The New International Encyclopædia/Dickens, Charles

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The New International Encyclopædia
Dickens, Charles
Edition of 1905. See also Charles Dickens on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

DICK'ENS, Charles (1812-70). An English novelist. He was born at Landport, then a suburb of Portsmouth. His father, John Dickens, who held a post in the navy pay office, was then stationed at Portsmouth, but about 1816 they moved to Chatham, and afterwards to London. The family was poor and improvident. The schooling of Charles was slight, but he read considerably at home and in the British Museum, and learned shorthand. He was educated by contact with life itself. After a period of reporting in the courts and in the House of Commons, Dickens began in the Monthly Magazine (December, 1833), and continued in the Evening Chronicle, a series of essays and tales, collected and published in 1836, under the title Sketches by Boz. Encouraged by their success, he undertook to write the letterpress of the Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, the illustrations of which were to be executed by Robert Seymour, a comic draughtsman. As soon as Dickens introduced Sam Weller, the plates became of secondary interest. The Pickwick Papers, which appeared in monthly numbers (1836-37), not only had enormous commercial success, but they also mark an era in English literature. It was the first of a series of fictions exhibiting the life and manners of the middle and lower classes, which up to that time had rarely found an exponent, and in one respect this book had neither predecessor nor progeny. Neither before nor since has there ever been such a literary embodiment of healthy animal spirits. There is none like it for unflagging but never unwise merriment — for humor that is very much the reverse of dry. Pickwick was followed by Oliver Twist (1837-39) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), adventures in the picaresque manner. They are among the first of those social novels which form so marked a feature of modern literature. The former was a ludicrous exposure of workhouses: the latter was aimed at the wrongs and cruelties inflicted upon their wretched pupils by the cheap schoolmasters of Yorkshire. Both hit their mark. After this beginning, Dickens set lance in rest against many a social monster. He may be sometimes wrong, but in spite of his exaggerations he can scarcely be accused of want of honesty of purpose: while quite as little can partisanship (except that he is always for the poor) be laid to his charge, since at the very time when the country gentlemen were shaking their heads at him for his want of reverence for ‘land,’ he incensed the manufacturing interest by the publication of Hard Times (1854). His sarcasm is of a rather peculiar character: too good-natured to sneer, and with eyes, notwithstanding their indignant fire, that never lose sight of the ludicrous side of things; his style is mocking argument. After Nicholas Nickleby came The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) and Barnaby Rudge (1841). In the former, in the character of Little Nell, he first exhibited a power of setting forth child life and child thought, unequaled before the appearance of George Eliot. Barnaby Rudge was his first, and, with the exception of the Tale of Two Cities (1859), his only attempt to describe the past; and it was successful. A disposition of mind toward the weird and the grotesque, which showed itself in The Old Curiosity Shop, was subsequently developed with greater success in his Christmas Stories (1853), especially in A Christmas Carol. After a voyage across the Atlantic, Dickens published, in 1842, American Notes for General Circulation; but a much more admirable result of that visit to the United States appeared in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), which was certainly the greatest of his humorous works since Pickwick. After this masterpiece, his animal spirits — a rare gift among even comic authors, and seldom lasting so long as in his own case — began to desert him. Humor, except in some rich creations, such as Mr. Micawber, was no longer so apparent; while, on the other hand, satire and pathos increased. Dombey and Son (1848) was considered a falling off in one who stood so high. Yet, when men were expecting that he would wane and weaken like other prolific writers before him, he produced David Copperfield (1850), a favorite with many, and preferred by Dickens himself to all his other novels. In this novel he adopted the form of an autobiography, and that perhaps offered him some advantages; at all events, the result was admirable. Bleak House (1853); Hard Times (1854); Little Dorrit (1857); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); Great Expectations (1861), regarded by Swinburne as the best and most artistic of Dickens's books; and Our Mutual Friend (1865), afterwards succeeded one another with almost periodical punctuality, and each was awaited by an immense audience. In 1846 the Daily News was started, under Dickens's editorship, but the task appears to have been uncongenial, for he soon withdrew from it. In 1850 he commenced a weekly periodical entitled Household Words, afterwards merged in All the Year Round. In 1867 he again visited America, giving numerous leadings and meeting with a brilliant reception. He was at the last engaged in writing a new novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was left unfinished. He died at Gadshill and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The work of Dickens has been variously estimated. All admit his great humor; but to some his pathos seems much overdrawn. He possessed immense creative power, the number of his characters running into the thousands. The essence of his art is caricature, and for comic effect he exaggerated the abuses he attacked. In character building he hit upon some oddity and transformed it into a delightful type never to be forgotten. Consult: Forster, Life of Dickens (London, 1872-74); Letters, edited by Miss Hogarth and Miss Dickens (London, 1880-82); Gissing, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (New York, 1898); Fitzgerald, The History of Pickwick (London, 1891); Kitton, The Novels of Charles Dickens (London, 1897); and Kitton, The Minor Writings of Charles Dickens, a bibliography (London, 1900). Essays and editions are numerous. One of the most recent editions is Kitton, The Autograph Edition of Complete Works (56 vols., New York, 1902).