Introduction to Charles Dickens: Works, Style, and Influence

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  • 0:05 Dickens' Early Life
  • 2:29 Early Major Works
  • 4:46 Christmas Novels and…
  • 6:26 Dickens' Late Life and Works
  • 9:59 Literary Style
  • 11:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Monagan

Erin has been writing and editing for several years and has a master's degree in fiction writing.

Ebenezer Scrooge. Oliver Twist. Miss Havisham. David Copperfield. These are among literature's most fascinating figures, and they were all created by the same author. Watch this lesson to learn more about one of the English language's greatest authors, Charles Dickens.

Dickens' Early Life

Charles Dickens' life is like something out of a Charles Dickens' novel, which is probably not a coincidence. He was born in 1812 in England, and he was the second of eight children - that's a lot of children!

Portrait of Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens Photo

Things were going super well for a while (which is not like a Charles Dickens novel). The family moved into a fancy home. They had servants. He was even going to a private school. Things were great.

He read a ton. He read Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (things like that), Henry Fielding, and he was also really into Arabian Nights. That's where Ali Baba, Aladdin and all those stories come from.

But then it all came to an abrupt halt when his father was thrown into debtor's prison in 1824. As, I guess, was common then, also, his mother and siblings were sent to debtor's prison at the same time. It seems a little excessive but oh well. He kind of ended up like the Fresh Prince in reverse, essentially. Instead of starting out in West Philly and going to Bel Air, he started in Bel Air and went to West Philly, alone, at age 12. West Philly and London was a factory analogy - maybe my analogy is wearing thin.

Basically, he had to go work at a factory at age 12 that was overrun with rats, and his posh existence was upended, and it traumatized him. Suddenly, he was one of a ton of child laborers, which he wasn't all that familiar with before.

What's even worse is that even when his family did eventually get out of prison, his mother wanted him to keep working at the factory. So, he gets his family back, but he's still stuck doing this awful job. Fortunately, at least, he did get to go back to school. His father got him into a school in London, saving him from a life of factory stuff forever.

Then, even more financial problems forced him out of that school in 1827. He starts work as a law firm clerk. He also works as a reporter, which hones his writing a bit.

In 1830, he falls in love with a woman named Maria Beadnell. Her parents didn't approve, so they sent her off to finishing school in Paris to get her away from him. By 1836, he must've totally forgotten about her because he married a woman named Catherine Hogarth .They'd go on to have 10 children, which is a lot! That's like two Brady Bunches or half a Duggar clan.

Early Major Works

It's a bunch of kids, but it's nothing compared to his literary output - tons of books! He published his first short story in 1833. It was quickly followed by a flood of novellas, novels, plays and many, many stories. He wrote a ton!

His first fully-fledged novel was called The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (or, shortly known as The Pickwick Papers). It was published in 19 monthly installments from 1836 to 1837. It's a collection of stories loosely connected to each other. The Pickwick Papers was actually kind of like an original Star Wars of its time in a lot of ways. There were spinoffs; there were bootleg versions; there were stage shows and merchandising - all it was missing was a terrible Christmas special (we'll get to Charles Dickens' Christmas special later). You should also check out the Star Wars Christmas special because it is hilarious! We meet Chewbacca's family. It is awful! Anyway, this was the beginning of a hugely successful and prolific career for Dickens.

Next, comes Oliver Twist, which is published, again, in installments in 1838. This is about a miserable orphan boy stuck in a workhouse, which, if that sounds familiar, it is! Dickens drew on his own experiences to write this. It's actually been adapted into a musical called Oliver, which was then adapted into a movie version that I never saw - but I watched the preview a ton of times on Disney VHS.

After that, there were several more novels, including Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. In 1842, Dickens goes to America. He comments on a variety of stuff. He really throws his opinion out there - important things, like condemning slavery, and losing battles, like fighting the rampant piracy of his novels. Can you imagine pirating books instead of music? Although, people do pirate Kindle editions - rebel nerds! I don't know. Dickens hated that people were making illegal copies of his books and he wasn't getting paid. Now, ironically, he's all over the Internet because it's public domain. He's probably rolling over in his grave about that. 'Dem's the breaks! 'Dem's the berries!

Christmas Novels and David Copperfield

Back in England, he completed A Christmas Carol in 1843, and it was a special Christmas book. You're probably familiar with this one. It's about a guy named Ebenezer Scrooge, and there are three ghosts. You've probably seen A Muppet Christmas Carol or heard someone say 'God Bless us, everyone' - that's all from this.

You know how people always complain about Christmas starting in June? Christmas wasn't always like that; it wasn't always a months-long shebang, with parties, TV specials, Mariah Carey and the movie Love Actually (which I hate, but I watch every year). It was A Christmas Carol that started all of this off. It sparked interest in Christmas as this real festive holiday in Britain and in the U.S. It was all getting going at the same time, the whole decorating a Christmas tree thing, the month-long celebration. If they had TV, they'd probably be producing those annoying Gap Christmas commercials. We have Charles Dickens to thank for all of this. So, thank you, Charles Dickens! I'm sounding a lot like Scrooge right now, aren't I?

Dickens wrote four more Christmas novels actually, but we're not going to talk about those because we're sick of Christmas already.

In 1849, he published David Copperfield, which is his most directly autobiographical novel. It's about his days training to be the world's greatest magician… no, it's not! Not that David Copperfield. It's just about a guy; he has many adventures. He meets lots of interesting people. There's not any magic. I just said that to get you interested in it.

Dickens' Late Life and Works

Bleak House (1853) and Hard Times (1854); this is not sounding so fun anymore, right? You couldn't even pretend that there was magic in those. I jest. Bleak House actually is one of his more popular novels. It's got a lot of interesting characters and cool interwoven subplots. It's also a critique of the British judicial system, so you can make your own judgments about how interesting that would be to you.

In 1857, Dickens was starring in a play he'd written called The Frozen Deep, and he fell in love with Ellen Ternan, who was one of the actresses who was playing opposite him. How did he have the time to fall in love while acting in a play he'd written and writing all this other stuff? I don't know; I guess he had his priorities straight. Even worse than all that - he was 45, and she was 18. You may have forgotten about his wife and their ten children, but he had her, too. This was kind of not all that nice.

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