Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870) was an English novelist and is often considered one of the greatest of the Victorian era. Known for writing a weekly journal for 20 years as well as 15 novels, 5 novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, Dickens enjoyed enormous popularity during his lifetime and was recognised as a literary genius by critics and scholars. His works are still widely enjoyed today.
In addition to his writing, Dickens performed extensive readings, wrote many letters and campaigned for children’s rights, education and other social reforms. His work had an impact on the social climate of the age, and even today in popular culture, the term ‘Dickensian‘ popularly refers to something reminiscent of Dickens such as comically vile characters or poor working conditions.
Here’s a brief summary of Charles Dickens’ books in order, including all of his novels and a few noted novellas, in order of publication.
The Pickwick Papers – 1836
The Pickwick Papers, also known as The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, was Charles Dickens’ first novel, and is largely regarded as one of the major classics of comic writing of the age. It was published in 19 issues over 20 months, and turned a serious subject – the state of modern Britain – into a sprightly comedy. The Pickwick Papers made serialised fiction and cliff-hanger endings very popular.
Oliver Twist – 1837
Arguably Dickens’ most famous novel, Oliver Twist was originally known as The Parish Boy’s Progress. It was published in monthly instalments from 1837-1839. An early example of a social novel, Dickens satirises domestic violence, child labour, children being recruited as criminals and working-class living conditions.
Oliver Twist is also famous for its characters the Artful Dodger, Bill Sykes, Nancy and Fagin, the latter of whom was named after Bob Fagin, a fellow employee that a young Charles Dickens met when he worked at a blacking (shoe polish) factory.
Nicholas Nickleby – 1838
Published between 1838 and 1839, Nicholas Nickleby centres on the life of the eponymous protagonist as he must support his mother and sister after his father dies. The novel examines capitalism, child labour and education. The character of Mrs. Nickleby, who is portrayed as always confused, was based upon Dickens’ own mother. Luckily, she didn’t recognise herself in the character, and even asked someone if they “really believed there was ever such a woman”.
The Old Curiosity Shop – 1840
Published in instalments between 1840 and 1841 in the periodical Master Humphrey’s Clock, which Dickens was a regular contributor to, The Old Curiosity Shop follows the life of Nell Trent and her grandfather who both live at The Old Curiosity Shop in London. Dickens found it profoundly difficult to write, finding the death of Little Nell as intensely upsetting as if it were his own child.
The fourth of Charles Dickens’ books in order was hugely popular, and New York readers stormed the wharf when the ship carrying the final instalment arrived in 1841. Queen Victoria read the novel and remarked that it was “very interesting and cleverly written”.
Barnaby Rudge – 1841
Like The Old Curiosity Shop, the historical novel Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (more commonly known as Barnaby Rudge) was published in Master Humphrey’s Clock in 1841. Set during the Gordon Riots of 1780 during many days of anti-Catholic unrest in London, it was originally meant to be Dickens’ first novel, but was hampered by delays. It was one of Dickens’ less popular novels and is seldom dramatised for film or television.
Martin Chuzzlewit – 1843
Published in instalments between 1843 and 1844, Martin Chuzzlewit was written by Dickens after he travelled to America in 1842, and found that it left a poor impression upon him. Some of the main themes of the novel include selfishness and greed, which Dickens highlights through the Chuzzlewit family.
While he was writing, Dickens told a friend that he thought it was his most accomplished work yet; however, it sold relatively few copies. In later years, Dickens acknowledged that his negative portrayal of America wasn’t entirely accurate, and had been purposely exaggerated as a satirical device.
A Christmas Carol – Novella – 1843
One of Dickens’ most famous works, the novella A Christmas Carol recounts the story of elderly miser Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley as well as the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. A novella that explores changing Christmas traditions and themes of kindness and generosity, it was published on 19 December 1843 and sold out by Christmas Eve. A smash hit, Dickens undertook around 130 public readings of the novella from 1849 until his death.
The Chimes – Novella – 1844
The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In, more commonly known as The Chimes, is a novella that was published a year after A Christmas Carol and was the second in Dickens’ series of ‘Christmas books’, five novellas which contained strong moral and social messages. Written during a year-long visit to Italy, the novel was well-received and notable for its philanthropic attitude towards the poor.
The Cricket on the Hearth – Novella – 1845
The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home (more commonly known as The Cricket on the Hearth) is a novella that was also one of Dickens’ Christmas books. Unlike the others, it didn’t pursue a strong social or moral message, instead favouring a tale of gentle and almost fairytale domesticity. Though it was criticised by some for being overly sentimental and not engaging with the social issues of the age, others enjoyed that it promoted a traditional Victorian family ideal.
Dombey and Son – 1846
Published in instalments between 1846 and 1848, Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation (more commonly known as Dombey and Son) follows the fortunes of a shipping firm owner who is frustrated at the lack of a son to inherit his business. The shipping firm owner initially rejects his daughter’s love before reconciling with her before his death. The story features many Dickensian themes such as child cruelty, arranged marriage, betrayal, deceit and inter-social class relations.
The Haunted Man – Novella – 1848
The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, A Fancy for Christmas-Time (more commonly known as The Haunted Man) is the fifth and final of Dickens’ Christmas novellas. Centering around the spirit of Christmas rather than the holiday itself, The Haunted Man centres on Professor Redlaw as he is visited by a spectre, and dwells upon past mistakes and regrets, ultimately leading the reader to realise that having a troubled past is better than having no past at all.
David Copperfield – 1849
Dickens’ eighth novel The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account), more commonly known as David Copperfield, was first published as a serial between 1849 and 1850. An autobiographical novel, it was famously Dickens’ favourite of his works and, in the preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens wrote, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.”
Bleak House – 1852
Another of Dickens’ more iconic works, Bleak House was published in instalments from 1852-1853. The novel, which is partly told by the heroine Esther Summerson and partly by an omniscient narrator, follows a long-running legal case that comes about after a deceased character has written several conflicting wills. It is also perhaps the only work of classic literature to feature a character who dies by spontaneous combustion. It has consistently been ranked amongst the best novels ever written.
Hard Times – 1854
Hard Times first appeared in Dickens’ weekly periodical, Household Words, and was published in instalments in 1854. The novel, which takes an unsympathetic look at utilitarianism, examines English society and its social and economic conditions. By far the shortest of Dickens’ novels – it is barely a quarter of the length of some of the others – it also has no preface, illustrations or any scenes set in London. The novel was noted by ordinary readers and critics alike as being radically different from most of Dickens’ work.
Little Dorrit – 1855
Published in instalments between 1855 and 1857, Little Dorrit follows the young Amy Dorrit, who was born and raised in Marshalsea prison for debtors in London. Though it was little known at the time, Dickens’ own father was in Marshalsea prison for three months when Dickens was young. The novel critiques government and society and the institution of debtors’ prisons, in which people who were unable to work were incarcerated, yet could only be freed by paying their debts. Famed composer Tchaikovsky was said to have been entranced by the book.
A Tale of Two Cities – 1859
A Tale of Two Cities, which was published in instalments over the course of 1859, is set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It tells the story of the French doctor Manette and his 18-year-long imprisonment in Paris’ Bastille and his eventual release and move to London. The story, which has been labelled both a historical and an adventure novel, explores the conditions which led up to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. It is claimed that the novel is one of the best-selling novels of all time.
Great Expectations – 1860
Great Expectations, published in All the Year Round between 1860 and 1861, features one of Dickens’ most famous characters, the wedding-dress-wearing eccentric, Miss Havisham. The novel follows the fortunes of Pip, who begins as a lowly child and grows in wealth and stature throughout the novel.
However, by the end, he realises that there is more to life than wealth and social status. The novel famously features a sequence where Miss Havisham burns to death. The novel was received with universal acclaim when it was first published, and it is still regularly cited as one of the greatest works of literature in history.
Our Mutual Friend – 1864
The last novel Dickens completed before his death, Our Mutual Friend is regarded as one of Dickens’ most sophisticated works, combining biting satire with social analysis. The novel examines the dirt, debris and scrapheaps of Victorian London, and by contrast, the superficiality of the upper classes and their homes. Featuring a number of characters and settings, the novel critiques the damage that materialism creates. Its unusual structure has led critics to suggest that Dickens was experimenting with structure.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood – 1870
Dickens’ fifteenth novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood was only halfway finished when he died. it is the last of Charles Dickens’ books in order. It follows the case of the disappearance of Edwin Drood in the fictional town of Cloisterham, which Dickens based on Rochester. Upon Dickens’ death in 1870, only 6 of a planned 12 instalments had been written, and no detailed plan or solution to the mystery was found. Many later adaptations and continuations of the story have been attempted in the time since.