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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Charles Dickens

Novelist who combined to an exceptional degree literary genius and popular appeal. His father was an improvident government clerk who was eventually imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt. His mother and the younger children lived in the prison with him, while the 12-year-old Dickens was boarded out and put to work labelling bottles in a London shoe-blacking factory. These were experiences which scarred his childhood but gave him much material for his fiction.

At 16, after learning shorthand, he began four years of reporting law cases and debates in parliament. His first literary efforts were a series of comic sketches, mainly about London life, which he contributed to newspapers under the pseudonym 'Boz'. They were published as Sketches by Boz (1836) with illustrations by *Cruikshank. In that same year there appeared the first monthly issues of the work which brought the 24-year-old author fame and fortune, *Pickwick Papers.

Over the next few years he worked with extraordinary intensity, producing *Oliver Twist (1837–8), *Nicholas Nickleby (1838–9), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1), Barnaby Rudge (1841), *Christmas Carol (1843) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–4. All but A Christmas Carol were published as serials in monthly or weekly parts. From 1850 to the end of his life Dickens was himself the editor of magazines publishing fiction in this way, first *Household Words and then All the Year Round.

With Dombey and Son (1846–8) Dickens began to plan each book more as a whole, instead of the earlier improvisational approach with cliff-hangers at the end of episodes. He now entered the period of his greatest achievement, writing *David Copperfield (1849–50), *Bleak House (1852–3), *Little Dorritt (1855–7), *Great Expectations (1860–1) and Our Mutual Friend (1864–5). Two powerful melodramas, one social and political (*Hard Times 1854) and the other historical (A *Tale of Two Cities 1859), date from the same period.

In 1836 Dickens had married Catherine Hogarth, with whom he had ten children, but their relationship was virtually over by 1857 when he bought Gad's Hill in Kent. This was a great house which he had admired from the outside as a boy (he had lived from the age of four to eleven, the only happy part of his childhood, in *Chatham, where his father worked in the naval dockyard). Dickens and Catherine separated in 1858, and during his last years he had a young mistress, Nelly (Ellen) Ternan.

He had always been much involved in public affairs as a campaigning author and journalist, but he now developed a different sort of public life, giving extremely successful readings from his works on both sides of the Atlantic. His sudden death at Gad's Hill made a literal and lasting mystery of his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Only six of the twelve monthly episodes were written, so the reasons for Edwin Drood's disappearance will never be known.

Dickens' birthplace in Portsmouth (393 Old Commercial Rd) is kept as a museum, as is the house in London (48 Doughty St) where he and Catherine lived in the early years of their marriage. Stage, film and television adaptations have extended Dickens's already vast following. Probably not even Shakespeare has created so many characters with a secure place in the nation's collective memory.

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