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Ebenezer Scrooge. Oliver Twist. Miss Havisham. David Copperfield. These are among literature’s most fascinating figures, and they were all created by the same author.

Watch this lesson to learn more about one of the English language’s greatest authors, Charles Dickens.

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Dickens’ Early Life

Charles Dickens’ life is like something out of a Charles Dickens’ novel, which is probably not a coincidence. He was born in 1812 in England, and he was the second of eight children – that’s a lot of children!

Portrait of Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens Photo

Things were going super well for a while (which is not like a Charles Dickens novel).

The family moved into a fancy home. They had servants. He was even going to a private school. Things were great.

He read a ton. He read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (things like that), Henry Fielding, and he was also really into Arabian Nights. That’s where Ali Baba, Aladdin and all those stories come from.But then it all came to an abrupt halt when his father was thrown into debtor‘s prison in 1824. As, I guess, was common then, also, his mother and siblings were sent to debtor’s prison at the same time. It seems a little excessive but oh well. He kind of ended up like the Fresh Prince in reverse, essentially.

Instead of starting out in West Philly and going to Bel Air, he started in Bel Air and went to West Philly, alone, at age 12. West Philly and London was a factory analogy – maybe my analogy is wearing thin.Basically, he had to go work at a factory at age 12 that was overrun with rats, and his posh existence was upended, and it traumatized him.

Suddenly, he was one of a ton of child laborers, which he wasn’t all that familiar with before.What’s even worse is that even when his family did eventually get out of prison, his mother wanted him to keep working at the factory. So, he gets his family back, but he’s still stuck doing this awful job.

Fortunately, at least, he did get to go back to school. His father got him into a school in London, saving him from a life of factory stuff forever.Then, even more financial problems forced him out of that school in 1827. He starts work as a law firm clerk. He also works as a reporter, which hones his writing a bit.

In 1830, he falls in love with a woman named Maria Beadnell. Her parents didn’t approve, so they sent her off to finishing school in Paris to get her away from him. By 1836, he must’ve totally forgotten about her because he married a woman named Catherine Hogarth .

They’d go on to have 10 children, which is a lot! That’s like two Brady Bunches or half a Duggar clan.

Early Major Works

It’s a bunch of kids, but it’s nothing compared to his literary output – tons of books! He published his first short story in 1833. It was quickly followed by a flood of novellas, novels, plays and many, many stories.

He wrote a ton!His first fully-fledged novel was called The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (or, shortly known as The Pickwick Papers). It was published in 19 monthly installments from 1836 to 1837. It’s a collection of stories loosely connected to each other. The Pickwick Papers was actually kind of like an original Star Wars of its time in a lot of ways. There were spinoffs; there were bootleg versions; there were stage shows and merchandising – all it was missing was a terrible Christmas special (we’ll get to Charles Dickens’ Christmas special later).

You should also check out the Star Wars Christmas special because it is hilarious! We meet Chewbacca’s family. It is awful! Anyway, this was the beginning of a hugely successful and prolific career for Dickens.Next, comes Oliver Twist, which is published, again, in installments in 1838.

This is about a miserable orphan boy stuck in a workhouse, which, if that sounds familiar, it is! Dickens drew on his own experiences to write this. It’s actually been adapted into a musical called Oliver, which was then adapted into a movie version that I never saw – but I watched the preview a ton of times on Disney VHS.After that, there were several more novels, including Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop.

In 1842, Dickens goes to America. He comments on a variety of stuff. He really throws his opinion out there – important things, like condemning slavery, and losing battles, like fighting the rampant piracy of his novels.

Can you imagine pirating books instead of music? Although, people do pirate Kindle editions – rebel nerds! I don’t know. Dickens hated that people were making illegal copies of his books and he wasn’t getting paid. Now, ironically, he’s all over the Internet because it’s public domain. He’s probably rolling over in his grave about that. ‘Dem’s the breaks! ‘Dem’s the berries!

Christmas Novels and David Copperfield

Back in England, he completed A Christmas Carol in 1843, and it was a special Christmas book. You’re probably familiar with this one. It’s about a guy named Ebenezer Scrooge, and there are three ghosts.

You’ve probably seen A Muppet Christmas Carol or heard someone say ‘God Bless us, everyone’ – that’s all from this.You know how people always complain about Christmas starting in June? Christmas wasn’t always like that; it wasn’t always a months-long shebang, with parties, TV specials, Mariah Carey and the movie Love Actually (which I hate, but I watch every year). It was A Christmas Carol that started all of this off. It sparked interest in Christmas as this real festive holiday in Britain and in the U.S.

It was all getting going at the same time, the whole decorating a Christmas tree thing, the month-long celebration. If they had TV, they’d probably be producing those annoying Gap Christmas commercials. We have Charles Dickens to thank for all of this.

So, thank you, Charles Dickens! I’m sounding a lot like Scrooge right now, aren’t I?Dickens wrote four more Christmas novels actually, but we’re not going to talk about those because we’re sick of Christmas already.In 1849, he published David Copperfield, which is his most directly autobiographical novel. It’s about his days training to be the world’s greatest magician… no, it’s not! Not that David Copperfield. It’s just about a guy; he has many adventures. He meets lots of interesting people. There’s not any magic. I just said that to get you interested in it.

Dickens’ Late Life and Works

Bleak House (1853) and Hard Times (1854); this is not sounding so fun anymore, right? You couldn’t even pretend that there was magic in those. I jest. Bleak House actually is one of his more popular novels. It’s got a lot of interesting characters and cool interwoven subplots. It’s also a critique of the British judicial system, so you can make your own judgments about how interesting that would be to you.In 1857, Dickens was starring in a play he’d written called The Frozen Deep, and he fell in love with Ellen Ternan, who was one of the actresses who was playing opposite him. How did he have the time to fall in love while acting in a play he’d written and writing all this other stuff? I don’t know; I guess he had his priorities straight.

Even worse than all that – he was 45, and she was 18. You may have forgotten about his wife and their ten children, but he had her, too. This was kind of not all that nice.He got totally busted when a jeweler delivered a gold bracelet to his wife that had a note from Dickens to Ellen, his mistress. Which is totally what happens in Love Actually, which is weird that now I’ve mentioned it twice in a video, even though I don’t like it very much.

So, he got separated from his wife. They didn’t get divorced because you couldn’t do that then (especially if you were famous). But Dickens would go on to support Ellen for the rest of his life, and they traveled around together. It probably annoyed the hell out of his wife.With his new muse, Dickens’ completed two of his really biggest hits. He published Great Expectations in 1861 and A Tale of Two Cities in 1859.Even if you’ve never read A Tale of Two Cities, you probably know how it starts: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

‘ The novel is set in… wait for it, two cities! That should be a quiz question: how many cities is A Tale of Two cities set in? It’s London and Paris (the two cities mentioned in the title) during the French Revolution. The plot deals with the good and the evil that came from the overthrowing of the French aristocracy. Best of times, worst of times – he’s letting you know right from the beginning that we’re dealing in opposites. We have a whole lesson on that; we’ll talk more about A Tale of Two Cities.Great Expectations is about an orphan named Pip – again, there’s those orphans – who is helping out a convict. So, that is a heartwarming story. He falls in love with a girl named Estella, who is being taken care of by this strange old woman named Miss Havisham.

Miss Havisham lives in a decaying old mansion, wearing a wedding dress and generally being weird. I’ve got a video on that one too, so we can learn more about that together later. Fun fact about Great Expectations is that Pip was Daniel Radcliffe’s (from Harry Potter) first film/TV role. That’s how he got his start and how he got discovered to be Harry!Dickens was pretty prolific for a while, it declined around 1865. On June 9th of that year, he was in an almost deadly train accident. It was deadly for a lot of people. All these cars plunged off a bridge – his didn’t – but he was rattled by that.

He wrote a little ghost story about it called The Signal-Man.Then, five years later to the day, he died. It was 1870, and he was one of the most popular authors in Victorian England at the time.

Literary Style

We’ll dive more into individual styles and themes as we go. As I mentioned, we’re going to discuss several of these novels in-depth. The important thing to know about Dickens – I mentioned this in regards to a couple of the books – most of his works were published serially, which means that they were published in sections in magazines as he wrote them – like TV shows episodes.

Again, they didn’t have TV, so they had to make do with what they had. This kind of publication schedule can really change how you conceive of a novel and how it evolves. That’s something important to keep in mind with regard to his stuff.It’s also important that he loved a good satire. He liked to comment on social issues, particularly class and poverty.

His satire can be funny, but it can also be kind of alarming. He was really into railing against social conditions, especially in factories and the things that he had experienced. For upper class readers, this shocked them.

He really opened the door on a lot of this stuff that was going on.He also combines awful, harrowing realism – like poor Oliver Twist and his early life – alongside very idealized things as well – like the transformation of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Also, he’s not shy to be sentimental. Oliver Twist is ridiculously sentimental. The character is good; he’s so pure; he’s kind of virtuous to the point being obnoxious. This is not something that Dickens is trying to avoid.You can find some fault with Oliver and characters like him, but Dickens has also got some great characters.

Whether they’re realistic, complex or caricatures, he’s got great names in particular. He’s got the Artful Dodger, Inspector Bucket, Martin Chuzzlewit, Mrs. Snagsby, Mr. Fezziwig, Uriah Heep – these are great names! These are awesome.

You’ll have those to look forward to as you enter the wild world of Charles Dickens.

Lesson Summary

To sum things up: he is Victorian England’s most acclaimed and popular novelist. He wrote a ton! His early life was kind of rough. He was in money.

Then he was in poverty. Then he had to do child labor. But he ends up using this for a lot of his writing. He writes Oliver Twist, which is about orphans, like he experienced; David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, which you can thank for Christmas-palooza every year.

He’s noted for his use of satire, his social critiques, realism and sentimentalism side-by-side and really vivid, memorable characters with awesome names (like Chuzzlewit). So, that is Charles Dickens!

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