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Charles John Huffam Dickens, FRSA, pen-name "Boz", was the most popular English novelist of the Victorian era, and one of the most popular of all time. He created some of literature's most iconic characters, with the theme of social reform running throughout his work. The continuing popularity of his novels and short stories is such that they have never gone out of print.

Much of his work first appeared in periodicals and magazines in serialised form, a popular way of publishing fiction at the time. Other writers would complete entire novels before serial publication commenced, but Dickens often wrote his in parts, in the order they were meant to appear. The practice lent his stories a particular rhythm, punctuated by one "cliffhanger" after another, to keep the public eager for the next installment.

His work has been praised for its mastery of prose, and for its teeming gallery of unique personalities, by writers such as George Gissing and G. K. Chesterton, though the same characteristics have prompted others, such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf, to criticize him for sentimentality and implausibility

His early years seem to have been an idyllic time, although he thought himself then a "very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy". He spent time outdoors, but also read voraciously, with a particular fondness for the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. He spoke, later in life, of his poignant memories of childhood, and of his near photographic memory of the people and events, which he used to bring his fiction to life. John Dickens's tenuous prosperity as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office afforded a few years of private education of the young Charles at William Giles's School, in Chatham. This period came to an abrupt end after John Dickens had spent beyond his means in entertaining and otherwise maintaining his social position, and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor's prison. Shortly afterwards, the rest of his family joined him in residence at the Marshalsea (on the south bank of the Thames in London), except Charles, who boarded in Camden Town at the house of family friend Elizabeth Roylance. Sundays became a treat, when with his sister Fanny, allowed out from the Royal Academy of Music, he spent the day at the Marshalsea. (Dickens later used the prison as a setting in Little Doritt.)

Just before his father's arrest, 12-year-old Dickens had begun working ten-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, on Hungerford Stairs, near the present Charing Cross railway station. He earned six shillings a week pasting labels on jars of shoe polish. This money paid for his lodgings with Mrs. Roylance and helped support his family. Mrs. Roylance, Dickens later wrote, was "a reduced old lady, long known to our family", and whom he eventually immortalized, "with a few alterations and embellishments", as "Mrs. Pipchin", in Dombey & Son. Later, lodgings were found for him in a "back-attic...at the house of an insolvent-court agent, who lived in Lant Street in The Borough...he was a fat, good-natured, kind old gentleman, with a quiet old wife; and he had a very innocent grown-up son; these three were the inspiration for the Garland family in The Old Curiosity Shop. The mostly unregulated, strenuous and often cruel work conditions of the factory employees (especially children) made a deep impression on Dickens. His experiences served to influence later fiction and essays, and were the foundation of his interest in the reform of socio-economic and labour conditions, the rigours of which he believed were unfairly borne by the poor.

After only a few months in Marshalsea, John Dickens was informed of the death of his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Dickens, who had left him in her will the sum of 450. On the expectation of this legacy, Dickens petitioned for, and was granted, release from prison. Under the Insolvent Debtors Act, Dickens arranged for payment of his creditors, and he and his family left Marshalsea for the home of Mrs. Roylance.