The novels Charles Dickens wrote in the 1850s, with their capacious social canvases and their voice of social reform, seem to invite readings of their political message. No less so does the career of Dickens himself in that energetic decade, when one nonconformist preacher claimed, “There have been at work among us three great social agencies: the London City Mission; the novels of Mr. Dickens; the cholera.” Dickens’s wide-ranging undertakings in both speeches and the pages of the journal Household Words, which he founded in 1850 (undertakings which included his earnest discussions of sanitation reform, prostitution, and the need for protection of authors and their copyright) made him a powerful public figure. However, recent accounts have stressed that his private life was lived almost as obsessively in the public eye: the growing discontent with his ever-increasing family; his painful encounter with his former sweetheart, Maria Beadnell, now a nervous and foolish middle-aged woman; the meeting with the young actress, Ellen Ternan; and the decision to separate from his wife Catherine, which he announced in the pages of Household Words. In all this flurry of social and erotic activity, it has been hard to focus on the real and complicated achievements of the novels of this decade, when Dickens was to command his greatest sales and to reach a wider sphere of commitment in all of his literary endeavors.
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