Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, on February 7, 1812, to Mary and John Dickens, a navy payroll clerk. The family moved to London in 1822. Although John Dickens had a well-paying job, he was a big spender, and the family was often in financial difficulty. To contribute to the family's income, Charles was taken out of school at age 12 and sent to work in Warren's boot-blacking factory, where he pasted labels on jars of blacking (shoe polish). Conditions in the factory appalled the boy. It was full of rats; its wooden floors and stairs were rotting; and the air smelled of the dirty waters of the nearby Thames. Factory work paid too little to help with the family's financial woes, and John Dickens was soon imprisoned for debt in Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. His family lost their home and, as was common at the time, went to live with him at the prison. Charles, however, was sent to room with a family friend. Returning to school briefly, Dickens left again at age 15 to take a job as a clerk in a law office. After learning shorthand he found work as a law clerk and then as a court and parliamentary reporter, later using his knowledge of law and government in his fiction.
Dickens's experiences as a young boy trying to make his way alone in London, his encounters with the harsh conditions of factories and prisons, and his resentment of a system that kept the poor in poverty came to inform many of his novels. Loss of childhood innocence and exploitation of the vulnerable are two themes inspired by Dickens's personal tribulations and explored in his works, taking central roles in The Pickwick Papers (1836), Oliver Twist (1837–39), Nicholas Nickleby (1838), David Copperfield (1849–50), Hard Times (1854), and Great Expectations (1860–61). Dickens's novels appeared first in serial form in various London periodicals, usually with a weekly or biweekly installment over the course of a year or two. Completed novels were later published in single book form. For example, Hard Times appeared in weekly installments in magazines throughout 1854.
Dickens sold his first short story in 1833 to the Monthly Magazine. The following year he began working for the Morning Chronicle, writing stories under the name Boz. These stories were published in the collection Sketches by Boz in 1836. In the same year, Dickens began editing for Bentley's Miscellany. In this publication his first two novels, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, appeared in serial form. He continued working at an intense pace for several years. As his catalog of novels grew, so did his popularity and his fortunes. By 1843, when he published A Christmas Carol, the first and most successful of his four "Christmas books," Dickens was already a household name in London. Later in his career Dickens founded and edited two successful weekly magazines, Household Words (1850–59) and All the Year Round (1859–88). These provided a platform for serializing several later novels, including Bleak House (1852), Hard Times (1854), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859).
In addition to writing, Dickens performed with an amateur theatrical group and gave speeches in support of causes and charities. With the financial help of Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy friend, Dickens set up a 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 popular, and he embarked on very popular speaking tours throughout England and the United States (1867–68).
In 1836 Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, with whom he had 10 children. In the early years of his marriage and career, Dickens enjoyed fatherhood and domestic pursuits. His writing earned him sufficient money to support his family and help settle his parents' debts, but the marriage was ultimately unhappy. The couple separated in 1858, a year after Dickens fell in love with actress Ellen Ternan. Dickens seems to have had a happy relationship with Ternan, but he treated Catherine Dickens poorly. He even accused her of being mentally ill and claimed she and their children were happier apart from one another. One of his daughters later said Dickens ceased to care about his children after the breakup with their mother.
In this way, Dickens's treatment of divorce in Hard Times presents it as a natural solution to deeply unhappy marriages. Stephen Blackpool seeks a divorce from his alcoholic and abusive wife so he can marry a more agreeable woman. Louisa Gradgrind leaves Mr. Bounderby after an emotional breakdown. It is possible these scenes reflect Dickens's own frustration at being trapped in his marriage, as an English divorce before 1857 required Parliamentary approval and cost a small fortune.
Charles Dickens's novels remained highly popular throughout his lifetime, but his popularity began to decline after his death. Early 20th-century critics praised "serious" novels by modernist authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and, by comparison, found Dickens's novels shallow and carelessly constructed. The 1940s, however, saw a revival of critical interest and appreciation for Dickens's ability to combine compelling stories with significant social criticism. The English writer and satirist George Orwell commented on Dickens's work in 1940: "In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself."
Charles Dickens died from a stroke on June 9, 1870. By 1970, the centenary of his death, Dickens's reputation in English literature was largely on a par with William Shakespeare's.