Born to a poor family in Portsmouth, England on February 7, 1812, Charles John Huffam Dickens would become one of the most famous authors in English literature. The second of nine children, Dickens struggled with poor health as a child, and the frequency with which his family relocated interfered with any regular schedule of education. Instead, Dickens read widely on his own. He especially enjoyed fairy tales and adventure stories. He was himself forced to work at an early age in order to help support his family; at age 12, Dickens was labeling bottles of shoe polish in a London factory. This background-which was not a matter of public knowledge when Dickens achieved his later success and renown-clearly influences much of his writing. Dickens remained attuned to the problems of the poor and marginalized in Victorian society because he had been among them in his early years.
Although he began his literary career as a journalist, Dickens gained success at age 24 with the publication of The Pickwick Papers (serialized, 1836-37). While this book was comical in tone, Dickens tackled more serious subjects in a more serious tone in the works that followed. For example, both Oliver Twist (1837-39) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) attack greedy persons who abuse the poor, particularly poor children. Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) contains humorous characters, but the book is a critique of what Dickens perceived to be the uncivilized nature of American society. Chuzzlewit alienated many of Dickens' American fans, of whom there had been many when the author first toured the United States in 1842, to much public fanfare. A Christmas Carol (1843), produced in this period of Dickens' career, presents in vivid and direct ways Dickens' preoccupation with social inequity. Its direct, heartfelt challenge to society to care more for the less privileged continues to account, in no small degree, for the book's enduring popularity. The plot of the Carol, if not its actual text, is most likely the best-known of Dickens' stories, due to its numerous stage and screen adaptations. (In fact, both authorized and unauthorized theatrical adaptations of A Christmas Carol premiered soon after the book's publication.)
Some critics sense a shift in Dickens' career during and after the 1840s. His views on society and politics seem, they argue, to grow darker. Bleak House (1852-53), which many regard as Dickens' finest work, focuses on society's ills, especially its neglect of the marginalized. Other important works Dickens wrote in this period include the autobiographical fiction David Copperfield (1849-50), the historical novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860-61), in which protagonist Pip must reexamine his values and priorities. Dickens died from a stroke on June 9, 1870, before he could finish his final book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
The stroke was the culmination of a period of bad health that had begun while Dickens undertook a public reading tour in America in 1867. Dickens loved to read his works to the public; he would adopt the voices and mannerisms of various characters as he spun his stories. His fascination with and involvement in the theater lasted his entire life.
Charles Dickens is buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. He and his wife, the former Catherine Hogarth, separated in 1858 after an unhappy marriage that nevertheless produced ten children.