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David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens | Biography


Charles Dickens was born into a middle-class family in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812. His family moved to London in 1822. Although his father had a well-paid job, he was a big spender and the family was often in financial difficulty. A mediocre student, Dickens left school at age 15 to take a job as a clerk in a law office. After learning shorthand, he found employment as a reporter at Doctor's Commons Courts and then went on to become a newspaper reporter.

Dickens began to publish essays and stories in magazines and newspapers in 1833. That same year he also published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, as a monthly serial. He soon became a full-time novelist, and his popularity grew along with his list of novels.

In 1836 Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, with whom he had 10 children. From 1840 to 1845 Dickens and his large family spent time living in Italy, Switzerland, and France. Dickens hinted to his friend John Forster in the mid-1850s that the marriage was unhappy. In 1857 Dickens met a young actress, Ellen Ternan, and began an affair with her. The relationship was kept secret, but Dickens publicly separated from Catherine the next year.

Dickens was a tireless worker with boundless energy. In addition to producing novels, he founded and edited a weekly magazine, acted with an amateur theatrical group, and gave speeches in support of causes and charities. With the financial help of Angela Burdett-Coutts, Dickens set up a reform school for delinquent girls, which he directed for more than 10 years. In 1858 Dickens began to give public readings of his novels, making use of his acting experience. The readings were very popular, and he embarked on tours throughout England and even the United States (1867-68). After publishing David Copperfield in 1850, Dickens went on to write seven more novels.

When David Copperfield was first published in serial installments in 1849-50, Charles Dickens, age 38, had already achieved worldwide acclaim and was England's most popular novelist. David Copperfield received high praise for its brilliant evocation of childhood through the eyes of young Davy Copperfield. H.F. Chorley's 1850 review of the novel in The Athenaeum was filled with praise, but he did quibble about "one or two strained incidents and forced scenes," which he felt were too typical of popular Victorian melodrama.

Although Dickens's novels remained popular, critical acclaim for his work began to decline after his death from a stroke on June 9, 1870. The 1940s saw a revival of critical interest and appreciation, and by the centenary of his death in 1970, Dickens gained a reputation in English literature almost on par with William Shakespeare. David Copperfield continues to be one of Dickens's most popular novels, along with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol. The popularity of this 19th-century novel has continued into the 21st century, providing inspiration for films, TV miniseries, and stage productions. The novel has consistently ranked highly on multiple lists of the best English novels.

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