A showman who made his own world
BICENTENARY:Charles Dickens died on this day in 1870, burnt out at 58. But his books live on. What makes them endure?
CHARLES DICKENS often recalled that as a boy he went on long walks with his father. It was during these outings that he first noticed Gad’s Hill Place, a grand family home. His father told him that, should he work very hard indeed, he might one day own such a house. Dickens not only worked hard but also wrote with such an obsessive frenzy that he was able to buy the house in 1856.
In the context of literary immortality, Dickens stands second only to Shakespeare. His novels have complicated plots, sentimentality, melodrama and comic flourishes, and are populated by some of the most vivid characters ever created. To read a Dickens novel is to live it.
This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth, and June 9th was the date in 1870 when he died suddenly, felled by a stroke at 58. Obsessive and restless by temperament, he was a force of nature, as generous as he was domineering. Hardly surprisingly, he attracts biographers eager for a larger-than-life subject. Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1992) consists of more than 1,000 pages of fact, fiction, insight and affection.
Everyone with an interest in Dickens knows about his childhood experiences in a blacking factory, an ordeal brought about by his father’s stay in a debtors’ prison. The young Dickens lost out on the education he might have expected, yet he went on to prove himself as a talented court reporter, his eye for detail being matched by his speed.
His early life would surface throughout his fiction. Commentators and critics invariably point to his sense of social justice; he attacked the system and described the poverty that undercut the London he knew. His anger will continue to be analysed, as will his personal life, particularly his devotion to a dead young sister-in-law and his disregard for his long- suffering wife.
He wrote and lived at high speed, responding to the demands of serialisation. Being the first great literary celebrity cannot have been easy; he had to travel in all weathers and give readings in damp halls. But Dickens was above all a showman and a performer. Whenever he was in company, he simply took over, as his friend and fellow writer Wilkie Collins, some 12 years his junior, could testify.
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), published when he was only 25, is a fine place to start reading Dickens, while the heavily autobiographical David Copperfield (1849-1850) is among the most widely read novels of all time. Bleak House (1852-1853), a mystery with a human tragedy at its heart, all played out against the greedy nonsense of the law, makes inspired use of London and its insidious fog. Always appealing is Great Expectations (1860-1861), which again reflects the trials of the young Dickens through the alter ego of Philip Pirrip (Pip), who learns about love the hard way on encountering the ravaged Miss Havisham and her weapon of revenge against men, Estella.
Recently, Penguin Books launched its handsome English Library series of 100 titles, highlighting the glories of British fiction in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with each volume priced at £5.99. Of course, Dickens dominates: first out of our bag is his 11th novel, the often overlooked Little Dorrit (1855-1857). Just short of 1,000 pages, this is a serious, rather oppressive work. It is a novel about imprisonment, and even begins in a cell. Dickens would admit that it was the book that gave him the most trouble to write. Critically admired and considered to be his most politically outspoken novel, it is rich in symbolism. It has a thoughtfulness and restraint of pace not usually included in his formidable array of qualities.
Also emerging from the bag is an early work, Oliver Twist (1837), featuring Fagin, the Artful Dodger, the evil burglar Bill Sykes and his doomed consort, the heroic Nancy, and, of course, young Oliver, another of the many tested youngsters so favoured by Dickens – and, yes, the edition includes the famous George Cruikshank illustrations.
Also among the first dispatches from the Penguin English Library is Dickens’s only historical novel, the under-researched, mid-career work A Tale of Two Cities (1859), in which history yields to a personal crisis not only of his characters but possibly also of Dickens himself. The book concludes with one of the most famous closing quotes in literature: “It is a far, far better thing that I do . . .”
Dickens broke all the rules, took risks, relied on coincidence, created goody-goodies as well as memorable grotesques, but still it must be conceded that, such is his magic, he manages somehow to stand shoulder to shoulder with his 19th- century Russian literary counterparts. How? There is only one way to understand his overwhelming appeal: read his work and enter a singular universe.