“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so. ” (Bibliomania Online)
The Victorian era, 1837-1901,was an era of several unsettling social developments that forced writers more than ever before to take positions on the immediate issues animating the rest of society. Although romantic forms of expression in poetry and prose continued to dominate English literature throughout much of the century, the attention of many writers was directed, sometimes passionately, to such issues as the growth of English democracy, the education of the masses, the progress of industrial enterprise and the consequent rise of a materialistic philosophy, and the plight of the newly industrialized worker.
In addition, the unsettling of religious belief by new advances in science, particularly the theory of evolution and the historical study of the Bible, drew other writers away from the immemorial subjects of literature into considerations of problems of faith and truth. Charles Dickens is the most widely read Victorian novelist. Dickens appealed to social consciousness to overcome social misery.
His immense popularity gave importance to his attacks on the abuses of the law-courts and of schools whose object was not the education of the children but the enrichment of the proprietors. Through Dickens Literature he questioned authority, examined the lives of the undistinguised individuals, and he challenged the idea that mone can by happiness. As bella Wilfer Says in Our mutual friend “society given over to the pursuit of money, money, money, and what money can make of life. ” (Smith 78)
Born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, the second of John and Elizabeth Dickens’s eight children, Charles was raised with the assumption that he would receive an education and, if he worked hard, might some day come to live at Gad’s Hill Place, the finest house on the main road between Rochester and Gravesend (Smith 196). John Dickens, on whom Mr. Micawber is based, moved the family to London in 1823, fell into financial disaster, was arrested for debt and imprisoned in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison ( Kaplan 109). Charles was forced to go to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory at Hungerford Stairs labeling bottles.
In his Life of Charles Dickens, John Forster shares the fragment of Dickens’s autobiography upon which David Copperfield’s Murdstone and Grinby experiences are based: “It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me, that, even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion on me — a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally — to suggest that something might have been spared, as certainly it might have been, to place me at any common school. Our friends, I take it, were tired out.
No one made any sign. My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge. “( Ackroyd, 388) Dickens himself did not know how long this ordeal lasted, “whether for a year, or much more, or less”; surely it must have seemed as if it would last forever to this sensitive twelve-year-old boy and it so seared his psyche that Dickens the man never “until I impart it to this paper [a full quarter century later], in any burst of confidence to anyone, my own wife not excepted, raised the curtain I then dropped, thank God. Ackroyd, 388) Dickens was able to continue his education after his father received a legacy from a relative and was released from the Marshalsea. Charles attended Wellington House Academy from 1824 to 1826 before taking work as a clerk in Gray’s Inn for two years. In order to qualify himself to become a newspaper parliamentary reporter, Dickens spent eighteen months studying shorthand, a perfect command of which was “equal in difficulty to the mastery of six languages,” he was cautioned, and studying in the reading room of the British Museum.
He won a reputation for his quickness and accuracy during his two years (1828-1830) as a reporter in the court of Doctors’ Commons before reporting for the True Sun and the Mirror Parliament and finally becoming a reporter for the Morning Chronicle in 1834. (Ayer, 55) Dickens’s first published piece appeared in the December, 1833, number of the Monthly Magazine, followed by nine others, the last two appearing over the signature “Boz,” a pseudonym Dickens adopted from a pet name for his younger brother.
Ackroyd 98) These sketches were collected into two volumes and published on Dickens’s twenty-fourth birthday, February 7, 1836, as Sketches by Boz. Illustrative of Everyday Life and Everyday People. Dickens’s skills as an observant reporter intimately familiar with middle and lower class London are demonstrated in these descriptive vignettes of everyday life, which also reveal his high humor and his deep concern for social justice, qualities that will dominate his novels. (Charles Online) Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of George Hogarth, with whom Dickens worked on the Morning Chronicle .
Catherine and Charles had ten children before they separated in 1858. Mary Hogarth, Catherine’s beautiful younger sister, joined the Dickens household shortly after the honeymoon. Mary’s death, at seventeen years of age, in Dickens’s arms established in his mind an image of ideal womanhood that never left him. The ring he took from Mary’s dead finger remained on his hand until his own death. (Ayer 83) The introduction of Sam Weller into the fourth number of Pickwick Papers (1836-37) launched the most popular literary career in the history of the language.
Pickwick Papers became a publishing phenomenon, selling forty thousand copies of every issue. Published in twenty monthly installments, Pickwick took England by storm: Judges read it on the bench, doctors in the carriages between visiting patients, boys on the street. Carlyle tells Forster the story of a clergyman who, after consoling a sick person, was alarmed to hear the patient exclaim, upon the clergyman’s leaving the sickroom, “Well, Thank God, Pickwick will be out in ten days anyway!
People named their pet animals after characters in the novel; there were Pickwick hats, cigars, and coats, and innumerable plays and sequels based on the original. (Smith 102) The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club chronicle the amusing misadventures of Mr. Pickwick, a lovable innocent who seeks to discover the world with his youthful companions, parodies of the lover, the sportsman, and the poet. While the Papers begin as a hilarious romp parodying the eighteenth-century novels Dickens had pored over as a child, they eventually assume a shape rising to the mythic level of great literature.
Pickwick’s education, under the guidance of Sam Weller, his streetwise, Cockney manservant, leads him to the discovery of the world of shyster lawyers, guile, corruption, vice, and imprisonment. The comic exuberance of Pickwick dominates this dark underside, though, and the sheer energy and wonderful good humor of the Papers carries the sunny day. There are, however, the Interpolated Tales of madness, betrayal, and murder, and Mr. Pickwick is forced to become a prisoner in his own room in the Fleet, for three months.
The horrors young Charles Dickens had witnessed as a boy working in the blacking warehouse while his father was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea are not eliminated from Pickwick’s world; indeed, his awareness of their existence is what allows Mr. Pickwick to become a fully loving, if finally not fully effective human being, who, with Sam’s help, can see reality and relieve evil–to the best of his limited abilities. (Ackroyd 184)
Even as Pickwick Papers was enjoying its huge success, Dickens started Oliver Twist; or The Parish Boy’s Progress in January, 1837; it continued in monthly numbers through 1838. In Oliver , Dickens explores the social evils attendant upon a political economy that made pauperism the rule rather than the exception. Oliver flees the cruel Sowerbys where he is apprenticed as an undertaker, having been sold to them by the workhouse for daring to ask for more — food, love, nutrition, warmth — and seeks his fortune in the criminal slum world of London proper.
Befriended by the irrepressible Artful Dodger, he discovers warmth and good humor in Fagin’s den, among thieves, pickpockets, prostitutes, and burglars. Dickens presents an unrelenting portrait of the filth and squalor that surround poverty and, refusing to romanticize the criminal world, at the same time makes it clear that this sector has been abandoned by society just as surely as Oliver and the other Parish Boys have been abandoned by an unresponsive system. This is the world the young Dickens saw at the blacking warehouse. (Smith 88)
The contrasting world of the Brownlows and the Maylies may serve to rescue Oliver from the corruption of Fagin and the brutality of Sikes, but the other boys in Fagin’s gang–who have been nurtured better by Fagin than Oliver’s fellows had been in the workhouse–will remain abandoned. Rose Maylie, Dickens’s first resurrection of Mary Hogarth, is discovered to be Oliver’s aunt and Oliver is returned to her through Nancy’s intervention, When Bill Sikes learns of Nancy’s betrayal of him and the gang, Dickens has Sikes brutally murder her.
Dickens’s almost compulsive public reading of the death of Nancy some thirty years later–readings that shortened his own life–seems an insistent reminder to his public that this problem has not been successfully addressed. The social system has victimized Nancy and Sikes just as surely as the Poor Law has failed Oliver. There may be Brownlows and Maylies who can intervene individually and occasionally–and miraculously–in the lives of some Olivers, but the masses of screaming mobs hot in pursuit of Sikes for the murder of Nancy need to know how those destructive forces can be reversed.
Sikes has been as brutalized by that society as Nancy has been by him. Dickens’s novels seek to help us understand this and to do something about it, as a society. (Charles Online) The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby , appearing in twenty numbers from April, 1838, to October, 1839, returns to the comic exuberance and vitality of Pickwick Papers. Dickens is exposing the cruelty and exploitation of children in the Cheap Schools in Yorkshire, immortalized in the portrayal of Wackford Squeers at Dotheboys Hall.
In Nickleby Dickens brings together the serious issues of social reform he addresses in Oliver Twist with the rollicking humor and vast landscape of humanity he presents in Pickwick Papers . The public responded enthusiastically with sales reaching fifty thousand. (Kaplan 146) Dickens embarked on a publication resembling the Spectator , which would come out weekly and allow him–with the help of others–“to write amusing essays on the various foibles as they arise” and to introduce new characters, along with Pickwick and Sam Weller, to comment on passing events.
Thus was born Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840-41), a weekly magazine, the first number of which sold seventy thousand copies. However, as sales dropped off due to the lack of a sustained story, Dickens introduced the story of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840), beginning with the fourth number of Master Humphrey’s Clock and resuming intermittently until the ninth chapter, at which point it continued uninterrupted.
The story of the innocent Nell surrounded by surrealistic figures like Quilp and his gang and continuing onto a nightmarish journey through the industrial inferno with her half-crazed, gambleholic grandfather calls forth all of Dickens’s original genius. The death of Nell, based on the death of Mary Hogarth, caused a nation to weep and skyrocketed sales to 100,000 copies. The publication of The Old Curiosity Shop secured Dickens’s success not only in England but in America, where he was now famous as well. (Ackroyd 133)
Dickens followed The Old Curiosity Shop with Barnaby Rudge (1841), also published weekly in Master Humphrey’s Clock . Set in the time of the Gordon Riots of 1780, this represents Dickens’s first attempt to write an historical novel. While the riots themselves were inflamed by anti-Catholic sentiment, Dickens suggests throughout the novel that they are actually an outburst of social protest. Dickens is appalled by the mob violence he brilliantly depicts in the brutal riots, but he expresses deep sympathy for the oppressed who are driven to such lengths by an indifferent and unresponsive system.
World Book) Dickens himself was becoming increasingly impatient with England’s political economy, which he perceives as insensitive to the needs of the people, and is indignant with the social conditions he sees around him. While he does not advocate a violent outburst from those who are the victims of this oppression, the explosive energy of the riot scenes in Barnaby offers a vision of what is possible if the needs of the people are not addressed. (Ayer 72) Upon completing Barnaby Rudge Dickens visited America where he was absolutely lionized.
However, after several attacks on him for his insistent speaking out in favor of international copyright laws and after further acquaintance with American ill breeding and overly familiar intrusion on his and Catherine’s privacy, Dickens became disenchanted with his own vision of America as a land of freedom that was fulfilling a democratic ideal. In American Notes (1842) he expresses his reservations about America, much to the chagrin of his American audience. (World Book) With The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit , Dickens returned to monthly numbers publishing in twenty installments from January, 1843, to July, 1844.
Martin Chuzzlewit is organized around the theme of selfishness, and marks an advance in Dickens’s development as a novelist. However, sales dropped off to twenty thousand; in an effort to increase sales, Dickens sends Martin to America where Martin discovers the boorish behavior Dickens had only gently portrayed in American Notes . But if Dickens is scathing in his portrayal of America in Chuzzlewit , he is even fiercer in exposing greed, selfishness, hypocrisy, and corruption in his homeland. He is able to sustain this satiric exposure with his comic genius, creating here characters who have achieved a reality beyond their pages.
Sairey Gamp is no less real for us than Mrs. Harris is for her, and Pecksniff’s name has entered the language as descriptive of hypocritical benevolence. In December, 1843, Dickens published the most popular and beloved of his works, A Christmas Carol, a work that expresses succinctly his “Carol philosophy. ” Scrooge has sacrificed joy, love, and beauty for the pursuit of money and is representative of a society whose economic philosophy dooms the less fortunate to lives of want and oppression.
The ghosts help him to a Wordsworthian recollection of youth and the promise of a better being, and as a result, Scrooge’s imagination is extended sympathetically beyond himself and he is redeemed. Dickens’s vision of a society redeemed through love and generosity will haunt his works from now on. The alternative to this vision seems to be the threat of revolutionary violence we see in Brandy Rudge . (Ackroyd 144) Dickens traveled to Italy in 1844-45 and then to Switzerland and Paris in 1846. His next Christmas book, The Chimes (1844), continued the assault on the economic philosophy exposed in A Christmas Carol.
Dickens ridicules Malthusian philosophy and the economic theory that the poor have no right to anything beyond meager subsistence. He is coming increasingly to believe that the social problems in England are an inevitable byproduct of an economic philosophy that is fundamentally wrong-minded. The Cricket and the Hearth (1845) and The Battle of Life (1846) continue the Christmas books, and Pictures from Italy (1846) recounts Dickens’s impressions of his Italian travel. (World Book) Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son appeared in seventeen monthly numbers from January, 1847, through April 1848, the last being a double number.
In this work Dickens is able to integrate his criticism of the social philosophy dominating nineteenth-century England into the structure of the novel itself, as he will continue to do in Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend. Dombey and Son investigates the callous indifference of an economic system that places the cash nexus before human relations. Mr. Dombey, who represents the enterprising nineteenth century businessman, rejects the love of his daughter in favor of the son who will become heir to the firm.
Dombey’s universe collapses around him as his son dies, he drives his daughter away, his second wife leaves him, his business goes bankrupt, and he loses his fortune. Like Scrooge, though, Dombey is redeemed by memory and remorse–and the loving forgiveness of his daughter. (Charles Online) The importance of memory once again becomes central to Dickens’s next Christmas book, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848), the tale of a man who gets his wish to lose all memory of sorrow at the expense of losing the attendant sensibility that comes with the loss of memory.
This Wordsworthian concern for the importance of recollection of the past and the healing influence of memory–even the memory of sorrow and grief–comes to be central for Dickens, as he has his story conclude with the prayer, “Lord, Keep my Memory Green. ” It is at this time that Dickens is writing the autobiographical fragment he shares with Forster and which he mined for his most autobiographical novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield , published in twenty monthly installments from May, 1849, to November, 1850, the last issue being a double number.
David Copperfield opens with David, the narrator, indicating that the pages of his book must show whether he will turn out to be the hero of his own life. After overcoming the brutal experiences based on Dickens’s own experience at the blacking warehouse, David eventually marries, sets up household, establishes a growing reputation as a novelist, and yet discovers “a vague unhappy loss or want of something” in his life. He wonders if this unhappiness is the result of his having given in to “the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart” by marrying his child-wife, or if it is representative of the human condition.
He does know it would have been better if his wife “could have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts to which I had no partner; and that this might have been; I knew. ” (Ayer, 93) Dickens was himself experiencing a similar sense of vague dissatisfaction at this time and may have wondered if his wife were not partly responsible. Whether she was or whether Dickens was experiencing the angst that every major Victorian thinker suffered from we cannot know. David’s problem is settled by Dora’s early death and David’s recognition that Agnes has loved him all along and that on a level he was not aware of he had loved her too.
They marry, have a lovely family, and share a fulfilled existence. ( Smith 72) The novel ends with David’s apostrophe to his true wife: “Oh Agnes, Oh my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward! ” In his Preface to the novel, Dickens talks about “dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world” as he finishes David Copperfield. Both Dickens and David equate the world of vision with the world of actuality–one is as impermanent as the other.
For David, Agnes is pointing to a world he hopes lasts beyond the worlds of shadow. In 1842, Dickens had written to Forster in response to the overwhelming triumph of his welcome in Boston: “I feel, in the best aspects of this welcome, something of the presence and influence of that spirit which directs my life, and through a heavy sorrow has pointed upward with unchanging finger for more than four years past. ” He is referring, of course, to Mary Hogarth. (Ackroyd 188) In the novel, David is able to realize his ideal vision, actually to possess the beauty that is his inspiration and end as artist.
Mary Hogarth becomes, for Dickens, an idealized vision of beauty that cannot be possessed, but she serves “as a presence and influence of that spirit that directs” Dickens’s life. Whether that ideal can be attained beyond this realm is not the issue. The ideal has allowed David to become the hero of his life, not by possessing the ideal but by acting on its inspiration. David the artist becomes artist as the result of realizing his imaginative vision, of creating art. In the act of creating art he possesses the vision.