Literary Devotional: Charles Dickens

Few novelists have even come close to matching the productivity and celebrity of Charles Dickens (1812-1870).  His enormous body of work consists of more than fifteen major novels—many of them huge tomes—and innumerable jouranlistic and editorial pieces.  Although detractors ridiculed Dickens’s work as unliterary, he ignored such criticism and found fulfillment as a socially consciou storyteller.  In return, an adoring public held Dickens up as one of the most beloved figures of the Victorian era.

Dickens spent his childhood in Chatham and London, where his father clerked in the public service.  When his parents’ overzealous spending landed them in debtors’ prison, the twelve-year-old Dickens was forced to drop out of school and take a job in a boot-blacking factory—an experience that gave him the lifelong empathy for the poor that is evident throughout his writings.  Once Dickens was able to leave the factory, he finished his brief education and worked as a law clerk, and later, a journalist.

Dickens’s first published novel, The Pickwick Papers (1936), launched him to instant fame.  Like many of his works, it was published serially in a monthly magazine, which gave him a greater financial windfall.  Dickens wrote at a breakneck pace over the next five years, producing four more serialized novels, including the now classic Oliver Twist (1837-1839), a tale of a young orphan living on the streets.

Each new work brough Dickens greater public acclaim, from his morality tale A Christmas Carol (1843) to his “favourite child,” the partly autobiographical David Copperfield (1849-1850).  Although all of these works demonstrated concern with poverty and other social ills, these concerns grew more serious in later novels, particularly Bleak House (1852-1853), about the inefficiency of the English legal system, and Hard Times (1854), about the dark side of industrialization.  Dickens’s career culminated with the historical novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and the comic tale Great Expectations (1860-1861).

The quality of Dickens’s works varies considerably, from masterful fiction to maudlin plots awash in sentimentality.  the fact that Dickens published his novels serially—and that he was often paid by the word—accounts for much this inconsistency.  But Dickens always worked with the conscious aim of pleasing his readership, even if that meant quantity over quality.  His works continue to please readers today.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

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