Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth on February 7, 1812, the son of a clerk at the Navy Pay Office. His father, John Dickens, continually living beyond his means, was imprisoned for debt, along with his wife and most of their children, in the Marshalsea in 1824. 12-year-old Charles was removed from school and sent to work at a boot-blacking (shoe dye) factory, earning six shillings a week to help support the family. This dark experience cast a shadow over the clever, sensitive boy that became a defining experience in his life. He would later write that he wondered "how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age". This childhood poverty and feelings of abandonment, although unknown to his readers until after his death, would be a heavy influence on Dickens' later views on social reform and the world he would create through his fiction.
After his father received a small inheritance, Charles was able to return to school for a short time and at 15 he became a clerk in a solicitor's office, then a shorthand reporter in the lawcourts (thus gaining a knowledge of the legal world often used in the novels), and finally, a parliamentary and newspaper reporter. These years left him with a lasting affection for journalism and contempt both for the law and for Parliament.
In 1833 Dickens began contributing stories and descriptive essays to magazines and newspapers which were reprinted as Sketches by "Boz" in February of 1836. The same month, he was invited to provide a comic serial narrative to accompany engravings by a well-known artist and seven weeks later the first installment of "Pickwick Papers" appeared. Within a few months Pickwick was the rage and Dickens was soon the most popular author of the day. He resigned his newspaper job and undertook to edit a monthly magazine, Bentley's Miscellany, in which he serialized "Oliver Twist" (1837-39). In April of 1836 he married Catherine, eldest daughter of a respected Scottish journalist and man of letters, George Hogarth and they eventually had nine (surviving) children.
Dickens continued at a prolific pace, and by 1850 had published nine novels, including "Nicholas Nickleby" and "David Copperfield", the most autobiographical of his books. Many of the characters in his life became characters in his books, most notably perhaps, Mr. Macawbre (his father) in David Copperfield and Mrs. Nickelby (his mother) in Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens himself appeared several times, but most especially as David Copperfield himself.
"A Christmas Carol", conceived and written in a few weeks in 1843, was the first of his almost annual Christmas books (a new literary genre) and was hugely popular, cementing the way that many of us view Christmas to this day. He was eventually so associated with Christmas that when Dickens died in 1870, a London costermonger's girl is said to have exclaimed, "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?"
Besides writing and editing, Dickens toured as a dramatic reader and busied himself with charities that included schools for poor children and a loan society to assist poor people immigrate to Australia. His writing empathized with the poor and helpless and mocked or criticized the selfish, the greedy, and the cruel.
Dickens would go on to write 15 major novels and countless short stories and articles before his death on June 9, 1870. He wished to be buried, without fanfare, in a small cemetery in Rochester, but the nation would not allow it and he was laid to rest in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, the flowers from thousands of mourners overflowing the open grave.