Charles Dickens has been called “perhaps the greatest of English novelists.” Some may consider such a tribute an exaggeration, but no one can deny his genius and tremendous contribution to literature.

Throughout his life, Dickens was a champion of the poor and oppressed, as well as a critic of aristocratic and High-Church elitism. Popular works such as David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, and Pickwick Papers reveal his contempt for the corruption and folly in Victorian England’s business, law, religion, and education. “In Our Mutual Friend,” writes Neil Philip, citing one example, “[Dickens] depicts a [religious] leacher ‘drawling on to My Dearerr Childerrenerr … about the beautiful coming to the Sepulchre; and repeating the word Sepulchre (commonly used among infants) five hundred times, and never once hinting what it meant.’ ”

Taste of Poverty

Dickens’s life follows a classic rags-to-riches story. He was born at Landport, in Portsea, on February 7, 1812. His father, John Dickens, was a clerk in the navy—a job that enabled the family to live at a comfortable, but not overly indulgent, middle-class level.

Unfortunately, careless money management and difficult times contributed to John Dickens’s financial decline in the 1820s. Household items had to be sold, and Charles was given the unsavory task of taking treasured family books to the local pawn shop. At the tender age of 12, Charles was sent to work in a dingy blacking house. This dashed all hope of his getting a proper education. To make matters worse, his father ended up in debtors’ prison.

Work in the blacking house lasted from 8 A.M to 8 P.M., with one hour for dinner and 30 minutes for tea. He made the best of his situation, and in time it became apparent to the foreman ...

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