*Dickens, Charles

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens



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Dickens, Charles

British, 1812–1870
The sketches, polemical pieces, and familiar essays written by Charles Dickens from 1833 to 1869 form a body of remarkable work that doubtless would have assured him fame as a writer had his novels, numerous tales, several plays, and annual Christmas stories never been written. Dickens’ career as a novelist has greatly eclipsed his career as an essayist. Although his essays have received much scholarly attention, critics have generally focused on their revelation of Dickens’ social views, his relationship to the periodicals publishing them, the autobiographical information embedded in them, and, most often, the connections between the essays and the novels. In addition to these legitimate critical interests, examination of Dickens’ style has begun to enrich appreciation for the complexities of his essays. He wrote hundreds of essays and rewrote and edited hundreds of others submitted to the various periodicals he edited.
Although Dickens wrote some sketches as early as 1833, he began to distinguish himself as an essayist in 1834 when he started writing under the pseudonym Boz for publication in the Morning Chronicle. Other essays by Boz and under the pseudonym Tibbs appeared in the Evening Chronicle and Bell’s Life in London. Many of these essays, particularly those describing London, are reminiscent of descriptive essays by Oliver Goldsmith, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, and Washington Irving. The social concerns that figure significantly in all genres of Dickens’ work appear in such early sketches as “Gin Shops,” “The Pawnbroker’s Shop,” and “The Prisoner’s Van,” all published in 1835. The comic satire that was to blossom in later essays appears in many of the early essays and is especially notable in the six published in 1835 under the heading “Our Parish.” In these, Dickens reveals the techniques—the dramatic scene, detailed and often detached observation, parallelism, and comic exaggeration—that he would refine in later pieces. In the “Our Parish” group, he satirizes the office and process of electing the beadle, the fickle regard of the parish for the curate, and the lofty but fruitless busy-ness of the ladies’ societies of the parish, whose members held their meetings “with great order and regularity: not more than four members being allowed to speak at one time on any pretense whatever” (“The Ladies Societies,” 1835).
On a more somber note, other essays by Boz reveal Dickens’ skills as a journalist whose detachment from the subject creates irony or who frames the essay with detachment but allows his opinions about social issues to erupt at the core. For instance, in “A Visit to Newgate” (1836), Dickens begins with a matterof-fact description of the prison and prisoners but breaks this tone by passionately reiterating one of his recurrent themes: the loss of childhood innocence. Observing a young girl visiting her inmate mother, Dickens writes: “…she was one of those children, born and bred in neglect and vice, who have never known what childhood is…Tell them of hunger and the streets, beggary and stripes, the gin shops, the station house, and the pawnbroker’s, and they will understand you.” This eruption of emotion about child visiting parent in prison likely reflects Dickens’ painful memory of visiting his own family in the Marshalsea Prison, where his father was imprisoned for debt in 1824. After this emotional outpouring, the detached observer leads the reader through the rest of the prison, the prison yards, the chapel, the press yard, to the cells of condemned prisoners. At this point, detachment dissolves into a fervent expression of sympathy for the condemned prisoner contemplating his impending execution. Here, as he often does, Dickens requires the reader to participate imaginatively, creating not simply a picture of the condemned man but also a series of the prisoner’s dreams of his loving wife, the scenes in the courtroom, and his desperate escape.
From 1836 to 1839 Dickens edited Bentley’s Miscellany, where some essays and the serialized Oliver Twist appeared (1836–39), but problems with the owner provoked him to begin in 1840 the periodical Master Humphrey’s Clock, a weekly he said owed much to the Tatler, the Spectator, and the Bee. Public pressure for serialized novels forced him to reduce the number of essays he was publishing in it and to make it more modern than its 18th-century counterparts had been. In 1850 he founded Household Words, where he published about 200 essays of his own and collaborated on or substantially rewrote many others. Essays in Household Words were aimed at a wide audience, including less welleducated middle-class readers; as such, these pieces include a broad range of subjects and techniques. As Harry Stone points out in his detailed introduction to Uncollected Writings from Household Words 1850–1859 (1968), a new kind of essay, the “process essay,” explained to readers what it was like to be in a certain place or to follow a particular process of experiencing or making something—for example, “Valentine’s Day at the Post-Office” (wr. with W.H.Wills, 1850), “A Paper Mill” (with Mark Lemon, 1850), and “Post-Office Money Orders” (with W.H.Wills, 1852).

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

In the weekly All the Year Round, which Dickens edited from 1859 until his death, his mastery of the essay is clear. In many pieces (such as those published in a volume entitled The Uncommercial Traveller, 1860), the connections between childhood and adulthood are explored through a skillfully created complex of tone and sensory detail.
As Gordon Spence (1977) points out, the self-revelation of the narrator is at the core of a familiar essay. Identifying himself as one who travels for “the great house of Human Interest Brothers” (“His General Line of Business,” 1860), the narrator sets up the framework for his observations in England and on the continent, in the city and in the country. One of the best known of these essays is “Mr. Barlow” (1869), where the narrator reveals his detestation of a former tutor who had no sense of humor or fun and who delighted in destroying all imaginative pleasure his young pupils could have in reading such works as The Arabian Nights. In “Travelling Abroad” (1860) the narrator tells the story of seeing a great house near Chatham when he was a boy and being told by his father that if he worked hard, he could some day buy it. The reference is to Dickens’ conversation with his father when he first saw Gadshill, the house which indeed he did buy.
Dickens’ social conscience appears in such essays as “Wapping Workhouse” (1860), where he argues that “those Foul wards…ought not to exist; no person of common decency and humanity can see them and doubt it”; “The Great Tasmania’s Cargo” (1860), where he urges the country to do its duty by its soldiers; and “The Short- Timers” (1863), which states that the way children, cripples, and paupers are treated is “a disgrace to civilisation, and an outrage on Christianity.” The most poignant of the essays urging social reform is “A Small Star in the East” (1868), which juxtaposes scenes of despair and hope. In the first scene, the narrator visits a woman nearly dead from lead poisoning as a result of her work in the lead mills, and interviews a much younger woman who wants to work in the mills because, she says, “Better be ulcerated and paralyzed for eighteen-pence a day, while it lasted, than see the children starve.” In the second scene, he visits the East London Children’s Hospital, where honest and selfless concern for the malnourished and abused children have reclaimed them from miserable and premature deaths.
Many essays in The Uncommercial Traveller, like those collected in Reprinted Pieces (1861) and other works, explore such topics as church architecture, theater buildings and plays, social customs such as eating in restaurants, morbid settings like the Paris Morgue or a Welsh seacoast where 500 men had been lost in a shipwreck, “shy” neighborhoods where birds, dogs, and cats are personified, travel customs and difficulties, and places and people in London and abroad who are invisible to the masses of people passing them daily. With such a range of topics, Dickens attracted a broad spectrum of readers and engaged them through techniques and tones extending from whimsicality to somberness and zeal.

Charles John Huffam Dickens. Born 7 February 1812 in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Lived with his family in London, 1814–16, Chatham, Kent, 1817–21, where he attended a school, and London, 1821; worked in a blacking factory, Hungerford Market, London, while his family was in Marshalsea debtor’s prison, 1824; studied at Wellington House Academy, London, 1814–27; Mr. Dawson’s school, London, 1817. Married Catherine Hogarth, 1836 (separated, 1858): seven sons and three daughters. Long liaison with the actress Ellen Ternan. Law office clerk, London, 1827–28; shorthand reporter, Doctors’ Commons, 1828–30, and in Parliament for True Son, 1830–32, Mirror of Parliament, 1832–34, and the Morning Chronicle, 1834–36. Contributor, Monthly Magazine, 1833– 34 (as Boz, 1834), and the Evening Chronicle, 1835–36; editor, Bentley’s Miscellany, 1836–39, and the London Daily News, 1846; founding editor, Master Humphrey’s Clock,
1840. Lived in Italy, 1844–45, and Switzerland and Paris, 1846. Founding editor, Household Words, 1850–59, and its successor, All the Year Round, 1859–70. Gave reading tours in Britain and the United States, 1858–68. Lived at Gadshill Place, near Rochester, Kent, from 1860. Died at Gadshill, 9 June 1870.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Sketches by Boz Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People, 1836; second series, 1836
American Notes for General Circulation, 1842; edited by John S. Whitley and Arnold Goldman, 1972
Pictures from Italy, 1846; edited by David Paroissien, 1973
The Uncommercial Traveller, 1860
Reprinted Pieces, vol. 2 of Works (Library Edition), 1861
Speeches Literary and Social, edited by R.H.Shepherd, 1870; revised edition, as The Speeches 1841–1870, 1884; edited byK. J.Fielding, 1960
Speeches, Letters, and Sayings, 1870
To Be Read at Dusk and Other Stories, Sketches, and Essays, edited by F.G.Kitton, 1898
Miscellaneous Papers, edited by B.W.Matz, 2 vols., 1908
Uncollected Writings from Household Words 1850–1859, edited by Harry Stone, 2 vols., 1968
Household Words: A Weekly Journal 1850–1859, edited by Anne Lohrli, 1974
A December Vision: Social Journalism, edited by Neil Philip and Victor Neuburg, 1986
Dickens’s Journalism, Volume I: Sketches by Boz and Other Early Papers, 1833–39, edited by Michael Slater, 1993
Dickens’s Journalism, Volume II: The Amusements of the People and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834–51, edited by Michael Slater, 1997

Other writings: 15 novels (The Pickwick Papers, 1837; Oliver Twist, 1838; Nicholas Nickleby, 1839; The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840; Barnaby Rudge, 1841; A Christmas Carol, 1843; Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844; Dombey and Son, 1848; David Copperfield, 1850;
Bleak House, 1853; Hard Times, 1854; Little Dorrit, 1857; A Tale of Two Cities, 1859;
Great Expectations, 1861; Our Mutual Friend, 1865), the unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), and several plays, including three with Wilkie Collins.
Collected works editions: The Charles Dickens Edition, 21 vols., 1867–75; Nonesuch Edition, edited by Arthur Waugh and others, 13 vols., 1937–38; The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens, 21 vols., 1947–58; The Clarendon Dickens, edited by Kathleen Tillotson and others, 1966– (in progress).

Chittick, Kathryn, The Critical Reception of Charles Dickens 1833–1841, New York: Garland, 1989
Churchill, R.C., A Bibliography of Dickensian Criticism 1836–1975, New York: Garland, and London: Macmillan, 1975
Cohn, Alan M., and K.K.Collins, The Cumulated Dickens Checklist 1970–1979, Troy, New York: Whitston, 1982
Eckel, John C., The First Editions of the Writings of Charles Dickensy New York: Inman, and London: Maggs Bros., revised edition, 1932 (original edition, 1913)
Hatton, Thomas, and Arthur H.Cleaver, A Bibliography of the Periodical Works of Charles Dickens, London: Chapman and Hall, 1933

Further Reading
Ackroyd, Peter, Dickens, London: Sinclair Stevenson, and New York: Harper Collins, 1990
Butt, John, and Kathleen Tillotson, Dickens at Work, London: Methuen, 1957
Easson, Angus, “Who Is Boz? Dickens and His Sketches,” Dickensian 81 (1985):13–22
Slater, Michael, Introduction to Dickens’ Journalism: Sketches by Boz and Other Early Papers 1833–39, edited by Slater, London: Dent, 1993; Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994
Spence, Gordon, Charles Dickens as a Familiar Essayist, Salzburg: University of Salzburg Institute for English Language and Literature, 1977
Stone, Harry, Introduction to Uncollected Writings from Household Words 1850–1859 by Dickens, edited by Stone, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968; London: Allen Lane, 1969

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