Dickens soon returned to school, enrolling at Wellington House Academy in London, where he
excelled. He loved reading, especially adventure stories and magical tales by other English
writers such as Shakespeare, Tobias Smollett, Oliver Goldsmith, and Henry Fielding. At this
time, Dickens began submitting “penny-a-line” material (whereby writers were paid per line for
their work) to the British Press. Such submissions largely took the form of factual information
about fires, accidents, and police reports. Dickens took great pride in meeting deadlines and
beating other reporters to key facts, and his sharp accuracy was well respected.
His parents could not afford to complete his education, and at 15 Dickens reluctantly left school
to begin the tedious routine of a law clerk. Shorthand played an odd but key role in his career.
While clerking, he taught himself this difficult skill in just 18 months and immediately parlayed
his newfound knowledge into a job as a newspaper reporter. Dickens left drudgery behind for
good, finding the excitement and intellectual stimulation he’d been looking for in writing.
Dickens first worked at the Mirror of Parliament, founded by his uncle, and gained a great
reputation for accuracy, quickness, and sharp observation. He covered the Reform Bill debates,
legislation that extended voting rights to the previously disenfranchised, an experience which
both cemented his commitment to reform while, at the same time, instilled in him a lifelong
suspicion of reformers. Mirror of Parliament did not pay its writers when the government was
in recess. At such times, Dickens relied on freelance court reporting for various newspapers
such as the liberal daily Morning Chronicle. Such work sharpened his ear for conversational
speech and class mannerisms, which he called on later to portray characters with remarkable
When the Morning Chronicle expanded, Dickens jumped at the chance for a staff position.
He later commented to his biographer John Forster that he “went at it with a determination to
overcome all difficulties, which fairly lifted me up into that newspaper life, and floated me
away over a hundred men’s heads.”
At this time, Dickens also started publishing tales and sketches of street life under the
pseudonym “Boz” in periodicals such as Monthly Magazine, Bell’s Weekly Magazine, and
Morning Chronicle. English professor James Diedrick notes of these efforts, “Many of the
sketches are in fact essays, possessing a colloquial immediacy that vividly captures the
lower- and middle-class street life he observed firsthand.” They were immensely popular and
were ultimately collected in two books, Sketches by Boz and Sketches by Boz II. These sketches
provide much of the subject matter that would later appear in Dickens’s fiction. They also set
Dickens’s reputation as a flaneur, the French-derived literary term for “connoisseur of street life.”
Book publishers Edward Chapman and William Hall were so impressed with Sketches by Boz
that in 1836 they asked Dickens to write a series of stories to accompany illustrations by Robert
Seymour, one of England’s most popular comic artists. Their plan was for Dickens to write 20
monthly installments, which they would sell for one shilling each. Dickens’s friends warned
that such a publication mode might cheapen his reputation. Up until then, serials were used
largely for inexpensive reprints of classics or trivial nonfiction. Dickens found just the opposite
of these predictions. Known as The Pickwick Papers, the serial was enormously well received
both critically and popularly, and made Dickens a celebrity at the age of 24. The first run sold
400 copies; the last run sold 40,000. All of Dickens’s future novels would appear in serial
installments, setting a new Victorian trend in publishing.
Dickens used his first payment of 29 shillings from The Pickwick Papers to marry Catherine
Hogarth, with whom he would eventually have 10 children. He also took a three-year lease on
a house at 48 Doughty Street at 80 pounds a year, giving him security he’d never known before.
Dickens idealized Catherine’s younger sister, Mary, who is thought to be the model for Rose in
Oliver Twist. Mary’s untimely death at age 17 greatly affected him.
In 1837, Dickens began editing a monthly called Bentley’s Miscellany, a collection of fiction,
humor, and other features published by Richard Bentley. In the second issue, Dickens began
installments of his first novel, Oliver Twist. The book followed the harsh childhood experiences
of an orphan, and was largely an indictment of the new Poor Laws legislation, which Dickens
felt institutionalized ill treatment of society’s least fortunate. Bentley put out the book in three
volumes in 1838. Though Oliver Twist was a huge financial and critical success, Dickens and
Bentley soon parted over financial and editorial differences.
Dickens continued publishing novels, as well as essays and letters to newspapers regarding
social reform. In 1842, he visited America for the first time and shocked his hosts by
denouncing slavery. He published American Notes upon his return to England, criticizing
many aspects of American life and setting off a furor among Americans. Dickens depicted his
low opinion of American manners in his 1843–1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit.
Dickens had used humor wonderfully to liven up the dark truths of his novels; in the 1840s he
refined his style, widening his range with literary devices such as symbolism. In Bleak House,
for example, he uses the toxic London fog to symbolize society’s ills toward the downtrodden,
his familiar theme. Dickens still offered funny, irreverent characters and situations, but now his
tone was somewhat bitter, often taking the form of biting satire.
Dickens always had an interest in theater, and later in his career, he took great pleasure in
producing and acting in amateur dramas. He collaborated with author Wilkie Collins on a
play called The Frozen Deep, which his theatrical company performed for Queen Victoria in
1857. That same year, Dickens left his wife for actress Ellen Ternan; he’d never felt close to
Catherine, despite their years together, and considered her his intellectual inferior. Around this
time, Dickens also began to give public readings for pay, traveling throughout Europe and
Dickens continued editing periodicals, beginning the weekly Household Words in 1850, which
featured installments of Hard Times, among other works. In 1859, he began a new weekly titled
All the Year Round, where Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Our Mutual Friend and the
unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood appeared in serialized segments.
Dickens’s final days were spent at his beloved home Gad’s Hill, an estate he’d admired as a
child. He continued his public readings in London. On June 8, 1870, he had a stroke after a full
day’s work and died the next day. Some of his friends claimed his death was caused or hastened
by the dramatic public readings he gave during this period of the final murderous scene between
Bill Sikes and Nancy from Oliver Twist. Five days later, he was buried at Westminster Abbey.