by John Pecoraro, Assistant Director
Yesterday marked the 203rd birthday of Charles Dickens. Born in Portsmouth, England on February 7, 1812, Dickens is considered by many to be one of the greatest authors in the English language. In addition to writing some of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century, Dickens also penned countless short stories, nonfiction pieces, and plays. Dickens also attracted large crowds to his public readings of memorable scenes from his works.
During his life, Dickens enjoyed unprecedented popularity. His novels were published first in monthly or weekly installments, and later printed in volumes. Some of his novels sold several hundred thousand copies in book form during his lifetime (Dickens died in 1870). His novels and short stories continue to be widely popular today. “A Tale of Two Cities,” for example, has sold over 200 million copies to date.
Dickens’ father, John Dickens, was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. He was constantly in debt and ultimately landed himself in debtor’s prison. To help support his family, by supporting himself, Dickens was put to work in a boot blacking factory at age 12. Though he only experienced the evils of child labor for a few months, the experience colored Dickens’ attitudes for the rest of his life. This led him to champion children and the poor, and to castigate the injustices of the education and justice systems, and the wealthy.
The library owns copies of many of Dickens’ works. Some may be familiar to you, such as “Oliver Twist,” the story of a workhouse orphan and his adventures with a gang of juvenile pickpockets. “A Tale of Two Cities,” is another familiar title, set against the French Revolution and the cities of London and Paris. The novel boasts one of the most famous opening lines in literature with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” “David Copperfield,” is one of Dickens’ most well-known novels. This thinly veiled autobiographical novel follows the fortunes of its hero as he grapples with a hateful stepfather and an unscrupulous clerk (the infamous and unforgettable Uriah Heep) as he tries to make his way in the world.
Dickens wrote a total of 15 novels. His last, the unfinished “Mystery of Edwin Drood,” is the story of title’s namesake, his fiancée Rosa Bud, and the hot-tempered Neville Landless. Landless, also in love with Rosa Budd, is no friend of Edwin Drood who disappears under mysterious circumstances. Since Dickens had written and published only six of the twelve installments of the novel at the time of his death, the world will never know what happened to Edwin Drood.
Memorable characters abound in all Dickens’ work. We easily recognize Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham in “Great Expectations;” Little Nell in “The Old Curiosity Shop;” and of course Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol.”
Dickens has been a popular subject of biographers since his friend, John Forster, completed the first biography in 1874. More recently, Peter Ackroyd wrote a comprehensive biography entitled “Dickens,” and Claire Tomalin wrote “Charles Dickens: A Life.” Dickens was a biographer of the city of London and wrote of it as no one has since. If you are interested in daily life in Dickens’ time, read “The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London,” by Judith Flanders. Or, try “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist – The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England,” by Daniel Poole.
Hundreds of film and television adaptations have been made of Dickens’ works, including nearly fifty of “A Christmas Carol.” All the novels and many of the shorter works of Charles Dickens are available as free eBooks from websites including Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks.net. The collection of titles in Project Gutenberg is also searchable through the library’s Sunflower eLibrary.