Charles Dickens - BIOGRAPHY

Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father, who was a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, had a poor head for finances and was imprisoned in 1824 for debt. Dickens was twelve years old when he was sent to work at Warren's Blacking Factory, while the rest of his family joined his father in the Marshalsea Prison. During this time, he lived alone, ashamed and frightened, in a lodging house. These early experiences became a source of creative energy and a reason for his preoccupation with the themes of alienation and betrayal. These early experiences also made him a self-reliant, hard-working and dedicated writer.

Dickens returned to school after the financial difficulties were over. When he was fifteen, he went to work as a clerk in a law firm. Later he became a free-lance reporter, first of dull law cases and then of parliamentary debates. These experiences helped shape his social consciousness. In 1830, he fell in love with Maria Beadwell, the daughter of a banker, but the relationship was short-lived, as he was not considered a good match by her parents. He then met and became engaged to Catherine Hogarth in 1835. He married Catherine on April 2, 1836.

Dickens' first published story appeared in 1835. He also started writing under the famous pseudonym "Boz", with the first sketches published in 1836. His success as a writer truly began with the Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37), now known as The Pickwick Papers. Its popularity allowed him to embark on a full-time career as a novelist. He wrote Oliver Twist in 1837, followed by Nicholas Nickleby, The Olde Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. Dickens also had a social conscience. He visited Canada and the United States in 1842 and advocated international copyright laws and the abolition of slavery. His American Notes appeared in October and that, along with the novel Martin Chuzzlevit, did not portray America flatteringly.

Dickens' enormously successful A Christmas Carol was published in 1844. From 1844 onwards, the family spent a lot of time abroad, especially in Italy, Switzerland, and France. The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, and Pictures from Italy belong to this period. He published Donby and Son in 1846, and David Copperfield began to be serialized in 1849. He published Bleak House in 1852, Hard Times in 1854, Little Dorrit in 1855, and collaborated with W. Collins on a play The Frozen Deep in 1856. He also founded and became the editor of the weekly Household Words and opened a theatrical company. In 1859 he began to edit All the Year Round, which he continued until his death. A serialization of A Tale of Two Cities appeared in this weekly in 1859. Great Expectations began to appear in 1860 and ended in 1861.

Dickens, being a much loved author, started the public reading of his works in 1853; this activity continued until 1870, when he gave his final public reading. He suffered a stroke on June 8, 1870, at Gad's Hill, the estate he had bought. He died on June 9, 1870. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and his unfinished work The Mystery of Edward Drood appeared in September.

Dickens, who addressed social issues and historic events with penetrating insight, is regarded as the greatest British author of all times. The power of his novels, which are rich, diverse, and intense, lies in his ability to report accurately and to transform the ordinary into something magical. His concern for modern society is evident in all his novels. He emerges as a social reformer with a deep compassion for the working class. His works, which are complex, deep, and perceptive, are also marked with melodramatic intensity and humor. Many of his themes and images are recurrent. The image of a corrupt judicial system, especially the condition of prisons, occupies a central spot in both Bleak House and Little Dorrit. At times, Dickens exposed the humorous face of a sadly comic world with which he gradually became disillusioned. He presented the failures of both business ethics and revolutionary zeal. In A Tale of Two Cities, he depicts both the excitement and the chaos of revolution.

Charles Dickens was a prolific writer of quality works that have remained popular through the years for their intensity and social conscience. In spite of his lack of a formal education, he revealed in his novels a mastery of the English language and a sophisticated depth of thought that have endeared him to many generations of students and readers.


A Tale of Two Cities is a popular, historic novel set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It was initially published as a serial in the weekly entitled All Year Round, from April 30 to November 29, 1859. The novel concentrates on the social and psychological crises more than on a retelling of the actual historical event of the war. Dickens' vision of the Terror encompasses aristocratic exploitation and neglect of the poor, public bloodshed, and private vengeance.

Dickens' source of the French Revolution is undoubtedly Thomas Carlyle's monumental work, The French Revolution. He is also indebted to Bulwer-Lytton's novel Zanoni and Watt Philips' play The Dead Heart, both having the French Revolution as their background. Even though Dickens relied upon other works, his vision and view in A Tale of Two Cities are clearly his own. He expresses his views most clearly when he shows how uncaring the aristocrats were to the plight of common people. But he is able to shift his sympathy away from the mob of French patriot revolutionaries to the plight of the aristocrats and their families. His dislike of the mob is seen in an earlier historical novel, Barnaby Rudge. There the mob storms the Newgate Prison, but the authorities are able to quell the violence. The vengeful, bloodthirsty mob that storms the Bastille cannot be restrained.

Dickens handles the historic event with maturity. He reveals the similarity between the behaviors of both aristocrats and the revolutionaries. Dr. Manette is thrown into prison without reason or trial in the same way that the patriots send innocent people, like Darnay or the seamstress, to death by the guillotine without a fair trial.

There is an autobiographical element in the story, for Dickens identifies himself with both Dr. Manette and Sydney Carton. He was in love with Ellen Terman, and the way Carton worships Lucie is the way Dickens loved Ellen. Like Dr. Manette, Dickens lived in two worlds--one of stark reality that he chose to forget and an imaginary one that made his bad experiences more acceptable.

The novel displays several literary influences. Dickens refers to classical legend in the chapter titled "The Gorgon's Head." His themes and characters also seem to be influenced by the Bible, especially the New Testament and its concepts of resurrection and redemption. He finally draws on the techniques used in folklore, fairy tales, and fable to enrich the descriptive passages. The symbols, allegory, and irony thus become more effective.

Revolutions have occurred ever since the first oppressed people became tired of their tyrannical rulers. They have been the cry of the downtrodden since the beginning of time, symbolizing hope for a better future. The French Revolution, which occurred from 1789 until 1799, violently transformed France from a country ruled by a monarch with a rigid social hierarchy into a modern nation where the social structure was loosened and power passed increasingly to the middle classes. The weakness of King Louis XVI is regarded as a crucial factor that started the revolution. He ignored individual rights, rich and poor alike. During his reign, the ordinary French person was very poor, and food became scarce and expensive. The agricultural recession in 1776 forced property owners to exploit their sources of revenue; but the growing middle class threatened the established landed aristocracy. When the lower classes refused to pay more taxes, the royal ministers attempted to tax all landowners. This plan led to the Aristocratic Revolt. Their first meeting in 1789, in Versailles, was paralyzed because the Third Estate (the Commons) refused to meet separately as a distinct inferior body. On June 17, the Commons took the very important revolutionary step of declaring their assembly to be the National Assembly and thus the States-General was destroyed. They asserted their power, and to show who really was in control, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille on July 14. Riots broke out everywhere. The failure of the 1788 harvest and an exceptionally severe winter aggravated the discontent of the peasants. They robbed and burned the chateaux of the aristocracy and destroyed all records. This episode is known as the Grande Peur (Great Fear).

The National Assembly established a new legal structure; privileges and feudal obligations were abolished. On August 4, a Declaration of Rights was formulated and the king was the chief executive power, but he had no legislative power except a suspensive veto. Louis XVI was reluctant to sanction the new decrees, and this led to the second Parisian uprising--the so-called March of the Women. On October 5, a mob marched to Versailles and forced the king to sign. The king and the queen, Marie Antoinette, were moved to Paris, followed by the Assembly. France became a constitutional monarchy, and legal distinctions between Frenchmen disappeared. From 1789 to 1791, the National Assembly did much to modernize France. However, the reformed franchise excluded the poor. But the people had faith in freedom as shown in the first Festival of Federation, a celebration of National Unity on July 14, 1790, Bastille Day.

When King Louis tried to escape from Paris on June 20, 1791), civil war was imminent. The Assembly retained control, and the crowd that had assembled in Paris to demand a republic was dispersed by force. In 1791, the king was reinstated after he accepted the completed Constitution. The Revolution was then believed to be over. This, however, was not true, as religious and social strife had already broken the unity of the Third Estate.

On April 20, 1792, the New Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria as King Louis was believed to have asked them for help to stop the revolution. Austrian and Prussian forces invaded France, and riots broke out in Paris. On August 10, the palace was stormed, and Louis was imprisoned by a new revolutionary Commune of Paris. The Legislative Assembly now did not have any power and so ordered an election. Counter revolutionaries were massacred in the prisons of Paris.

On September 22, 1792, the National Convention established a republic, and the king was sent to the guillotine on January 21, 1793. France was divided by a militant minority comprised of the Monteguards and the Jacobins who wanted to take vigorous revolutionary measures, while their opponents, the Girondists, leaders of the amorphous majority, looked to the Provinces and hoped to consolidate the Revolution. In 1793, a savage royalist uprising commenced, and the hard-core revolutionaries began to gain ground. Emergency bodies were set up, but there was no leadership and the Parisian insurrection of June 2 forced the Convention to expel the Girondists and accept Monteguard control. The Reign of Terror lasted from 1793 until 1794. The Monteguard Convention had to deal with invasion, royalist civil war, and widespread revolts in the provinces. At first George Danton tried to placate the provinces, who were revolting against the dictatorship of Paris, but later Maxmillian Robespierre sent armies to subdue the rebellious cities. The city of Toulon surrendered to the British, and a demonstration in Paris forced the National Convention to establish a repressive regime known as the Terror. The Revolutionary Tribunal sent state prisoners, including Girondists, to the guillotine and agents of the Convention known as representatives of the people enforced bloody repression throughout France. The churches were closed on November 23, 1793. The republican armies were now in command, and the Terror became identified with ruthless and centralized revolutionary government. Any dissidence was classified as counter revolutionary, and Monteguards and extremists were guillotined early in 1794. Robespierre insisted on associating Terror with virtue, and his effort to make the republic a morally united patriotic community became equated with the endless bloodshed. Robespierre was overthrown by a conspiracy of certain members of the National Convention on July 27, 1794. The Robespierrist deputies and most members of the Commune were guillotined the next day, July 28.

The period from 1794 to 1795 of the Thermidorian Reaction was so weak that anarchy and inflation almost overwhelmed the country. However, the extreme republicans could achieve nothing, and the Convention broke the popular movement permanently with the aid of the army. The Constitution was completed in 1795, and it took effect after a reactionary rising in Vendemiare was suppressed by General Napoleon Bonaparte. The Constitution of 1795 established an executive directory, two assemblies, and a property owner's franchise. Care was taken to see that the country could not revert to either democratic Terror or monarchy. In 1797 the directors purged the parliament ruthlessly. Many deputies were labeled as royalists and sent to the penal colony of French Guinea--called the dry guillotine. Soon the moderates were outnumbered, and in 1799, the Consulate, with Bonaparte as the First Consul, was established. The revolutionary period ended with the creation of the First Empire, which lasted from 1804 until 1815.

Cite this page:

Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on A Long Way Gone".