The most popular storyteller of his time, a zealous social reformer, the
esteemed leader of the English literary scene and a wholehearted friend
to the poor, Charles Dickens was an unrestrained satirist who spared
no one. His writings defined the complications, ironies, diversions and
cruelties of the new urban life brought by the industrial revolution.
Writing saved Dickens, both financially and emotionally. As an adult, he
set his life’s work on exposing social ills, using his boundless talents and
energies to spin engaging, poignant tales from the streets. In doing so, he also introduced new
accessible forms of publishing that proved immensely popular and influential. Dickens’s keen
observational style, precise description, and sharp social criticism have kept his large body of
work profoundly enduring.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born February 7, 1812 near Portsmouth, England, the
second of eight children. Dickens’s father was employed as a minor civil servant in the Naval
Pay Office, a job that required the family to move a number of times. The Dickenses spent many
of Charles’s early years fairly pleasantly in Chatham but made their final move to an undesirable
part of London. Charles’s father lived beyond his means, and floundered financially.
Two days after Charles turned 12, his father was thrown into Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison.
Charles was already working at the Warren Blacking Company, pasting labels on bottles of shoe
polish; he’d left school at age 10 to help support the family. Now he was on his own, while
the rest of the family roomed in a jail cell with the elder Dickens. Young Dickens lived in a
miserable lodging house and worked long hours in squalid conditions, supervised by cruel
masters. Though Dickens lived away from his family for only four months (his father came
into an unexpected inheritance), the traumatic experience shaped the rest of his life. He came to
believe that money and position in Victorian England meant everything. His early encounters
with such grave conditions gave Dickens rare and deep insight into life’s inequalities and greatly
enriched his writing.