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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


typical of the novels of Charles Dickens or of 19th-century England as he described it

Origin and usage

The first recorded use of the adjective Dickensian was in 1881, eleven years after the author’s death, when the short story writer Bret Harte was described in the Athenaeum magazine as ‘observing with a Dickensian eye’.


Unlike Shakespearean, the term Dickensian is used mainly to refer not to the author’s works but to the world he described, and in particular the squalor, exploitation and misery that he saw around him in 19th century England. So the most frequent collocates of Dickensian are nouns like squalor, workhouse, orphanage and misery. You can be pretty sure that a Dickensian childhood was not filled with joy and laughter. Another frequent collocate is sentimentality, a quality for which his writing is often criticized. An exception to the general rule is a Dickensian Christmas, which is one that has the characteristics popularized in part by ‘A Christmas Carol’.


“I wasn’t a Dickensian orphan, if you know what I mean.”
(John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies)

“Zadie Smith is a Dickensian writer because she’s writing about society now, just as Dickens was writing about his society.”
(Sarah Waters)

Related words

Shakespearean, Kafkaesque, Orwellian

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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