English Literature Of The 19th Century:
Reviewers, Magazinists And Minor Poets Of The First Period
Women Writers Of The First Period
Summary Of The Pre-victorian Literature
Second Or Early Victorian Period—1837-1870
Earle Lytton Bulwer
Captain Frederick Marryat
Read More Articles About: English Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Nearly ten years after the first success of the versatile aristocratic Bulwer, another novelist of humble origin and widely different genius sent the English world into fits of laughter. Charles Dickens was born in 1812 at Portsmouth, where his father was a government clerk. But soon the family removed to London, where for years they struggled with poverty. Young Dickens received little education, and was early compelled to earn his own living, while his father was lodged in a debtors' prison. Charles became a reporter of Parliamentary debates and, after reaching manhood, contributed to a daily paper sketches of humorous incidents. They attracted attention, and were published in two volumes as "Sketches by Boz." This nickname was due to his brothers and sisters comparing Charles to Moses, the simple-minded youth. in the "Vicar of Wakefield," who traded the family horse for a gross of green spectacles. Moses was corrupted by the children to "Boz," and the young author gave this cognomen celebrity. In 1837 he was engaged to write papers to accompany comic sketches of Cockney sports-men by Seymour. But the artist died, and Dickens changed the character of the publication. It became "The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club," in which the kind-hearted Pickwick passes through strange trials without losing a jot of his faith in human nature. Other characters intervened the poetic Snodgrass, the susceptible Tupman, the amateur sportsman, Winkle, the loquacious swindling Jingle, and, above all, the irresistible Sam Weller, whose wit and wisdom shine triumphantly at every turn. The novel humor of the "Pick-wick Papers," with their caricature of the absurdities of elections, courts and common life, set the world of England wild with merriment. Henceforth Dickens wrote monthly or weekly serials on such themes as he pleased. With all his love of fun, he wished to be a social reformer, and in novel after novel, rapidly composed, he attacked with potent ridicule some glaring evil of that land. Thus "Oliver Twist" reveals the woes of orphans in the parish work-house and throws a flood of light on the haunts of crime in London. In "Nicholas Nickleby" the dreadful mismanagement of private boarding-schools was exposed in Do-the-boys Hall, conducted by Wackford Squeers. "Old Curiosity Shop" blends pathetic pictures of Little Nell and her grandfather with the gayety of the Marchioness and the boisterousness of Dick Swiveller, while the hideous Quilp supplies the malevolence. "Barnaby Rudge" is in part a historical romance, depicting in sombre colors the Lord George Gordon riots of 1780 and their sudden collapse.
In 1841 Dickens, tired of incessant weekly labor, visited America, and was received with enthusiasm. Accustomed to the snug inns of England, he was shocked with the rawness of the new country and the rude accommodations and rough company on his travels. His "American Notes for General Circulation," by their caustic comment and depreciatory tone, provoked severe retorts from those who had shown him hospitality. But his next novel, "Martin Chuzzlewit," repeated the offense in aggravated form. Yet Americans have since admitted that much of the satire and ridicule was deserved, though a cheerful philosopher might have been expected to find better things deserving of notice. Dickens did labor to promote cheerful views of life, and one of his ways was in his Christmas stories, of which the "Carol" was issued in 1843. "The Chimes," "The Cricket on the Hearth," and "Marley's Ghost" followed in successive years, overflowing with good cheer and charity. After a year's residence in Italy, which furnished the descriptive papers called "Pictures from Italy," Dickens issued "Dombey and Son" in monthly numbers. It satirized the pompous pride of the British merchant and contrasted his disappointment in founding a family with the hearty good nature of half-witted creatures. "David Copperfield" has always been regarded as largely autobiographic, and the inimitable Micawber is, in part, drawn from the author's father. With it is interwoven the pathetic tragedy of the homely Peggotys and the alluring villain Steerforth.
In 1850 Dickens became editor of "Household Words," a weekly, which soon attained an enormous circulation. For it he wrote "Hard Times," a story pro-testing against the cramming system of education. He also continued his monthly serials and did much miscellaneous writing. In "Bleak House" the tedious chap-eery system and its waste of life is severely arraigned. "Little Dorrit" exposes the evils of imprisonment for debt. In 1836 Dickens had married Catherine Hogarth, who survived him, but in 1859 he separated from her.
In 1859, in consequence of a quarrel with his publishers, Dickens left "Household Words" and established "All the Year Round," a similar weekly. For it he wrote "A Tale of Two Cities," in which he exhibited a striking episode of the French Revolution. "Great Expectations" is a novel of contrasts, in which a transported convict tries to leave a fortune to a boy who did him a slight kindness. In "Our Mutual Friend" the satire is directed against the rage for rising in the social scale. Besides the large income Dickens drew from the sale of his publications, he drew more from public readings of his works. For this purpose he again visited America in 1867, and his tour proved a social and financial success. After his return "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" began to appear, but was not completed. He died June 8, 1870, and was interred in Westminster Abbey.
The general quality of Dickens' works remained the same from first to last, though animal spirits predominate in the earlier. His enormous humor and exaggerated sentiment gave immense popularity to his pictures of low and middle class life, especially in London. His sympathies were with the honest poor; he made all the world share in their joys and sorrows and privations. He ridiculed class pretensions, but he never really understood the upper classes. He was fond of the theater from childhood, and took part in private theatricals, but he wrote no dramas, probably because he was always kept too close at other writing. Yet in actual life he was a constant actor, eager for the world's applause. He was handsome, with waving brown hair, and dressed in gaudy style. He was hard-working, painstaking, fertile in schemes, and fond of novelty and excitement. The continued strain made him restless and irritable, and too exacting of those around him. The wonder is that none of this irritability escapes into his works. There he exhibits not precisely what he observed, but with artistic and humorous exaggeration the effect of that as trans-formed by his peculiar genius. In youth his exuberance of fun partly concealed his intolerance of wrong, but as he grew older, though his humorous characters are as abundant as ever, his serious moralizing becomes plainer and stronger. "David Copperfield" represents his powers at the best; the works before it still excel in popularity those that followed that masterpiece. For pure amusement we still go back to the "Pickwick Papers."