[Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor of the Victorian Web, scanned, edited, and converted to html the following biographical sketch of Dickens, which appeared on p. 740 of Harper's Weekly for 24 November 1860.]
We accompany the first part of Mr. Dickens's new novel, "GREAT EXPECTATIONS," with a Portrait of the author, taken from a very recent photograph. Those who remember him during his visit to this country will notice the change which has taken place since then in his outward man.
Mr. Dickens was born at Portsmouth, England, on 7th February, 1812. His father was for many years a Paymaster in the British Navy; on his retirement he became a reporter on the London press, and it was through him that Mr. Dickens first connected himself with journalism. His father's idea was that he should be an attorney; but a few months' work in a London office satisfied any longings he may have had for distinction in that profession. Abandoning the law, he became a reporter on the Sun, and afterward on the Morning Chronicle; studied short-hand assiduously, and for some years had had his seat in the Reporters' Gallery in the House of Commons.
It was during his arduous apprenticeship to the work a Parliamentary reporter that he wrote his first sketch of life, under the pseudonym of Boz. It pleased, and was followed by others, which attracted so much attention by their keen humor, that their author was offered a handsome sum by Mr. Hall, of Chapman & Hall, to write them a second series of sketches, to be published with illustrations, in monthly parts. This was the origin of the famous "Pickwick Papers," the first number of which was published in 1835. Their success was almost unprecedented. When the first number appeared, Mr. Dickens was unknown; when the work was completed he was the most popular writer in England; and Pickwick, Bardell, and the Wellers were familiar to every body. No writer of modern times has jumped so suddenly to fame as Mr. Dickens.
In 1837 "Oliver Twist" followed, and was equally welcomed on both sides [of] the Atlantic; and in 1839 "Nicholas Nickleby" fully maintained the reputation of its author. "Master Humphrey's Clock," which followed in 1840 and 1841, was not, perhaps, as widely popular, though many consider little Nell the most graceful and perfect of Mr. Dickens's creations.
In 1842 Mr. Dickens visited this country, and was received with an enthusiasm which the appearance of "American Notes" had a tendency to dampen. On his return home he produced the first and sweetest of his Christmas stories--"A Christmas Carol," and "Martin Chuzzlewit" --a work of infinite power, and full of his peculiar humor, but marred by the faults which were so conspicuous in his previous work on America.
In 1846, Mr. Dickens appeared before the public as the editor of a daily newspaper--the Daily News--which was intended to inaugurate a new era in London journalism. He had previously filled, for a few months, the office of editor of Bentley's Miscellany; but this was his first experiment in political journalism. It is no discredit to him that it was not a success. His peculiar powers are very different from, perhaps superior to, those required of the editor of a daily paper. After a few months of severe labor he resigned his post, and re-instated himself in public favor by the publication of those most charming of tales, "Dombey & Son" and "David Copperfield."
In 1850 he established, in conjunction with Messrs. Bradbury and Evans, a new paper under the title of Household Words, and published in its pages, successively, his "Child's History of England" and "Hard Times." It attained a very wide popularity, and became, as its founder intended, a household favorite throughout England. Mr. Dickens did not publish in its columns, however, "Bleak House" or "Little Dorrit," both of which appeared in monthly parts.
In 1859, owing to a difference between Mr. Dickens and Mssrs. Bradbury and Evans, Household Words was discontinued, and Mr. Dickens established a new periodical, All the Year Round, in which he gave to the world his last serial, "A Tale of Two Cities." By a special arrangement with Mr. Dickens, the proof-sheets of All the Year Round are dispatched to the publishers of Harper's Weekly some time before they are published in England, and thus the readers of this journal enjoy the benefit of every thing that appears in Mr. Dickens's periodical a fortnight or more before the regular copies reach this country. The new novel, "Great Expectations," has, we are told, aroused great expectation on the other side. Our subscribers will have the advantage of reading it by the light of Mr. McLenan's admirable illustrations.
Mr. Dickens has written so much and so well that the severest ordeal any thing new that he writes has to undergo is the comparison with what he has written before. His published stories are so popular that people will hardly admit that they can be equaled; the admirers of Dombey and Copperfield were quite jealous of Little Dorrit, and affected to speak lightly of Doctor Manette. It is not uncommon to hear people say that he has written himself out. It may be remarked, however, that while the contemporaries of the Pickwick Papers deny that he has ever surpassed that work, there are numerous critics who consider "Oliver Twist" his master-piece, others who prefer "Nickleby," some who pronounce in favor of the "Old Curiosity Shop," and others in favor of "Dombey & Son;" while, judging from the sales of the published volumes, "Little Dorrit" has the best claim to pre-eminence; and from the actual number of readers, the "Tale of Two Cities" would probably hold the first rank. In a word, there is not the least reason for supposing that in any of the qualities which have raised Mr. Dickens to his present fame--humor, descriptive power, analytical perception of character, charm of style, fancy, pathos, or dramatic ability--there has been any decay since Boz first came before the public. We have no doubt that "Great Expectations" will have as many admirers as any of its predecessors, and that a new generation of readers will decide, when it is ended, that the Great Novelist has at last written his great novel--leaving it to their children, or their successors in the reading world, to discover that, after all, the real master-piece was yet to come, and that a genius like that of Dickens is inexhaustible.
Last modified 30 June 2004