Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

By Elizabeth Williamson, Associate Artistic Director

Charles Dickens in his Study, 1859 by William Powell Frith, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Charles Dickens in his Study, 1859 by William Powell Frith, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Dickens (1812-1870) is widely considered the greatest English novelist of the Victorian era. His many novels include A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend. Dickens was more popular during his lifetime than any previous novelist had been. His work functioned on many levels, and had a wide appeal; he was both a great comic writer and a serious and thoughtful critic of the society he lived in. The novels that were most successful in his time are not as a rule the same ones that we read most today – but A Christmas Carol has always been among the best-loved of his novels. He also wrote a couple of plays, and while neither of them were hits, many of the novels have been successfully dramatized and are regularly produced today.

A Christmas Carol was the first of Dickens’ Christmas novels – a genre he created. He conceived of and wrote it in a few weeks, in the midst of his work on the much longer Martin Chuzzlewit. It’s the one great Christmas myth of modern literature, and quickly entered the general consciousness. When he died, a London costermonger’s girl is said to have exclaimed “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?” Thackeray called A Christmas Carol “a national benefit, and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness.” Dickens wrote a further Christmas book almost every year for the next two decades, but while they did well, none had such a wide effect on the general culture.

In 1858, Dickens started giving public paid readings of his work. A novelist who had once considered being an actor, he had always written work that lent itself well to reading aloud. The most popular of his readings were of A Christmas Carol and of the trial scene from The Pickwick Papers. He gave readings both in London and on tour over the next decade, culminating in a tour of the United States. A natural performer, he brought out the nuances in his work while also making good use of the dramatic effects. Each reading was about two hours in total, and these performances brought in a great deal of his income in the last decade of his life. No other major novelist (until Mark Twain began his tours) had taken on such a series of readings, and they were very successful, but they took their toll.

The American tour in 1867-68 was the last he made, and contributed to the decline in his health. In 1869 he gave a series of farewell readings in London, and famously ended them with the lines “From these garish lights I vanish now forever…”, lines which were repeated only three months later on the card for his funeral. He died suddenly in 1870 at only 58, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.