In This Article Charles Dickens

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Critical Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • General Edited Collections and Single-Volume Companions
  • Journals
  • Victorian Reviews and Criticism
  • Classic Early Criticism
  • Publishing
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Class
  • Empire
  • Race
  • Englishness
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Psychological and Psychoanalytic Approaches
  • Post-Structuralist Approaches
  • Foucauldian Approaches
  • History

Victorian Literature Charles Dickens
by
Juliet John
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0040

Introduction

Charles John Huffam Dickens was, and remains, the most well-known novelist of the 19th century. Born in Portsmouth in 1812 to the naval clerk John Dickens and his wife, Elizabeth Barrow Dickens, his education was interrupted at the age of twelve when his father was jailed for debt and Dickens was sent to work in a blacking factory. Nonetheless, Dickens was working as a journalist by his late teens, and by the age of twenty-four, the phenomenal popular success of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837), had catapulted him to an extraordinary level of fame—which, perhaps even more extraordinarily, grew throughout his prolific career. All Dickens’s major novels were published in serial form. Of the fifteen novels Dickens published during his lifetime, The Pickwick Papers (1837–1838), Oliver Twist (1837–1839), Nicholas Nickleby (1838–1839), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–1844), Dombey and Son (1846–1848), David Copperfield (1849–1850), Bleak House (1852–1853), Little Dorrit (1855–1857), Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865), and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) were published in monthly installments; The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841), Barnaby Rudge (1841), Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860–1861) were published in weekly installments. The fact that Dickens’s novels were all published serially means that his career is inextricably bound up with the world of journalism. Indeed, Dickens himself established and edited two major weekly journals, Household Words (1850–1859) and All the Year Round, which he edited from 1859 until his death, though the journal itself continued until 1893. Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840–1841), a weekly journal designed and run by Dickens, had been a shorter venture, and in 1846 Dickens had taken over the editorship, not entirely successfully, of the newspaper The Daily News. Part of Dickens’s uniqueness as a writer is the extent to which his works and image reached all sections of society—sometimes through the stage and private readings—and the extent to which his popularity has endured. In his lifetime, his impact was shored up not simply by the novels, journalism, and readings but also by his short stories, travel books, public speeches, vocal engagement with contemporary social and political issues, and his attunement to the emerging mass cultural marketplace. By the time of his death in 1870 and his burial in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, Dickens’s literary and cultural status was unrivalled by any writer in English except William Shakespeare.

General Overviews

The so-called Dickens industry includes vast amounts of critical material on Dickens. There are thus many general overviews of Dickens available that vary considerably, functioning as descriptive introductions to Dickens’s career, as polemical frames, as critical histories, or as introduction and original critique combined. Thus, Kucich 1994 is a relatively short introductory essay that is both lucid and brilliant as a distillation of the aesthetic and intellectual points of entry to Dickens’s writing. Pykett 2002 also provides a balanced yet sophisticated introduction both to Dickens and the critical field that surrounds him. Fielding 1958, Leavis and Leavis 1970, and Carey 1973 combine overview with polemic. Fielding emphasizes Dickens’s intellectual ability to understand contemporary scientific debates and the importance of religion to his work, the Leavises explore manifestations of Dickens’s novelistic “greatness” that F. R. Leavis had previously denied, and Carey succinctly and accessibly communicates the importance of the macabre and the oppositional to Dickens’s imagination. Overviews tend to bear the imprints of their critical moment of origin, yet some endure. They form part of the Dickens industry and provide an indispensable way of navigating not only Dickens’s writing but the Dickens critical industry. Thus, Flint 1986 introduces readers not just to Dickens but to a variety of critical strategies emerging at the time of the book’s publication, while Mazzeno 2008 traces the history of Dickens criticism in his appropriately named book The Dickens Industry.

  • Carey, John. The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination. London: Faber & Faber, 1973.

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    A readable, enduring study that explores the importance of conflict to Dickens’s imagination. Argues that Dickens was inextricably drawn to the grotesque and the malevolent, despite viewing himself as a seer of domestic virtue. Builds on the work of Wilson 1941 and House 1955, both of which are cited under Psychological and Psychoanalytic Approaches, on the macabre Dickens.

  • Fielding, K. J. Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction. London: Longmans, Green, 1958.

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    General but polemical, this introduction robustly defends accusations that Dickens was not intelligent enough to appreciate contemporary scientific debate and calls for a more profound investigation into the influence of religion in Dickens’s work.

  • Flint, Kate. Dickens. Brighton, UK: Harvester, 1986.

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    A relatively succinct work that introduces readers both to Dickens and “new” critical strategies that were not universally accepted in 1986, including feminist criticism. Has a good sense of the historical and social. Accessible and still helpful.

  • Kucich, John. “Dickens.” In The Columbia History of the British Novel. Edited by John Richetti, 381–406. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

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    An accessible yet highly sophisticated essay that manages to be introductory yet original and challenging.

  • Leavis, F. R., and Q. D. Leavis. Dickens the Novelist. London: Chatto & Windus, 1970.

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    Occasioned by the centenary of Dickens’s death, this liberal humanist collection of essays attempts to remedy F. R. Leavis’s earlier omission of Dickens from the canon of great novelists identified in The Great Tradition (1948) on the grounds that Dickens possessed “no profounder responsibility as a creative artist” than a “great entertainer.”

  • Mazzeno, Laurence W. The Dickens Industry: Critical Perspectives 1836–2005. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008.

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    Traces the reception of Dickens from the early reviews and is particularly astute when discussing Dickensian criticism in the “age of theory,” devoting two chapters to the years 1980–2000. Offers commentary, where appropriate, on the historical, literary, and political context that shaped individual works. Privileges books over journals.

  • Pykett, Lynn. Charles Dickens. Critical Issues. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2002.

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    An accessible, clever overview. Traces Dickens’s career chronologically, commenting astutely on his obsession with the metropolis and his role as a journalist and editor of Household Words. The introduction, “The Dickens Phenomenon and the Dickens Industry,” is an astute summary of his reception in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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