere of love and friendship. He was brought up with his sister Fanny, his faithful friend.

When Dickens was eleven he went to live in London, because his father secured the position of a clerk there. Very soon Charles realized that his happy childhood had been left behind. The family lived in poverty. The debts were great, and Charles had to work either as a helper to the servant, or a worker in a small factory warehouse for several shillings a week. When Dickens was fifteen he became a lawyer’s clerk. In 1832 having learned shorthand, Dickens secured a full time position in “The Mirror of Parliament”. He wrote sketches and signed them “Boz”. It was his nickname. As a result, his first book “Sketches by Boz” was published on his 24th birthday. The next two years Charles Dickens devoted to his famous “Pickwick Papers”, the publication of which brought him fame and money, and the opportunity to marry Kate Hogarth, the daughter of a colleague. In “Pickwick Papers” he mocked at English court of Law and Parliamentary elections. At 25, in 1837, Charles Dickens was already famous. It was a successful period of his life: his first son was born, his family moved out of lodgings into a twelve-room house, and he met John Forster, who became his closest friend and his official biographer after his death in 1870. During the next six years of writing Charles Dickens observed life and attacked debtors, prisons, schools and workhouses. The inhabitants of the workhouses had to work from morning till night in misery and poverty. Dickens learned more from life than from books, and he wrote about the social evils and injustice, about many homeless “hunger-worn outcasts” in the dark bleak and bar streets. In his “Oliver Twist”, written in 1838, Dickens treated the horrors of workhouses and crime. The conditions of Yorkshire boarding school were described in “Nickolas Nickleby” (1839).

Dickens was a very thoughtful writer. His visit to the USA in 1842 was not casual. His purpose was to see for himself if the republican experiment in the United States had brought a desirable freedom and equality for all the Americans. Dickens was struck with horror at meeting slavery there. He wrote: “I am disappointed. This is not the republic I came to see. I prefer a liberal monarchy to such a government as this”. At the same time he pointed out several positive moments of the achievements of the States: the laws regulating child labour, free public education, and American hospitality.

In spite of a large family (by 1844 Dickens had got five children), Charles couldn’t help travelling. Dickens and his household left England for Italy. They came back home in autumn 1845, with the sixth child born abroad. After returning to England he began to write his novel “Dombey and Son”, and in 1848 the book was published.

Mr. Dombey is a powerful and ambitious businessman, who is busy with money- making. He is greedy and cruel, he loves nobody. When his first wife dies, Mr. Dombey doesn’t suffer. Florence, his daughter, loves her father passionately, but Mr. Dombey hates her, because she is a girl and doesn’t correspond to the name of the Firm “Dombey and Son”. His dreams and hopes are connected only with his Son, Little Paul. Mr. Dombey projects that His Son must become a part of “Dombey and Son”, “must become a man to continue his business”. Selfishness is at the root of this love. “Mr. Dombey’s young child was, from the beginning, so distinctly important to him as a part of his own greatness; … he loved his son with all the love he had. If there was a warm place in his frosty heart, his son occupied it, … the image of that son was there; though not so much as an infant, or as a boy, but as a grown man — the ‘Son’ of the Firm”. (“Dombey and Son”, Chapter VIII). Unfortunately, Paul was a weak child with “an old, old face”. There was something “wan and wistful in his small face”. He was often tired. But he was extremely thoughtful. Little Paul can’t understand why the money didn’t save his mother, why the money can’t make him “strong and quite well”. Mr. Dombey doesn’t want to notice that his son is ill. He says: “You are strong and quite well”. In the end Paul who lacks cordial warmth and motherly care dies. The death of little Paul is the beginning of Mr. Dombey’s misfortunes. His second wife hates him and escapes very soon. Only Florence loves her father and takes care of him. In the Final part of his book Charles Dickens writes: “Autumn days are shining, and on the sea-beach there are often a young lady, and a white-haired gentleman. With them, or near them, are two children: boy and girl. The white-haired gentleman walks with the little boy, talks with him, helps him in his play, attends upon him, watches him, as if he were the object of his life… But no one, except Florence, knows the measure of the white-haired gentleman’s affection for the girl… He cannot bear to see a cloud upon her face… He steals away to look at her, in her sleep…” The end of the story is peaceful and happy. Mr. Dombey finds happiness in his daughter’s family.

In 1850 “David Copperfield” was printed. The main character resembles Dickens himself. In Chapter XVIII under the title “A Retrospect” the author compares life with flowing water: “Let me think, as I look back upon that flowing water, now a dry channel overgrown with leaves, whether there are any marks along its course, by which I can remember how it ran”. Charles Dickens could vividly describe the feelings and thoughts of David Copperfield, because the author had to experience the similar emotions in his own childhood and youth. He visited the church “every Sunday morning, assembling first at school for that purpose. The earthy smell, the sunless air, the sensation of the world being shut out, the resounding of the organ through the black and white arched galleries and aisles, are wings that take me back, and hold me hovering above those days, in a half-sleeping and half-walking dream”.

During the next period of his life (1852-1860) Charles Dickens managed to write and publish his great novels: “Bleak House”, “Little Dorrit” and “Hard Times”. He visited Italy and Paris, took an active part in political life of England, started his “Great Expectations”. But in his private life Dickens was not happy. By 1855 he had got nine children and a wife for whom he felt neither interest, nor respect. That’s why he decided to destroy the pattern of his domestic life. He fell violently in love with a beautiful young actress and “lost his head”.

Only in 1864 Dickens could concentrate his forces to write his greatest novel “Our Mutual Friend”. The plot of the novel centres around “the Man from Somewhere” whose name is John Harmon. His father is an old miser “who makes all his money by Dust”. He was a Dust Contractor. He turned his son, John, out of the house, and John left the country. According to the Dustman’s will a small dwelling house at the foot of the lowest of the dust-mountains is left to an old servant, and all the rest of the property — to John. But the son inherits the property on condition that he marries a certain girl (Miss Bella Wilfer) who at the date of the will was a child of four or five years old, and who is now a marriageable young woman.

Nobody hears anything about John Harmon for fourteen years. Now he is on his way home — to inherit a very large fortune and to take a wife. But — oh, Heavens! — John Harmon’s body is found floating in the Thames much injured! He has come by his death under highly suspicious circumstances! Indeed, John Harmon has been thrown down into the river, but he can struggle for his life and for twelve days he lives in a hotel where he establishes himself as Mr. Julius Handord.

The government declares John Harmon dead, and John decides to make everybody believe that he is dead. As Mr. John Rokesmith he takes Mrs. Wilfer’s lodgings. After that the plot develops dynamically. John becomes Mr. Boffin’s secretary to be close to Bella, who lives at Boffin’s according to the Dustman’s will. John becomes their “Mutual Friend”. He falls in love with Bella, makes an offer to her, and in the end they are getting married.

Bella is at heart as true as gold. But her life and fortune are so contradictory! She tells her father that she becomes “avariciously scheming”, “the most mercenary girl”, who doesn’t “care for money to keep it as money, but she cares for what it will buy”. At the same time she suffers when she accuses Mr. Boffin of having “changed to marble” because of his money. She is breaking into tears, for she is generous, honest and courageous.

Charles Dickens shows the effect of the money on human values. This idea is revealed through the thoughts and actions of the bad personages, a greedy rascal Riderhood and the Schoolmaster Headstone. At the end of the novel both of them are found dead in the water, behind one of the rotting gates of Riderhood’s Lock.

Our Mutual Friend” is the most mature work of the writer.

Dickens gives a vivid picture of the Victorian Society where money and high honours are appreciated most of all.

Mr. Twemlow himself was an old man, … decidedly poor”. But Twemlow is cultivated by many people of the local society, because he is first cousin to Lord Snigworth. Mr. Twemlow’s presence at the dinner “gave the people the possibility of introducing Lord Snigworth’s name as the name of their old acquaintance”.

Dickens’s love of humanity and the inherent goodness of common man, opposed to the egoism of the upper classes makes him a central figure in the Literature of England in the 19th century.

Charles Dickens undertook several trips in 1864-1869 to Australia, the USA and Ireland. Afterwards he became ill, and on 9 June, 1870 Charles Dickens died. His last novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, an excellent detective story in the Wilkie Collins’s tradition, remained unfinished. From the few chapters we can feel a deep understanding of the social wrongs of the society.

Wilkie Collins was Dickens’s closest friend. He was the author of famous semi- detective, semi-social novels, such as “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone” in which the author’s specific detective interest came first.

But Dickens’s closest follower and admirer was Elizabeth Gaskell.

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