Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens | Biography


Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812. His father, John, was a naval payroll clerk, so Charles grew up in port towns. When Charles was 10, the family moved to Camden Town, a poor neighborhood in London. Just two years later, John Dickens was jailed for debt. This was Dickens's introduction to the ponderous and inscrutable British legal system, which is a central theme in Bleak House as well as a number of his other novels.

While his father was in prison, Dickens worked a menial factory job to support himself and his family. He was able to return to school at 13 and finished his education at 15 and got a job as a law clerk. It wasn't long, though, before he left and embarked on his writing career—as a freelance court reporter. Several years later, Dickens was working as a parliamentary reporter, journalist, and fiction writer and publishing regular installments under the pseudonym "Boz" of what would become his first book, Sketches by Boz (1836). During this time, John Dickens was arrested for debt again and looked to his son Charles to settle his debts. In fact, Charles's brothers and both his parents continued to rely on him for support. It is fortunate that by the time he was 30, Charles Dickens was a popular author in both Europe and North America and, in addition to earnings from his writing, would come to have a substantial income from speaking and reading tours in Britain and abroad.

Dickens's early books tended to be lighter in tone and to end happily despite their powerful social criticism. However, by the time he began writing Bleak House in 1851—the first installments were published in 1852—the atmosphere of his books had taken on a darker tinge and his plots no longer led to such happy outcomes. This reflected a number of sad experiences in his personal life: his sister, Fanny, died in 1848; his father and his 8-month-old daughter died in 1851; and his relationship with his wife continued to deteriorate.

Although many critics today consider Dickens's ninth novel, Bleak House, one of the greatest of all Victorian novels, in its own time its reception was mixed. Some praised it as his best work to date. Others complained that Dickens had nothing new to offer in Bleak House; it was just another group of flat, eccentric characters engaged in a messy and improbable plot line. Still others thought Dickens had gone beyond social criticism, trying to spur readers to take action against England's social problems; this, critics said, was not the job of fiction. One critic in particular, G.H. Lewes, objected to the way one of the characters dies—by bursting into flames for no apparent reason; spontaneous combustion, Lewes said, is chemically and physiologically impossible. In the 1853 book edition of Bleak House, Dickens responded to Lewes's objection in his preface by listing several cases of spontaneous combustion and in Chapter 30 by adding a paragraph referring to expert testimony on the subject. Regardless of any critical fault-finding, Dickens fans hungrily devoured each installment as usual.

After Bleak House, Charles Dickens wrote five more novels. He was working on a sixth when, on June 8, 1870, he suffered a stroke. He died the following day and was buried in Poets' Corner in London's Westminster Abbey.

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