Dickens and Victorian Britain
The Victorian era in Britain was a period of unprecedented population
growth, urbanization and industrialization. It was also a period of deep
division between the rich and poor. While the wealthy and growing
middle-class populations were entertained by spectacular exhibitions of
art and natural history, times were much harder for the poor and working
Rapid industrialization and urbanization resulted in high unemployment
and housing shortages. Many people were forced into tenement houses and
lived in deplorable conditions. It was in this atmosphere that a young
Charles Dickens grew up, in a slum he described “as shabby, dingy, damp,
and mean a neighborhood, as one would desire not to see.”
Shortly after his twelfth birthday Dickens was sent by his debt-ridden
family to work in a shoe- blacking factory alongside other children,
some as young as four years old. Dickens’ family could only afford to
keep him in school for a few short years. His father served time in a
The experiences of Dickens’ childhood left him with a lifelong concern
for the most helpless and neglected members of society. His experiences
in early life provided him with much inspiration for his later novels.
Dickens especially had sympathy for children, whom he compassionately
portrayed again and again in characters like Tiny Tim Cratchit, David
Copperfield and Oliver Twist.
The Life of Charles Dickens
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London, 1900. Print.
At Dickens’s request, his best friend, literary and legal advisor, and
executor of his estate, John Forster (1812-1876), wrote the first
authorized biography. The novelist left Forster all his
papers—manuscripts, corrected proofs and letters—to use as sources.
Forster began work shortly after Dickens’s death in 1870. The first
volume appeared in 1872 and two further volumes in 1873 and 1874.
Forster’s Life has remained the classic, essential source for all
subsequent biographies despite Forster’s reticence about details of
Dickens’s private life.
Forster gave all of Dickens’s papers to the Victoria and Albert Museum
in London, where they are gathered in the Forster Collection, a treasure
trove for scholars.