Author Profile

Charles Dickens

Selected Works

  • A Christmas Carol (1843)
  • David Copperfield (1850)
  • Great Expectations (1861)
  • Oliver Twist (1838)

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.


Letter to Angus Fletcher, 14th April 1840. Inserted into The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. London: Chapman and Hall, 1837. 1st ed.

Angus Fletcher was a Scottish sculptor who made a bust of Dickens and was a life-long friend. Dickens signed this book on the title page on 3 July 1841.

One of the numerous readers of Pickwick was Lord Thomas Denman, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, who would read Pickwick while the jury deliberated in cases he was adjudicating.

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  1. Letter to Angus Fletcher, 14th April 1840: EnvelopeEnvelope
  2. Letter to Angus Fletcher, 14th April 1840: Page 1Page 1
  3. Letter to Angus Fletcher, 14th April 1840: Page 2Page 2

The Personal History of David Copperfield. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1850. 1st ed.

Dickens presented this copy to Lady Laura Cubitt Olliffe, writing on the dedication page, "Lady Olliffe with great regard from Charles Dickens. Eighteenth February 1855." It has been bound to combine the parts in which David Copperfield was originally issued from May 1849 to November 1850.

Lady Olliffe was the wife of a famous physician of the times, Sir Joseph Olliffe. Victorian collection David Magee supplies an anecdote about this item:

On February 10, 1855 Dickens went to Paris where he saw the Olliffes. The day before he left England he had received a letter from Maria Beadnell, the love of his youth whom he had immortalized as Dora in David Copperfield. This voice from the past so filled him with heartache he could think of little else during his stay in Paris. Romantics, like Dickens, cannot resist an audience, and he talked much of Maria (now married and with two children) to Lady Olliffe, who apparently lent him a highly sympathetic ear. It would seem he must have promised this copy of David Copperfield to his confidante, for the inscription is dated almost immediately on his return to England. Parenthetically, Dickens made the mistake of inviting Maria to meet him. He was mortally disillusioned; he found her fortyish, fat, foolish and flirtatious. Later, he caricatured her as Flora in Little Dorrit.

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  1. The Personal History of David Copperfield. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1850. 1st edPage 1

Letter to Dudley Costello, 27 December 1860. Inserted into The Uncommercial Traveller. London: Chapman and Hall, 1861.

Letter to author and journalist Dudley Costello, thanking him for a book Costello sent Dickens. "As an amiable exchange of prisoners," Dickens then signed and sent Costello his own book, this copy of The Uncommercial Traveller.

The book that Costello sent to Dickens was probably his Holidays with Hobgoblins (1861), a compilation of articles Costello had contributed to All the Year Round, and to its predecessor Household Words. Costello also acted in several of Dickens' theatrical productions.

Dickens wrote this letter on stationery of All the Year Round, a Victorian literary periodical founded and edited by Dickens, and published between 1859 and 1895. It printed the writings of many Victorian authors, and even issued the first serialization of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. After Dickens' death, his son, Charles Dickens Jr, took over the magazine.

The Uncommercial Traveller is a compilation of some of Dickens' own contributions to All the Year Round. He wrote using the persona of the Uncommercial Traveller, describing everyday London usually with wit, but sometimes with indignation at the conditions of the lower class. In a later edition Dickens added more essays, including one chapter describing his encounter with Mormons waiting aboard ship to emigrate to America. Dickens had "been burning to get at the Prophet Joe Smith." But "to the rout and overthrow of all my expectations," he decided the Mormons could have been called "in their degree, the pick and flower of England."

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  1. Letter to Dudley Costello, 27 December 1860: Page 1Page 1
  2. Letter to Dudley Costello, 27 December 1860: Page 2Page 2

Letter to Georgina Hogarth, 23 May 1861.

Dickens wrote this letter to update his wife's sister about his stay in Dover, England. "Georgy" had joined his household as housekeeper and had evolved into an adviser and one of his closest friends.

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  1. Letter to Georgina Hogarth, 23 May 1861: Page 1Page 1
  2. Letter to Georgina Hogarth, 23 May 1861: Page 2Page 1
  3. Letter to Georgina Hogarth, 23 May 1861: Page 3Trans-

Holographic quotation from The Old Curiosity Shop (1841).

Quote in Dickens' handwriting and with his signature, about the death of his character Little Nell. Victorian collector David Magee stated: "It has been said that Dickens wept when he wrote these lines. Indeed, all of England wept as it read them."

In 1840 Dickens became editor of a new periodical, Master Humphrey's Clock, which published miscellaneous, loosely related pieces. The magazine's sales declined rapidly, until Dickens developed the character of Master Humphrey and others into The Old Curiosity Shop and published it serially in the magazine. By the end of the story's run, the magazine's circulation had increased to an extraordinary 100,000 copies. Little Nell's death, inspired by the death of Dickens' sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, did indeed plunge England into mourning.

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  1. Holographic quotation from The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)Page 1

Letter to Benjamin Webster, 27 March 1856.

Letter written in Paris to Webster, an old friend of Dickens who was a well-known actor and manager of the Adelphi and Haymarket theaters. The "Collins" in the letter is Wilkie Collins, another very popular Victorian author and close friend of Dickens.

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  1. Letter to Benjamin Webster, 27 March 1856: Page 1Page 1
  2. Letter to Benjamin Webster, 27 March 1856: Page 2Page 2

Signed holograph letter (in third person). To the "Proprietor of the Bull," 29 September 1839.

A letter written by Dickens to the Bull Inn at Rochester advising them that Mr. & Mrs. Dickens need rooms and will arrive by the Canterbury coach. The letter is written in third person, as people of the times often did when conducting business of this sort. Victorian collector David Magee explains, "The Bull Inn at Rochester was one of Dickens' favorite hostelries. He used it in Pickwick and again in Great Expectations."

The letter was folded and signed on the back, "Mr Dickens."

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  1. Signed holograph letter (in third person). To the Proprietor of the Bull, 29 September 1839: FrontFront
  2. Signed holograph letter (in third person). To the Proprietor of the Bull, 29 September 1839: BackBack

Holograph letter to Marguerite, Lady Blessington, 31 Oct 1845.

Lady Blessington was an author of popular novels and other prose. Her first book, The Magic Lantern, or, Sketches in the Metropolis, she published anonymously in 1822. Others followed. In 1827 Count D'Orsay married Lady Blessington's daughter, but he was more interested in Lady Blessington, with whom he had an affair of long duration. Dickens was a friend and asked D'Orsay, along with the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, to be co-godfather of his son, Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson Dickens.

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  1. Holograph letter to Marguerite, Lady Blessington, 31 Oct 1845: Page 1Page 1
  2. Holograph letter to Marguerite, Lady Blessington, 31 Oct 1845: TranscriptTranscript
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