If you want to read a biography or background on Charles Dickens, you have countless volumes to choose from. You have Peter Ackroyd’s mammoth biography Dickens (1000+pages) published in 1990; you have shorter and excellent studies by authors like G.K. Chesterton, Michael Slater and Claire Tomalin; and you have a wide array of specialty studies. You can even find the original biography by Dickens’ friend John Forster, published a few years after Dickens died in 1870.
One of the best short biographies I’ve come across is one published in 2016 by Jenny Hartley, entitled Charles Dickens: An Introduction, and it’s especially helpful if you want to know more about his works than his life. A small volume of 151 pages, it organizes Dickens’ writings thematically and explains why his works are still widely read today. And Hartley manages to work in the key biographical details and background needed to help understand Dickens’ stories.
She starts with what may be one of the best-known scenes in all of Dickens’ works – the skinny young boy Oliver Twist telling the fat and healthy school master that he wanted more gruel: “Please, sir, I want some more.” Hartley explores the scene and uses it to explain why Dickens became so popular – and why his popularity endured.
In five succeeding essays, she considers how Dickens used elements of his own life throughout his books (some events and situations were not known until after his death); how he used character and plot (he was a genius at character and often criticized for plots that seemed contrived); his ongoing love affair with London, what he called his “magic lantern;” just how radical he was in his causes and politics, while still supporting public order; and then his impact and lasting influence, the word “Dickensian” coming into popular usage in his own lifetime.
Hartley is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Roehampton. She is also the author of Millions Like Us: British Women’s Fiction of the Second World War (1997); The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (2012); Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women (2012); and other works. She is Scholar in Residence at the Charles Dickens Museum in London and has served as the president of the International Dickens Fellowship.
Charles Dickens: An Introduction is an excellent resource and provides a succinct overview of the writer’s works and why he remains so popular.
Top photograph: Charles Dickens in the 1850s.