Charles Dickens and informal education

Charles Dickens - believed to be in the public domain and sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens and informal education. Already the most famous English novelist when Victoria came to the throne, he continued to chronicle his age and became an important facilitator of self-education.

Charles Dickens (1812-70).  Critical success came to Dickens quite early in life. The Pickwick Papers was published in 20 monthly installments beginning in 1836; Oliver Twist appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837-38; and Nicolas Nickleby came out in monthly parts in 1838-39. Books continued to appear at regular intervals up to 1864-5 (Our Mutual Friend). The accounts of daily life, the larger than life characters, the scale of his endeavours and his concern to ‘encompass everything, to comprehend everything, to control everything’ (Ackroyd 1994: 576) mark him out as a man of his age. But as Ackroyd (1994: 575) notes, anyone who met him in the 1850s and 1860s ‘would have known that his temperament and vision came from an epoch that had already disappeared’. Ackroyd continues: ‘in his capacity for excitement and exhilaration, in his radicalism, and in his earnest desire for social reform’ he could be described as an early Victorian, or perhaps more accurately a pre-Victorian.

Dickens is of particular significance to informal educators as an exemplar of a writer that is concerned with popular education or what Hole described as social education – the educative power of newspapers, novels and various forms of entertainment. Here I want to highlight three aspects.

First, there is the obvious impact of his novels. He provided his contemporaries with vivid accounts of daily life – particularly of those living in poverty. However, whether these contributed significantly to the cause of social reform, or were simply an expression of a particular mood, is a matter of some debate. What cannot be disputed is the extent to which his writing contributed toward a more general desire to read. The publishing of his novels in monthly parts, while often punishing on the writer, were part of an opening up of a mass market (later to be exploited by cheap editions). They sold in tens of thousands. To this we have to add the popularity and impact of his public readings of the novels.

Second, there are Dicken’s efforts to facilitate self-education through the publishing of the publishing of a weekly journal Household Words (1850-59) and All Year Round (1859-70). As Harrison (1961: 27) has commented:

Almost without exception the autobiographies and reminiscences of working men refer to the serious lack of suitable reading matter which they encountered during the first thirty-five years of the nineteenth century. This lack was of a twofold nature: in the first place there was an absence of cheap editions of standard works which have put them within the reach of working men; and secondly, there was a dearth of special literature designed for popular use.

Into this vacuum came the ‘popular periodical’. The first in 1832 was Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal – a weekly eight page sheet that sold for 1½p. It was closely followed by The Penny Magazine edited by Charles Knight for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Harrison (1961: 28) describes the former thus: ‘Each number of the Journal commenced with an editorial essay on some innocuous but elevating topic; then came “instructive” articles on popular science, natural history, literary topics, biographical sketches and historical anecdotes; a short story supplied the essential ingredient of fiction; and the interstices which remained were crammed with verses, odd snippets of fact, and marvels from different parts of the world’. These journals were very successful (The Penny Magazine sold up to 200,000 copies) and were quickly imitated. Early in his career (1836) Dickens edited and contributed to one such – Bentley’s Miscellany, later he was to edit The Daily News for a short while (it was not a commercial success). In the first editorial he wrote:

The principles advocated… will be principles of progress and improvement; of education, civil and religious liberty, and equal legislation. Principles, such as its conductors believe the advancing spirit of the time requires: the condition of the country demands: and justice, reason and experience legitimately sanction. (21 January 1846)

In 1850 he set up, and edited with the assistance of W. H. Wills (who had worked on Chambers’ Journal) Household Words. This was to be ‘a weekly miscellany of general literature’. Within a year the 24 page journal was selling 39,000 copies a week (and it settled at this). Other journals were selling upwards of 100,000 – but this circulation was enough to return a healthy profit). Household Words contained articles on science, history and politics as well as short stories and humerous pieces. Hard Times (1854) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) were also serialized. He wound the journal up in 1859 after a dispute with the publishers. In its place he established All the Year Round – which he edited until his death. In many ways similar to its predecessor (same size and appearance, same mix of articles, same price: 2d), All the Year Round would always carry the serialization of at least one novel. Indeed, they became the main feature of the journal. Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1860-61) appeared there first, as did Wilkie Collins novels The Women in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

Third, we need to note his campaigning activities around education. His harrowing accounts of schooling in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9) and Hard Times (1854);his encounters with ragged schooling (one visit to Field Lane School, Saffron Hill resulted in A Christmas Carol 1843); and his public speaking, for example, in the cause of adult educational reform are examples of this.


Ackroyd, P. (1994) Dickens, London: Mandarin

Glinert, E. (2000) A Literary Guide to London, London: Penguin

Harrison, J. F. C. (1961) Learning and Living 1790-1960. A study in the history of the English adult education movement, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Charles Dickens and Victorian Education: useful article by Leon Litvack

Educators and Education in Our Mutual Friend: article by Kate Carnell Watt

Acknowledgement: The picture of Charles Dickens – believed to be in the public domain and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

© Mark K. Smith 2000

Last Updated on July 9, 2019 by