Charles Dickens: A Radical, socially conscious enigma

Introduction to Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) was a  Victorian novelist who created some of the most memorable characters in English Literature, while also criticizing the worst excesses of Victorian society. His most famous novels included Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield.

Early Life and Education

Born in Portsmouth on 7 February to John and Elizabeth Dickens, Dickens saw a lot of poverty in his early life, from his father being riddled with debt to the entire family being sent to something known as a debtors prison, where young Charles was forced to work for long hours.

The hard and dangerous work left a lasting impression on Charles Dickens, who would later incorporate in his writings a sense of social injustice that was endemic in Victorian Britain. He escaped the grind of factory work by training to be a shorthand writer and gaining employment as a journalist – reporting on court cases. In 1836, he married Catherine Hogarth and also in that year, he saw the first publication of ‘The Pickwick Papers.’

His first book proved to be a great seller, and this enabled him to become a full-time writer. Charles Dickens took great interest in the social issues of the day, touring both Europe and the United States where he spoke against slavery and the various social injustices that he saw. He even founded his own paper – The Daily News.

Writing and Style of Charles Dickens

Writing at his desk.

Charles Dickens is one of the most popular writers in English. In particular, his novels are brimming with colourful and eccentric characters which leave a lasting impression. He was a keen and observant writer, incorporating the characters that he met and interacted with in his life, adding a touch of fantasy and exaggeration with his vivid descriptive style.

There are various themes which run throughout his writings, which often reflect various degrees of his own life stories. Dickens loved the ‘rags to riches stories’, exemplified by Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. He frequently highlighted the worst excesses and social evils of Victorian society and highlighted his views in a wonderfully witty way.


Charles Dickens had ten children with his wife, but, became estranged from her and ended his life living with his mistress Ellen Ternan. Also towards the end of his life, in  June 1865, he was involved in the tragic Staplehurst rail crash where he narrowly avoided injury. A noted philanthropist, he helped raise funds for charities, such as Great Ormond Street and also helped to set up a home for ‘fallen women.’ Redemption was an important aspect of Dicken’s philosophy and he often criticized harsh and punitive punishments, such as solitary confinement.

Dickens died on June 8th, 1870 after a stroke. He had wished to be buried at Rochester Cathedral in a simple and private manner, but contrary to his wishes, he was buried at Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

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