Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

The Life of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens full name was, Charles John Huffam Dickens. He was born in Landport, Portsea, England on February 7th, 1812. He was the second child of eight children, but the first son, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. John was a clerk in the Navy Pay office, with little pay. The Navy transferred John and his family to London, then two years later to Chatham. He lived there from 1817-1821, and relocated to Camden Town, London in 1822. In 1824, John Dickens fell into debt and was sent to prison along with the rest of the family, except for Charles. Charles was sent to work at Warren’s Shoe Blacking Factory at age ten. He was sent there to paste labels on blacking-pots. The little money he made was to help his family out.He lived in a boarding house and walked to work everyday.On Sundays he would go to visit his father in prison. Dickens’s father had a little pension saved away which he gave to his son to live in a better quarters. An elder of the Dickens family di ed and have left the family some money, which finally released them from prison. Dickens’s father quickly released him from the blacking factory and was placed in school.

Wellington House Academy

He was happy at Wellington House Academy at the age of twelve for two years. During this time, Dickens started writing small tales to his fellow classmates. At age fourteen he was employed as a clerk in an attorney’s office. From 1830 he worked as a shorthand reporter in the courts and afterward as a parliamentary and newspaper reporter.In 1833 Dickens started putting some of his short stories and essays into periodicals. His first story, “A Dinner at a Popular Walk,” was published in the Monthly Magazine. His first book, Sketches by Boz, was published in 1836. Dickens adopted this name “Boz” because “he was not sure of the reception which the public would give his writings” (Rupert, p.15).

Catherine Dickens

Later in 1836, Dickens his editor’s daughter, Catherine Hogarth.Then in 1837 he has his first child and later having ten children altogether. Later that year Catherine’s sister died and Dickens started to publish Oliver Twist.In addition, he published daily editorials for Bentley’s Miscellany. After this he toured the continent and returned to London to start writing The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Through the next three years published The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.

In 1842 Dickens and Catherine traveled to America. Then in 1843 Dickens’s famous novel, A Christmas Carol was published. In 1848, Dickens sister, Fanny died. Later that year his last Christmas book was published, The Haunted Man.In 1849, Dickens started to publish David Copperfield. In 1851, things started to get a little rough for Dickens. His wife and new baby were taken severely ill. They were taken to country lodgings at Great Malverin. Almost two weeks later his father fell ill; he went to visit him in London. He arrived at his bedside and his father did not remember him. Dickens later wrote a letter “He did not know me. He began to sink at about noon…and never rallied afterwords. I remained there till he died-O so quietly…I hardly know what to do” (Rupert, p.45). Ten days later Dickens was called back again to London to preside as a chairman at a great public dinner given for the General Theatrical Fund. After he made the speech at the dinner, he was handed a letter that told him his baby daughter, Dora,that had fell ill earlier was now dead. Catherine recovered from her illness; however she was not back to her same self again. Throughout his life Dickens was interested in the theatre and organized and participated in many amateur theatricals. For instance, during this time period, he presented Not so Bad as We Seem, before Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort.

Up until 1858 he published numerous works; Hard Times, Bleak House, and Little Dorrit.Then later he separated from his wife, Catherine.The next year in 1859 he published the famous, A Tale of Two Cities.The next year he published Great Expectations. Later in 1860, Dickens’s brother, Alfred, died. Three years later, Dickens’s mother Elizabeth died.On Christmas Eve, his lifelong friend Thackeray died. The following February, in 1864, his son,Walter, died in Calcutta.All of these events sunk him into a great depression which had greatly affected his health. He started doctoring plays for Lyceum Theatre Management. By the end of that year, Dickens old friend, John Leech died. In addition, by the start of 1865 he suffered a severe illness which left him with a lameness in his left foot for the remainder of his life.Two years later he was on his way back to London when he was in a railway accident near Staplehurst.Ten people were killed and twenty were injured. Dickens remembered while exiting the train that the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend was in his luggage, so he crawled back on the train and retrieved his manuscript.

In 1867, he revisited the Americas, and had seen the cities size doubled.In 1868 he started making tours and reading to his audience.This is when he started getting ill again.He lost his sight, memory and he suffered attacks of numbness on the left side of his face which later spread to his whole body. In April 1868, he collapsed and his physicians said he suffered great fatigue from his readings. A year later, Dickens gave a final series for twelve farewell readings in London.His last reading was given in March of 1870. Dickens spent his last days in his home in Gad’s Hill with the care of his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth. He died on June 9th, 1870.

Historical Contexts of Great Expectations

Great Expectations is one of the most well-known works of the Victorian Era. Originally published in All the Year Round, a periodical founded by Dickens, the novel ran in serialized pieces from December 1860 to August 1861. The novel is said, by Frazier Russell in his Introduction “When I Was a Child,to be “Dickens’s most psychologically acute self- portrait.” Although the novel was one of Dickens’ last, written late in his life, it can be argued that many of the characters and struggles chronicled by Dickens are inspired by events and people in his own young life. For example, Pip “can be viewed as a kind of excavation for its author, a cathartic attempt to come to terms with the painful facts of his childhood” (Russell). Another major influence surrounding Dickens’ literary symphony lies in his personal life at the time of its composition. Russell tells us that the period in which Dickens began writing Great Expectations was “a peak of emotional intensity for its author.”

Great Expectations can be seen as a reflection not only of Dickens’ personal life, however, but also of greater society at the time. Victorian England was undergoing significant change in the mid-19th century, especially in the areas of industrialization, class distinction, and crime. As a result, the themes and characters of Great Expectations can be seen almost as “an allegory of a nation’s transformation” (Cottom, 103). As readers follow Pip on his journey from life as a working-class boy in a simple, rural home to a well-off London “gentleman,” they also get a glimpse of the real-life struggles, deceit, and mystery behind a timeless story of upward mobility. Whether or not Dickens intended for this novel to be a critique or to inspire revolution is up for debate. According to some, Dickens hoped for social reform; for others, Great Expectations was simply “designed to establish and express the truth as Dickens and (at least some of) his readers saw it” (Walder, 161). If anything, much of what Dickens spoke to was the potential for moral reform, as morality seemed to be the greatest victim of these times. Regardless, Dickens uses Pip and the other characters in his novel to help expose the falsehoods that seemed to support Victoria England’s class structure. When Magwitch is revealed as Pip’s true benefactor and the worlds of the criminal and the luxurious come crashing together, Pip, as well as Dickens’s readers, are forced “to confront an ironic likeness between qualities that otherwise would appear to be absolutely contradictory: gentility and vulgarity, respectability and criminality, wealth and poverty, violence and civilization, and so on” (Cottom, 109-110).



The Industrial Revolution in England took place from approximately the mid-18th through mid-19th centuries. There were huge changes in technologies, populations, and employment for the people of England, and the effects that came about as a result of these changes can be seen in many aspects of life, specifically the two talked about below: class distinction and crime. Link this to article on Indust. Rev.

New technologies came about in a number of areas. Agriculturally, new technologies brought about a large increase in the raw materials available to feed the textile industry, as well as more food to sustain the now hugely populated industrial centers. The textile industry moved out of homes and small businesses and into mechanized factories that could produce significantly more product, and therefore, more profits. As textile factories grew up around London, workers flocked to these locations. Wages proved to be higher in industrial centers than rural areas, and more food could be found here. As far as wages were concerned, however, factories worked hard to employ the cheapest labor they could find, including (and, in fact, comprised mostly of) women and children. By 1860, approximately half of London’s children were enrolled in some kind of school; the other half, however, were forced to work. Transportation also modernized during this time, as the railroad system grew tremendously. Over 7,000 miles of railroad existed in England by 1852 (Montagna where does this source start?), and these rail systems were used to increase the trade of products both foreign and domestic. The invention of steam power also aided in the rapid growth of transportation and factory production.

As much as many people saw this revolution as a time of growth and golden prosperity, it was also a time of obsession with material wealth and luxury at the expense of the goodness of humanity. Dorothy van Ghent remarks that “Dickens lived in a time…in which a full-scale demolition of traditional values was going on…a process brought about by industrialization, colonial imperialism, and the exploitation of the human being as a ‘thing’…capable of being used for profit” (246). Prior to industrialization, land owning was the main determiner of wealth. This revolution, however, also brought with it a new wealth in the form of business and trade. Capitalists were coming to power, and people became socially ranked more in terms of their material possessions. While this idea of material wealth appears numerous times in Great Expectations as Pip lives amidst capitalist London, an early example of this expectation is when Estella, upon first meeting Pip (and later, Joe), does not take the time to judge him for his character but rather for his worn clothing and boots, signs of rural poverty in her otherwise pristine world. Pip realizes this distinction in social importance, and as soon as he is given the opportunity to go to London, one of the first things that occurs is the buying of more respectable clothing.

Class Distinctions

As mentioned above, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the land-owning aristocracy maintained much of the power in England. As the Victorian Era progressed, however, class distinctions became more developed and changed according to those who were now gaining economic power. The old aristocracy became known as the “upper class,” and the new wealthy capitalists began to make up the top of the “middle class.” And while originally, those in the middle class had developed themselves in opposition to the upper aristocracy, “increasingly, after the French Revolution, the middle class defined its identity…in the marginalization of the working class” (Morris, 8). And even those of the “working class” were split up: first there were those “skilled laborers” who seemed to have the ability to increase their standing, then “unskilled laborers,” and finally the “under class” of those stricken by poverty (Victorian Web). At the same time, throughout the 1850s and 60s, the middle class became increasingly wealthy, and as they became intent on a life of luxury, began to construct a myth for their time, where people were all autonomous individuals who could shape themselves regardless of outside influence and rise to important positions in society. In truth, however, “social mobility actually decreased after 1850, and the huge increase in national prosperity barely trickled down to the working class” in the next decades (Morris, 105). In response to this idealistic social mobility, Great Expectations constructs its own fable “aimed at an ironic exposure of the national enchantment with the myth of great expectations for all” (Morris, 108). The character of Pip is seduced by the fairy tale of wealth, but just when he seems to find it he realizes he has lost himself and all he stood for along the way. The myth is again exposed later, when Estella’s birth is discovered and asked to be kept a secret; should people know of her criminal birth, her privileged life would most likely be stolen away.

Gentlemen’s Attire, 1857

As a result of all of this change, the definition of what it meant to be a “gentleman,” also developed. On the one hand, there were the “born gentlemen” of the old aristocracy whose inheritance guaranteed them the education and manners to be called such a name. On the other hand, however, were the new class of men who began to designate themselves as gentlemen as a result of their newfound material prosperity. There were also many different meanings of the word “gentleman.” One could be wealthy, own property, have an educated background, or be a man of gentle ways. At least, one was expected to be of a high moral character. In his writing, “Dickens aimed to appeal to his predominantly middle-class audience, who believed that a man could aspire to be a gentleman by cultivating such values as decency, loyalty, generosity, sensitivity and hard work” (Walder, 161). This was a belief that primarily existed more as an ideal than as a truth; many of the “gentlemen” found in this Victorian society displayed none of the aforementioned characteristics, especially those associated with high morality, as it was easier to hide their true nature behind their money.

This reality is evident throughout Dickens’s novel, especially in the character of Pip before he “reforms” after finding out the true identity of his benefactor. In Great Expectations, some of the most moral characters, those of Joe and Biddy, for instance, are those considered to be the least like gentlemen by those in higher society because they lack the associated wealthy status. By the end of the novel, however, Dickens does seem to approve of Pip’s rise to the middle-class, “telling us that he worked hard and paid his debts, unlike the ‘false’ gentleman, Compeyson, who resorted to crime and betrayal” (Walder, 159).


With the great expansion of cities and the accumulation of wealth during the Industrial Revolution came a new “interconnection of men with crime, especially crimes of greed, malpractice, and business fraud” (Morris, 106). In order to maintain the idea of the prosperity and social growth however, the solution to diminishing the view of crime in these areas was to point the finger at the poverty-stricken lower class. Morris indeed argues that “Magwitch is intended to represent the scapegoat poor of prosperous mid-Victorian England, criminalized and punished for the guilt of poverty” (117).
That is not to say, however, that criminal behavior was not at its worst. Crime ran rampant through the streets of London; pickpockets, shoplifters, muggers, con men, and other breeds of criminals could be found on every dark corner, and no man, woman, or child could be considered exempt from harm. Prostitution was also a main source of criminal behavior, though even prostitutes themselves were easily targets for violence. In an effort to help stay the crime wave, The Metropolitan Police Force was established in 1829; however, the officers’ misconduct and intimidation from the criminal world did little to help the situation. One other solution was to strengthen the prison system, and between 1842 and 1877, ninety prisons were built or extended. In Dickens, read

Newgate Prison

ers are given glimpses of the filth and disgust of Newgate, one of the greatest prisons in London history, during Pip’s visits. He is repulsed by the gallows, the debtor’s door, and the shameful appearance of the justice; the primitive nature of criminal London is harshly revealed in this scene. England’s criminal underworld is also exposed through the corrupt practice of Mr. Jaggers. Crime in the sense of “shamming, counterfeiting, or forging” (Morris, 115) is presented both in respect to law, money, and intention. To some extent, even Pip falls into this category of criminality, as “his ‘great expectations’…make him a collaborator in the generic crime of using people as a means to personal ends” (van Ghent, 249).

To read more about how London attempted to deal with its growing criminal population and how that is reflected in Great Expectations, see the section below on criminal transport to Australia.

Child Labor in Victorian England

Charles Dickens life as a child is a great example of how extreme child labor was during the Victorian Era. Charles father fell into much debt and couldn’t pay his bills to England. This is when they sent his father and the rest of his family off to prison. This left Charles to work on his own and make money for his entire family. He was sent to work at Warren’s Shoe Blacking Factory at the age of ten. He was sent there to paste labels on blacking-pots.THIS REPEATS BIO ABOVE. He had to work long hours an only got payed six shillings a week. Charles later stated “it’s rotten floors and staircase and the old gray rats swarming down in the cellar, the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs…and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, and literally overrun with rats (Rupert, p. 6).” The conditions that Charles and the other children had to work in were disgusting and vile. Not only that, the children were only ten years old and working in a factory while they should have been in school.Charles Dickens experienced a typical working child’s life during Victorian England.

Charles story is one of hundreds of horror stories that occurred in the late eighteenth century in Britain. The Industrialization age meant children were sent away from school and were forced to work in factories for the lowest wages. The reason for this was because larger families couldn’t provide all the money needed for their children.As a result, the children were forced to work for themselves and help provide for the family.1.jpg
Agriculture Labor
Families who dealt with the agriculture industry had their “children started working at four or five years old scaring off crows from the corn, tending sheep or pigs, or picking stones out of the ground. By the age of ten or eleven they started full-time work,plowing or shepherding (Frost, p. 56).” By the age of ten most children stopped going to school altogether and working full-time. By 1901, agriculture work for children declined by 12 percent because of laws and regulations that were made by Scotland and England.


During the Victorian age most child labor was done in small workshops. The parents paid money to the head master where children worked from two to seven years of age to learn the trade (Frost, p. 59). By the time they learned it completely they started working full-time. Many children they were sent to work full-time at the age of seven had to deal with cruelty and abuse from their masters. “In 1842 a thirteen-year-old testified to a parliamentary commission that his master often beats him with a whip with four lashes to it, and tied in know:his master heats him for not doing enough work, and he could not do more (Frost, p. 59).” This was very common of children complaining about the abuse they faced from their masters. The children work for sometimes 16 hours day making nails, laces, knives, polishes, bobbins, needles, etc. Into the late Victorian period a lot of child labor was hidden in homes. These children ended up working longer for their parents while they were in their own house rather that out by a master. Children also work in the streets for long hours doing petting trading, sweeping and scavenging for change and food.

Factory Work

During 1800 to 1850, “Britain was at the climax of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, characterized by cotton mills, iron and steel production, and railways (Frost, 65).” Many children were sent to work in these textile factories and others had to coal mine and do iron work.During this time the children were the ones who helped England’s economy really rise to the top. They were the ones who were working in this horrible conditions and factories to provide for their families. The children who worked in these factories were mostly dirty, ill, scared, abused and scolded. If they did not work fast enough they were beaten and some faced fatality. In addition, due to the fact the children were so small and ill-experienced they suffered many accidents and deaths working around these big dangerous machines. Many children by the age of eight were sent to work at metal industries. Where they had to use fire to melts coal and metal. Many children suffered severe burns and lost limbs in the machines.Factory work was very unhealthy for children, they had to breath in polluted airs and clouds of smoke.Through the years many Acts by the government were made to help the child labor. Ultimately by 1880, children had to fit their work around their school schedule. The government wanted children to have a balanced school and work life at home.CITATION??

Australian Penal Colonies and Transportation of Convicts

The distant shore of England strikes from Sightand all shores seem dark that once was pure and Bright,But now a convict dooms me for a timeTo suffer hardships in a forein climeFarewell a long farewell to my own my native LandO would to God that i was free upon the Strugling Strand.
——Simon Taylor to his father, May 1841
(Hughes 143)

Dickens and Transportation

Magwitch – “He was taken on board and instantly manacled at the wrists and ankles.”

Dickens suggests the implications of using the Australian penal colonies as a way of rehabilitation for criminals. It is quite possible that Dickens has portrayed a view of penal colonies in a very positive way. After all, Magwitch is a successful, even famous, ex-convict who is responsible for Pip’s wealth. By exploring the character Magwitch, one will have a better understanding of Dickens’ views on Australian penal colonies.

The town that Pip lives in is surrounded by marshes where the Hulks loom ominously in the distance. As the soldiers take Magwitch and Compeyson back to the Hulks after their escape, Pip looks out past the marshes, “By the light of the torches, we saw the black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah’s ark. Cribbed and barred and moored by massive rusty chains, the prison-ship seemed in my young eyes to be ironed like the prisoners” (Dickens 36). MORE . . . .

Click To See a Map of Dickens’s London

Great Expectations and Modern America

Here’s an E-Text of an original edition of Great Expectations