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, in Northanger Abbey, a satirical novel that skewers an impressionable young woman who reads too many gothic novels.
In 1870, when Dickens died, the world mourned him as its first literary celebrity: a career writer and publisher, famous and beloved, who had led an explosion in both the publication of novels and their readership and whose characters--from Oliver Twist to Tiny Tim--were held up as moral touchstones. Today Dickens' greatness is unchallenged. Evicting him from the pantheon of English literature would make about as much sense as the Louvre selling off the Mona Lisa.
How did Dickens get to the top? For all the sentiment readers attach to stories, literature is a numbers game, and the test of time is exceedingly difficult to pass. Some 60,000 novels were published in the Victorian era, from 1837 to 1901; today a casual reader might be able to name a half-dozen of them. It's partly that Dickens was a stylistic genius, whose writing attracted audiences highbrow and low. It's partly that his career rode a wave of social, political and scientific progress. But it's also that he rewrote the culture of literature and put himself at the center. No one will ever know what mix of talent, ambition, energy and luck made Dickens such a singular writer. But as his bicentenary approaches, it is possible--and enlightening for our own culture--to understand how he made himself a lasting one.
Dickens got into novel writing by accident. As a young man, he longed to be an actor and trained to be a reporter. He dashed off fictional stories from time to time. In 1836 he accepted a magazine commission to write a series of comic sketches, at 14 a month, to accompany a set of illustrations of sporting life. The result, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, was a sensation. It established Dickens as a peerless ventriloquist, able to channel the voices of both swells and servants, and as a gifted writer of serials, which became the standard method of publication in an era when books were expensive but cheap periodicals thrived. Most important in terms of his legacy, The Pickwick Papers established him as a financially viable artist, bestriding the gap between creativity and commerce. From Pickwick to his deathbed, he wrote for an audience, and he wrote for money--two forces that before his time had had little to do with art.