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Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812,
in Hampshire, England, and spent the first ten years of his life
in Kent. When Dickens was ten, the family moved to London. His father,
a naval pay clerk, was a spendthrift and eventually lost all the
family’s money, sending him, his wife, and their eight children
to debtors’ prison. When Dickens was twelve, his mother forced him
to live apart from the family by himself for three months, at which
time he worked at a blacking factory (blacking is a kind of soot
used to create black pigment for such products as matches and boots)
to help support the family. Along with the other children at the
factory, Dickens pasted labels on bottles, an experience he hated
and one that affected him deeply throughout his life. His experiences
at the factory, as well as his family’s experiences with poverty
and debt, spurred a passionate interest in social issues and reform.
When his father was released from prison, Dickens returned
to school. He eventually became a law clerk but abandoned law to become
a journalist. This proved to be the start of a lifetime of writing—he
published his first story in 1833 and his
first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in 1836,
when he was just twenty-five years old. The novel was very highly
regarded and launched Dickens’s celebrity as a writer. In 1836,
Dickens also married Catherine Hogarth, and the couple had ten children
between 1837 and 1852.
Although Dickens never divorced Catherine—an act unheard of in his
day—the two separated in 1858 after much
marital strife. Shortly after their separation (and likely before
it), Dickens began an affair with an actress named Ellen Ternan,
who would be his mistress until he died.
Dickens was a prolific writer and published novels roughly
every two years. After The Pickwick Papers, he
published Oliver Twist (1837)
and Nicholas Nickleby (1838).
Dickens usually published his novels in serial form in magazines,
several chapters at a time, and the serialized pieces were then
published together as a novel. Bleak House, Dickens’s
ninth novel, was published in twenty installments between March 1852 and
September 1853. In 1850,
Dickens founded the journal Household Words and
became its editor, intent on using the journal to promote social
reform. Along with political articles, he published fiction to give
the journal wider appeal, including his own novel Hard Times (1854).
In 1859, he quit Household Words and
began editing All the Year Round. Like Household
Words, All the Year Round addressed social issues and featured
both fiction and nonfiction. Dickens serialized several of his novels
in All the Year Round, including A Tale
of Two Cities (1859) and Great
A great storyteller, Dickens was noted for his seemingly
endless capacity for creating memorable characters and his sincere
concern for social injustices. All of Dickens’s novels address the
struggles of the poor in nineteenth-century England. In Bleak
House he makes explicit his frustration with the English
legal system, which, instead of serving the people, seemed to serve
only itself with its impenetrable bureaucracy. The central lawsuit
of Bleak House, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, has been
held “in Chancery” for years—that is, it has been tied up in the
Court of Chancery. A real Chancery case that lasted for fifty-three
years was Dickens’s inspiration for the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit.
Dickens modeled the Chancery of the novel on the actual Court of
Chancery, notorious for its unreasonably stringent controls on the
lawsuits that came before it, which made little progress and cost
a small fortune. Dickens satirizes the Chancery in Bleak
House, portraying a useless court that has driven people
to suicide and ruined lives as it has slogged on pointlessly and
Besides being a satire, Bleak House is
also a detective story, one of the first examples of the genre.
When Tulkinghorn is murdered, Dickens has already set up a complex
group of clues, motives, and suspects that Bucket—as well as readers—must
sort through and figure out. Bleak House proved
to be an early forerunner to and an influence for the detective
and mystery novels that came after it, including The Woman
in White (1859), one of the most
famous early detective novels written by Wilkie Collins, a longtime
friend of Dickens.
Dickens’s work has always remained popular with critics
and readers alike, and he is considered one of the greatest English
novelists of all time. Dickens died in 1870,
when he was fifty-eight. He is buried in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster
Abbey, in London.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bleak House!