Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth, England, second of eight children of John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow. His father was jolly, improvident and verbose, inspiring Dickens' later character Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. His mother's traits of irrepressible optimism appeared in both Mrs Nickleby of Nicholas Nickleby and Mrs Micawber.
As a boy, Dickens was a voracious reader. He read to deepen his education, to escape from the financial suffering of his family, and to nourish a thriving imagination. He especially enjoyed a "glorious host" of books that included Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, the works of Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollet, The Arabian Nights, The Vicar of Wakefield, and The Tales of the Genii. Many allusions to these works appear in Dickens' own writing.
Dickens' early education, which he enjoyed, ended abruptly when his father entered debtors' prison in 1824. Dickens, like his character David Copperfield, went to work pasting labels on blacking bottles. His father was released a few months later, and Dickens was eventually able to return to school. But the experience affected him indelibly and manifested in his writing. At age sixteen Dickens trained himself to be a journalist, and for the next five years he wrote for various newspapers, developing his skills. In 1833 he published his first short story, "A Dinner at Poplar Walk." He quickly published several more (some under the pen-name, "Boz," a childhood nickname) and his literary career blossomed. Dickens soon gained his first access into literary circles through his close friend, historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, and began to be known by his writing peers.
On 2 April 1836 Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of the editor of the Evening Chronicle. Two days previous, Dickens had serially published the first number of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Dickens had quickly invented Mr Pickwick from a publisher's request to flesh out a story from a series of engraved plates. The story's debut met initially with little notice. But by the end of its serialization, Pickwick had gained a "phenomenal popularity that transcended barriers of class, age, and education." As a result Dickens resigned his journalist post to support himself with his pen. From then on, Dickens wrote success after success. By 1841 at age 29, Dickens had become the most popular author in Britain.
As evidenced in his writing, Dickens was passionate about improving the conditions of the poor, particularly of children. This arose not only from his own childhood when, during the time of his father's imprisonment, he could so easily have become, "for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond." It also arose from his own extensive exploration of London and his acute awareness of the lives of the underprivileged throughout England. He often wandered the streets of London when he couldn't sleep, finding new ideas for his writing. His inspiration for A Christmas Carol (1843) rose out of a desire to motivate readers to compassion and social change.
By 1846 Dickens' earnings from writing lifted him out of financial anxiety. He seemed always to know what the public wanted to read, and his publishers wisely allowed him great autonomy in publishing periodicals as well as books. In 1849 Dickens began the serial publication of The Personal History of David Copperfield, an autobiographical novel "presented with only the lightest fictional disguise," following many details of Dickens' own life. Before long it was held to be his greatest work. However, as Dickens continued to write realistically and sympathetically about English life at all levels of society, critics often failed to agree on which was his greatest work.
Dickens' popularity was so strong that, despite Victorian morality, when scandal about his failed marriage and probable mistress circulated in 1858, his readers still adored him. However, Dickens' broke off his friendship with William Makepeace Thackeray when he heard that Thackeray had corrected someone who thought the mistress was Dickens' sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth. Thackeray's words were, "No such thing - it's with an actress." It is true that Dickens maintained an extremely close relationship with actress Ellen "Nelly" Ternan who, it is believed, inspired Dickens' character Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. But of course he tried to keep the relationship private. The breech between Thackeray and Dickens remained for many years, until a chance meeting in the street in which the two shook hands.
Dickens' friends and associates included many authors, publishers, and actors of the Victorian age. He named one of his sons Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens after his close friend, author Edward Bulwer Lytton, who persuaded Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations (1861). Dickens' idea for one of his most remembered characters, dissolute Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), came from a role Dickens played of a self-sacrificing lover in The Frozen Deep (1857), a melodrama written by another close friend, author Wilkie Collins. Dickens often put together theatricals for his friends or for charity events. Frequently he took the lead and acted extremely well. He did many public readings of his own books, in which he captivated audiences by acting the parts as he read.
Dickens' spent his life writing almost constantly, usually writing even during his many travels. In 1870 he had begun to serially publish his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, when he died of a stroke. The novel remained unfinished, leaving many critics and admirers to this day speculating about the ending.