Here you’ll find the answers to the quiz on Charles Dickens, providing you with a background to his life and novels and some suggestions for using Dickens in the classroom. The Post was first published on 14th July 2016. We have revised the text and expanded on the links on the anniversary of the publication of the first installment of The Pickwick Papers. Hope you’ll enjoy it and, if you choose, go deeper into Dickens’s life, works and times!
Charles Dickens’s times
In 1812, the year Dickens was born, only 66 novels were published in Britain and no writer was aspiring to do it professionally. The literacy rate in England at the time was below 50% and novels were regarded as silly, immoral, toxic or just bad. Indeed, Jane Austen mentions in her “Northanger Abbey” that “No species of composition has been so much decried” and we should not forget that she died in 1817 but most of her novels were not published until a year later, in 1818, when Dickens was only 6.
It was during the reign of Queen Victoria that the novel took root and during her time some 60,000 novels were published. When Dickens died, aged 58, he was mourned as the first literary celebrity and his characters were acclaimed as moral touchstones.
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, on 7th February, the second of 8 children.
His father was a clerk at the Naval Pay Office and his job also took him and his family to London and Chatham, where Dickens was happiest. The family found it difficult to live within the father’s income and in 1823 they permanently moved to London, faced with financial disaster.
A year later, his father was arrested for debts and to help the family out, a relative of Mrs Dickens offered Charles work in a blacking business which he managed. Charles’ job consisted of labelling bottles for six shillings a week. The rest of his family had to move with his father to the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison.
This episode would mark Dickens and only his wife and his closest friend and biographer, John Foster, knew about this.
Charles Dickens’s father was released from prison after three months and a few weeks later he could send Charles to school where he did well until he began to work in the office of Gray’s Inn attorneys in 1827. While he was working there he taught himself shorthand and eighteen months later he started working as a freelance reporter in the court of Doctors’ Commons where he reported parliamentary debates, winning himself a reputation for speed and accuracy.
Charles Dickens’ works
In 1833 he started publishing his Sketches by Boz in various magazines and at 22 he joined the reporting staff of the Morning Chronicle. A volume of those Sketches appeared on his twenty-fourth birthday and was very well received.
That same year, three days after his birthday, Charles Dickens was approached by Chapman and Hall and asked to write the text for a series of comic sketches by the popular artist Seymour. This would be the beginnings of The Pickwick Papers.
The idea at first was that Seymour would draw the sketches and Dickens would provide the stories based on them to be published monthly and for which he would be paid £14 a month. However, Dickens argued that it would be better if the plates would arise from the text rather than the other way round and got his own way.
This was probably due to what happened shortly after the publication of the first installment on March 30th, 1836. TOn April 2nd, Charles married his fiancée, Catherine Hogarth. Then on April 20th, Seymour committed suicide.
Although not an overnight success, The Pickwick Papers, published for over a year, soon became very popular and the characters the centre of popular cult.
Samuel Pickwick, the main character, founds the Pickwick Club and travels around England accompanied by Mr Winkle, Mr Snodgrass and Mr Tupman. Their task is to report on their adventures to the other members.
Even though it is a novel filled with humour, the Pickwick Papers deals with a recurring theme in lots of Dickens’s books: the unfairness and incompetence of the justice and legal system.
While the Pickwick Papers were still running, Dickens started writing and finished Oliver Twist.
In my very personal view, it’s a masterpiece of irony, brilliant description of situations, conditions, and character types. An example of this irony and description of situation and character can be appreciated in the following extract, at the end of Chapter 2.
(Oliver, on his 9th birthday, has been sent by the board from the orphanage to the workhouse)
the board takes sage, deep, philosophical decisions on the workhouse
The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered —the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work. “Oho!” said the board, looking very knowing; “we are the fellows to set this to rights; we’ll stop it all, in no time.”
the poor are given an alternative
So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house,or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factory to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays.
wise, humane regulations
They made a great many other wise and humane regulations, having reference to the ladies, which it is not necessary to repeat; kindly undertook to divorce poor married people, in consequence of the great expense of a suit in Doctors’ Commons; and instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor! There is no saying how many applicants for relief, under these last two heads, might have started up in all classes of society, if it had not been coupled with the workhouse and the gruel; but the board were long-headed men, and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparable from the work-house and the gruel; and that frightened people. […]
Oliver is forced to ask for more
[…]Oliver Twist and his companious suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn’t been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cookshop), hinted darkly to his companiouns, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask fo more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himselft at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged thermselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons.
The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, bowl and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
“Please, sir, I want some more.”
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
“What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.
“Please, sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more.”
The following year Charles Dickens published Nicholas Nickleby and the one after The Old Curiosity Shop, which reached 100,000 copies. He finished Barnaby Rudge in 1941 and then set off with his wife for the States. Although he went full of enthusiasm for the young republic he came back disillusioned, recording his experiences in American Notes in 1942.
His first setback in terms of novel-writing came with Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4) as this novel did not repeat the success achieved by his previous novels. Nevertheless, he soon began his series of Christmas Books starting with A Christmas Carol in 1843, which were very successful.
After writing Dombey and Son in 1846-48, a more serious and carefully planned novel, he started David Copperfield in 1849. This is his most autobiographical novel, exploring in it his childhood and youth, although it was thinly disguised.
In the 1850s Charles Dickens became more and more interested in public affairs, founding Household Words, a weekly magazine combining entertainment and social purpose. It was followed by All the Year Round in 1859.
During that decade he published Bleak House in 1852-53 and Hard Times in 1854, both covering social issues. The former focuses on the Court of Chancery, sanitary reform, slum clearance, orphans’ schools, the newly-formed Metropolitan Police Force, the emancipation of women… in brief, England at that time.
Little Dorrit was published in 1855-7 and it was a denunciation of the government and administration’s mismanagement of the Crimean War. Indeed, he considered the title “Nobody’s Fault” as a possible title for the novel.
A Tale of two cities followed in 1859, dealing with the French Revolution and the period of terror in France.
His last two finished novels were Great Expectations published in 1860-1 and Our Mutual Friend in 1864-5. Great Expectations is narrated in the first person by Pips, the protagonist, as he reflects on the three stages of his “expectations”, starting on the Kentish marshes and eventually discovering the importance of human values. In Our Mutual Friend, there are several plots, the main of which centres around John Harmor, who returns to England as his father’s heir. The novel is a dense, comprehensive account of Victorian society, where materialistic values are paramount.
His last, unfinished novel was Edwin Drood (1870) although it might have been called “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. He died that year.
Using Charles Dickens in the classroom
Have you ever used Charles Dickens or any of his works in the classroom? We’d love to hear what you do with Dickens. Here are some suggestions from… The British Council… Schools Online. Dickens_Education Pack
I’ll be so delighted to read and comment on your ideas at
This post has been written based on notes taken from:
– Article by Radhika Jones published in Time Magazine. Feb. 2012
– Charles Dickens’ biography as published in the Penguin Editions of his works
– Introductions to and/or extracts from The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Great Expectation and A Tale of Two Cities, published in the Penguin Editions of his works
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