Victorian tales grip readers | South China Morning Post
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  • Feb 28, 2015
  • Updated: 7:52am

Victorian tales grip readers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 12:00am

When you read a novel by Charles Dickens, you enter the teeming and fascinating world of Victorian England. You tiptoe along sombre alleyways bumping into London's low life. You sit in the classrooms of dark and dingy schools where pupils suffer dreadful cruelty from sadistic teachers. You meet honest young people whose only wish is to settle down and lead a normal life.

Losing yourself in a Dickens novel is a unique and special experience. One moment you will be laughing out aloud as one of his ridiculous characters does or says something outrageous and the next you will be on the edge of your seat as the plot twists and turns like a corkscrew. Dickens was a novelist who knew how to make his readers turn the page to find out what happened next.

You are never on your own as you read a Dickens novel. Reading his books is like walking onto a stage filled with a vast crowd of characters who entertain, intrigue and sometimes fill you with hate and horror. Dickens created more than 2,000 of the most interesting people ever to leap off the page of a book. In his work you will meet killers and conmen, madmen and clowns, innocent young girls and evil old women. You will rub shoulders with dashing heroes and ruthless villains.

Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth, a sea-port in southern England. His father was very bad at handling money and often got into serious debt. In 1824, when the family was living in London, Dickens' father was sent to prison after his financial problems got out of hand. As a result, the young Dickens had to work in a factory to keep the family together. Eventually Dickens' father was released from prison and the family got back onto a more even keel. Dickens completed his schooling and got a job as a lawyer's clerk. He moved on to become a junior journalist with a London newspaper and, in 1833, he sold his first short story to a monthly magazine.

A London publisher commissioned him to write a novel that would be published as a weekly serial. And throughout most of 1836, The Pickwick Papers sold 50,000 copies a week.

The first part of the next serialised Dickens' novel, Oliver Twist, appeared on bookstalls in 1837 and was an immediate best-seller. The story grabbed the interest of thousands of readers just like a good TV soap-opera does today. Dickens followed this with Nicholas Nickleby and then in 1840 he decided to build on his success by publishing his own magazine. He planned to fill it with good short stories and although the first edition was a success, sales quickly fell because fans wanted a full-length novel from him.

Dickens was soon back on track with The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit and his big yuletide hit, A Christmas Carol. He toured Britain and the United States, giving lectures and public readings from his books. He became a star performer as well as author.

Income from David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations made Dickens a wealthy man, but the great writer refused to rest on his laurels and he wrote until the day he died on June 8, 1870. Dickens' novels are all big, thick books and you can't rush through them in a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. You need plenty of time to read a Dickens novel, but once you get into it, you are in the company of one of the world's greatest story-tellers and he will not let you down.

How much do you know about Charles Dickens?

1. Where and when was he born?

2. What was the main cause of his unhappy childhood?

3. What was his first adult job?

4. When did he sell his first story to a magazine?

5. What was the title of his first novel and when was it published?

6. How were his novels published?

7. What happened when he decided to publish his own magazine?

8. How did he supplement his writing income?

9. When did he retire from writing novels?

10. When did he die?


1. Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812.

2. His father's money problems caused unhappiness in the Dickens family.

3. He worked as a lawyer's clerk.

4. He sold his first story in 1833.

5. His first novel was The Pickwick Papers and it appeared in 1836.

6. His novels were first published as weekly serials.

7. His idea of publishing his own magazine was a failure.

8. He gave lectures about his work and public readings from his novels.

9. He never retired from his job as a novelist.

10. He died in June, 1870.


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