Great Britain has produced many world class novelists, one being the prolific Charles Dickens, who penned such classics as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, the world’s biggest selling novel of all time, with sales of over 200 million copies since it was first serialized in 1859.
Dickens’ writings share characteristics that identify them as being those of the author; indeed, his novels have been described as “Dickensian,” a term which means possessing features typical to a Dickens novel. Of all the features his works possess, Dickens was probably best known for his characters, which were memorable because he bestowed them with a single outstanding trait and gave them highly unusual names. Many who have never read his books are familiar with the names Ebenezer Scrooge, The Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist and the traits associated with those names—miserly, cunning, and unlucky, respectively. Some renowned writers complain that Dickens’ characters lack depth, but loyal readers agree that by conferring a single trait to each character, these characters become much more unforgettable.
Another aspect of Dickens’ writings draws attention to the author’s having been a product of time and circumstance. Virtually all of his works contain references to the difficult experiences he had in childhood. His father was imprisoned for unpaid debts when Dickens was just 12 years of age; as a result, the young Charles was forced to work at a boot-blacking factory. The six shillings Dickens earned each week was used to support his family. During this period, Dickens could not go to school, and he slept in crowded quarters where rodents crawled at night. He felt abandoned and betrayed by his own parents, and the harsh treatment he received and observed at the factory developed in him an awareness of the social injustices that were rampant at the time. These autobiographical details made it easy for readers to identify with the author, as some had suffered similar hardships or were witness to how capitalists and industrialists took advantage of the poor, especially orphaned children or young ones deserted by their parents.
Although Charles Dickens was well-known for the social commentary he often included in his novels, people were less familiar with the fact that Dickens was shrewd in matters of business. One reason for his overwhelming popularity was that his novels were not published as books. In actuality, very few of his writings were sold as complete works in bookshops. Dickens reached very broad audiences through installment publishing. This made it possible for his stories to be sold cheaply and to be readily accessible to those who would otherwise not have access to them. Dickens published monthly serial installments of virtually every novel he wrote, starting with The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, or The Pickwick Club. He began printing his own magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, where installments of Oliver Twist appeared. In the next five years, he continued to publish stories such as The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop in other journals. While not having the same impact as Oliver Twist, these serialized novels helped Dickens maintain a very broad readership.
Another example of how savvy Dickens was is that the episodes were always published as cliffhangers, and this made people wait eagerly for the next installment. Readers would often discuss each episode in pubs and barber shops, and their opinions would find their way to Dickens, who allowed the their ideas and wishes to influence the content of the next installment. Knowing what the reading public wanted helped make Dickens a wealthy man by today’s standards.
In the 1850s, Dickens would suffer the deaths of his wife’s sister, whom he doted on, and his own father. The impact that these deaths would have on Dickens as a writer was profound. During this period, Dickens would publish a succession of works that are known as the “dark novels”. These books, which include Bleak House, Hard Times and Little Dorrit, reflected a gloomier and more discouraging view of the world; nevertheless, they were still Dickensian. Like his earlier works, the dark novels were published as installments. The superb story Bleak House, published between March 1852 and September 1853, would win critical acclaim as one of Dickens’ finest novels because of the intricacy of its plot and the likeability of its characters.
One of Charles Dickens biggest writing projects was the historical novel A Tale of Two Cities. He had already tried his hand at writing historical novels with Barnaby Rudge, which was published in 1841. Barnaby Rudge was set during the Gordon Riots of 1780, which began as a protest against the Catholics but grew to include the ruling class, which ignored the plight of the poor and clung to their wealth and power; A Tale of Two Cities was set during the French Revolution. Both novels did not actually focus on the historical circumstances in which the stories were set; rather, the historical setting was merely a backdrop for the plot. While Barnaby Rudge did not garner any plaudits—the scope proved to be too vast for Dickens to handle—his second attempt, A Tale of Two Cities, was successful and is viewed by many as Dickens’ biggest literary achievement. Dickens continued to produce novels after completing his magnum opus, two of which were considered the works of a mature writer in his prime—Great Expectations, serialized from 1860 to 1861 and Our Mutual Friend, published between 1864 and 1865. By the time Charles Dickens died in 1870, he had written 15 novels, 5 novellas, and hundreds of short stories and articles; he had also edited a weekly journal for two decades and had been on a lecture and book reading circuit for many years.