Oliver Twist | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens | Biography


Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, a busy naval port on the south coast of England where his father, John, worked as a navy payroll clerk. When Dickens was four, his father was transferred to another naval town, Chatham. He worked there for eight years. This is where young Dickens developed his love of the countryside. Those chapters of Oliver Twist that describe Oliver's life with the Maylies reflect Dickens's happy memories of country life. Dickens enjoyed reading and learning and delighted in school, which he began attending at age nine.

Dickens's happy childhood came to an end shortly after the family moved to London in 1822. The Dickens family had always been poor, but John Dickens had a taste for the finer things in life and got into debt. 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. There he pasted labels on jars of blacking (shoe polish). The conditions in the blacking 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. Despite the additional income, 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 Dickens roomed with a family friend. In 1824 Dickens left the factory and went back to school. That early experience of being a young boy trying to make his way alone in London, his encounter with poverty, and his resentment of a system that kept the poor in poverty informed many of Dickens's novels, including Oliver Twist.

After school Dickens became a law clerk and then a court and parliamentary reporter. He later used his knowledge of the law and government to great effect in his fiction. He sold his first short story in 1833 to the Monthly Magazine. The following year he went to work for the Morning Chronicle writing stories under the nom de plume "Boz." These stories were published in the collection Sketches by Boz in 1836. In the same year, Dickens began editing for Bentley's Miscellany. It was in this publication that his first two novels, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, appeared in serial form. Oliver Twist appeared in the magazine in parts from 1837 to 1839.

Also in 1836 Dickens married Catherine Hogarth. Despite producing 10 children, the marriage was an unhappy one. The couple ultimately separated in 1858, a year after Dickens fell in love with actress Ellen Ternan. Dickens seems to have had a happy ongoing relationship with Ternan, but he continued to treat Catherine Dickens poorly. He even accused her of being mentally ill and claimed that she and their children were happier apart. His daughter later said that Dickens ceased to care about his children after the breakup with their mother.

Charles Dickens was arguably the superstar of the 19th century. Audiences waited eagerly for installments of his novels. He repeatedly toured Europe and America giving dramatic readings from his works. He died of a stroke on June 9, 1870, without having completed his 16th novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In Westminster Abbey he is buried in Poets' Corner.

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