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Charles Dickens was a British novelist, journalist, editor, illustrator, and social commentator who wrote such beloved classic novels as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.
Dickens was born Charles John Huffam Dickens on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, on the southern coast of England. The famed British author was the second of eight children. His father, John Dickens, was a naval clerk who dreamed of striking it rich. Charles’ mother, Elizabeth Barrow, aspired to be a teacher and school director.
Despite his parents’ best efforts, the family remained poor. Nevertheless, they were happy in the early days. In 1816, they moved to Chatham, Kent, where young Dickens and his siblings were free to roam the countryside and explore the old castle at Rochester. In 1822, the Dickens family moved to Camden Town, a poor neighborhood in London. By then, the family’s financial situation had grown dire, as John Dickens had a dangerous habit of living beyond the family’s means. Eventually, John was sent to prison for debt in 1824, when Charles was just 12 years old.
Following his father’s imprisonment, Dickens was forced to leave school to work at a boot-blacking factory alongside the River Thames. At the run-down, rodent-ridden factory, Dickens earned six shillings a week labeling pots of “blacking,” a substance used to clean fireplaces. It was the best he could do to help support his family. Looking back on the experience, Dickens saw it as the moment he said goodbye to his youthful innocence, stating that he wondered “how [he] could be so easily cast away at such a young age.” He felt abandoned and betrayed by the adults who were supposed to take care of him. These sentiments would later become a recurring theme in his writing. Much to his relief, Dickens was permitted to go back to school when his father received a family inheritance and used it to pay off his debts. But when Dickens was 15, his education was pulled out from under him once again. In 1827, he had to drop out of school and work as an office boy to contribute to his family’s income. As it turned out, the job became a launching point for his writing career.
Dickens married Catherine Hogarth soon after his first book, Sketches by Boz, was published. The couple had a brood of 10 children. During the 1850s, Dickens suffered two devastating losses: the deaths of his daughter and father. He also separated from his wife in 1858. Dickens slandered Catherine publicly and struck up an intimate relationship with a young actress named Ellen “Nelly” Ternan.
Sources differ on whether the two started seeing each other before or after Dickens’ marital separation; it is also believed that he went to great lengths to erase any documentation alluding to Ternan’s presence in his life.
He never fully recovered from a railroad accident in 1865. For several years Dickens’s health declined. He tired himself out by continuing to travel throughout the British Isles and America to read before audiences. He gave a final series of readings in London that began in 1870. Dickens died of a fatal stroke on June 9, 1870, leaving the novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished. The day of his burial was made a day of national mourning in England.