Charles John Huffham Dickens (7 February 1812 9 June 1870) was the foremost English novelist of the 19th century, and is to this day one of the most famous authors in the English language.
He defined Victorian London, but actually started writing before Queen Victoria came to the throne. In fact, several of his works are set in the Georgian period (The Pickwick Papers 1827-8, Little Dorrit around 1826, Barnaby Rudge 1780).
Many of his works were first published as multi-part serials, complete with cliffhangers. A typical 'Dickensian' scenario features hordes of memorable — often Catchphrase-spouting — characters tumbling through even more outrageously contrived plots. They would be delivered to the subscribing public in small bound monthly installments of three or four chapters at a time (rather like the modern comic-book industry) over the course of two or three years. Nowadays, the installments generally mark chapter breaks in the larger novel.
This set-up resulted in the books serving as the soap operas of the day, and the subsequent need to keep reader interest alive accounts for the convoluted nature of much of Dickens' plotting. The more readers, the more subscription fees; a very direct connection to the fanbase, so to speak. If sales dropped over the latest plot twist, Dickens would sometimes be forced to undo months of careful pre-planning.
Thus it's perhaps not altogether surprising that his writing style can be best described as "barely controlled chaos." It mirrored the society he lived and wrote in — sentimental and satirical, melodramatic and priggish, exuberantly credulous and narrowly sceptical. And as if to match the action, the style of diction is wordy in the extreme — popular legend holds that he was "paid by the word." These novels are stuffed full of literary flourishes that are not criticized today only because their author was an undisputed genius. Also, this was before the realism movement in literature which scorned extensive background information and description of characters and places, let alone any form of Anvilicious moralising. As in a modern Soap Opera, there are usually about four or five interwoven plots on the go in any single Dickens novel, not counting many more side-issues and random authorial digressions. The whole was often leavened substantially with social criticism, most famously in Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Little Dorrit.
Tropes he rather heavily relied on to get these effects included hidden connections between established characters and the Contrived Coincidence. A number of the crucial plot twists in David Copperfield, for instance, depend on characters just happening to walk past doors or meet on the street (in the heart of London!); A Tale of Two Cities only happens to begin with thanks to the intersection of a fortuitous marriage, a highly coincidental co-passage on a boat, and an Identical Stranger.
Towards the end of his career his stories took a noticeably darker and more didactic turn, as his interest in social issues consumed him more and more, and his despair in the face of their effects mounted accordingly. It's usually best, when starting a course of Dickens, to work your way through the canon from earlier to later books. Much of this may have largely been attributed, according to his son, from a near-death experience in the Staplehurst Railway Accident, in which he and his mistress were passengers on a train that derailed in 1865 due to a misread schedule during maintenance on a viaduct. Though he survived (albeit where he refused to acknowledge his presence to avoid alerting the public to his infidelity), he was shaken by the experience, and was apparently nervous riding trains from that point forward. Such an experience is suspected to have led him to write the short story The Signal-Man just a year later (though it was closer to a collision that occurred at Clayton Tunnel in 1861).
He died of a stroke in 1870, coincidentally five years to the date after the fateful train crash, leaving his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished. His direct descendant Harry Lloyd is now an actor, whose work includes an adaptation of Dickens' Bleak House, a role in the first half of an adaptation of David Copperfield, and a turn as Viserys Targaryen on Game of Thrones.
He ended at #41 in 100 Greatest Britons.
His works include:
- The Pickwick Papers. Containing the best known fictional description of a British by-election before the 1832 Great Reform Act and a major pop-culture phenomenon at the time (especially Cockney comedy relief Sam Weller), it catapulted Dickens to celebrity. The Dingley Dell-Old Muddleton cricket match appeared on a British bank note for a while. (1837)
- Oliver Twist - Considerably darker than most of its adaptations, with more beatings and less spontaneous multi-part harmony. (1839)
- Nicholas Nickleby - Featuring Dotheboys Hall, one of the most monstrous fictional schools (and schoolmasters) ever created. Also well-known for the hopelessly maudlin subplot featuring loyal sidekick Smike, who gets a sendoff second only to Little Nell's. (1839)
- The Old Curiosity Shop - Containing the renowned Death of Little Nell (no, not that one), by reader acclaim the most tragic deathbed scene in English literature to that point...and these were Victorian readers, so you know the competition had to be stiff. Although Oscar Wilde said that you would need a heart of stone to read it without dissolving in tears of laughter. (1841)
- Barnaby Rudge, a fictionalized account of the Gordon Riots with a notably oddball title character. Also the heroine Dolly Varden, who inspired a minor fashion fad in the early 1870s; both a cake and a trout were named after her. (1841)
- A Christmas Carol - "Marley was dead, to begin with..." This book is credited with playing a major role, not only in the celebration of Christmas, but also in creating the modern version of the holiday. And you will be hard-pressed to find a tale that has spawned more adaptations. (1843)
- Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)
- The Battle of Life (1846)
- Dombey and Son (1848)
- David Copperfield - Dickens' 'favourite child' of his works. Semi-autobiographical tale of a young writer's rise from poverty and abuse, notable for drawing on certain dark incidents in Dickens' own past. And, on a much lighter note, introducing the Micawbers, Uriah Heep and Aunt Betsey Trotwood to the world. (1850)
- Bleak House - A long running court case over a disputed will, includes an early example of the police detective. (1853)
- Hard Times (1854)
- Little Dorrit - Recently the subject of a well-received BBC miniseries, a scathing indictment of society vs. human nature that pits gentle Amy Dorrit, Child of the Marshalsea (debtor's) prison, against the challenges first of poverty, then wealth. (1857)
- A Tale of Two Cities - Set during the French Revolution. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." (1859)
- Great Expectations - despite a similar setup to many of his other works, subverts many of his usual plot twists. (1861)
- Our Mutual Friend - His last complete novel. (1865)
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood - His last, uncompleted novel. (1870)
Dickens also wrote a good deal of non-fiction, such as:
- Sketches by Boz: The work that brought Dickens to early prominence during his days as a reporter. A series of pieces detailing London. (1836)
- American Notes: An account of his visit to the USA in 1842.
The works of Charles Dickens provide examples of:
- Author Tract: Much of Dickens' work includes some sort of strong social commentary. His most frequent targets include poverty and the plight of children. His American Notes also features his commentary on American systems, such as insane asylums (where he praised American efforts), slavery (where he condemned the practice) and spitting out tobacco on the floor.
- Contrived Coincidence: Was a big fan, like most Victorian novelists.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Most of his stories end well, but only after the main characters suffer a lot of misery, pain and angst.
- Lemony Narrator: Dickens himself was one of the lemoniest(?), which appears in virtually all of his works.
- Loves Secrecy: Mr Nadgett from Martin Chuzzlewit; lampshaded:The ruling passion of the man expressed itself even then, in the tone of regret in which he deplored the approaching publicity of what he knew.
- Signature Line: A Tale of Two Cities may have the most famous set of opening and closing lines in Western literature. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."/"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done..."
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Depends on the story. Several could be seen as more idealistic due to characters having a HeelFace Turn, being kind-hearted and sympathetic, and/or getting a Earn Your Happy Ending.