Charles in Charge

The secret of Dickens' enduring success

Jamie Chung for TIME; Courtesy of the Morgan Library Museum

Image of the manuscript from "Our Mutual Friend" by Charles Dickens

In 1812, the year Charles Dickens was born, there were 66 novels published in Britain. People had been writing novels for a century--most critics date the genre to Robinson Crusoe in 1719--but nobody aspired to do it professionally. Many works of fiction appeared anonymously, with attributions like "By a Lady." The steam-powered printing press was still in its infancy; the literacy rate in England was under 50%. And novels, for the most part, were looked upon as silly, immoral, toxic or just plain bad. "No species of composition has been so much decried," wrote one lady of the time, Jane Austen,...

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