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Charles Dickens Bicentennial

Today, this very day, the 7th of February, we dance joyfully through the streets, celebrating the Dickens Bicentennial: the Inimitable Boz is 200.

On the 7th of February 1812, a few months before Napoleon took the silly step of invading Russia, 20 days before Lord Byron first addressed the House of Lords, Charles John Huffam Dickens was born at 13 Mile End Terrace, Portsea, Portsmouth. If you are not busy dancing in the streets, you can read more on the man at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (for now, at least).


"Dickens' Dream" by Robert William Buss, 1875. (The Charles Dickens Museum)

The picture above was left unfinished upon the painter's death, five years after Dickens himself had died and left The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished. In 1836 Buss had almost gotten the job of illustrating The Pickwick Papers (after the first illustrator shot himself), but he ran into trouble with technology and was passed over in favour of Hablot Knight Browne (more commonly known as "Phiz"). 30-something years later, when Dickens died, Buss started painting this watercolour, which shows Dickens surrounded by the characters he created. These are iconic scenes from the books, showing the characters in their most famous poses.

I could have opened with a picture of Dickens, a photography; a young picture or an old picture, there are enough to choose from. But this painting more than anything, I think, presents Dickens the author, surrounded by the products of his mind, which is of course what celebrating this bicentennial is all about.

Dickens wrote (and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, which made some people despise him, because surely someone with that kind of output, who was earning money, could not possibly write well) journalism, non-fiction, angry letters, friendly letters (really very many letters), short fiction and long fiction.

He completely changed the way fiction was published, and he made a mark on the English language which you should really not scoff at (Ben Zimmer has a blog on the subject here). But central to the enduring appeal of the man are … well, the books.

I charge you, in this year of Dickensian splendour, to pick up one of these books, one you have not read before, and to sit down with it in a soft chair with a cup of tea at your elbow, and read it. You may read more than one (or, if you have already read them all, by all means re-read; or look up the facsimiles of the magazines he edited and wrote for here. But read one.

If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer mass of Dickensiana that will build up around you in the next ten months or so, by all means avoid places like The Guardian's dedicated Dickens page or the Dickens 2012 site. Retreat. To the chair and the tea and the book.

If you have not read Dickens, if you are perhaps avoiding him because you think you know what he is about, pick up a book. Victorian literature has an unfair reputation of being boring, overdone (and perhaps a slightly more fair reputation of occasional sentimentality). On the whole, Dickens is funny, colourful, political and delightful. And not, not ever, always the same.

My aim here is to point you in the various directions.

Sketches by "Boz," Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People (1833-36)
"Boz" was Dickens' early pen-name, and this collection of short literary sketches of (primarily) life in the city does what it says on the tin. It is a combination of fiction and non-fiction, runs from a Christmas Dinner to a hanging at Newgate and has no semblance of overarching plot. This is where Dickens the writer is closest to Dickens the journalist.

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37)
Opening as a satire on "scientific" societies, this is the book which truly, really put Dickens on the map. It was published in monthly parts, and while the original plan was for him to merely furnish short texts to accompany drawings, Dickens' text took over and became a publishing phenomenon. It is what people thought of as most properly "Dickensian" well into the later parts of the century (or even beyond, in some special cases). The plot is light, mainly structured around comic episodes and characters. This is where you will find Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller (the originator of "wellerisms").

Oliver Twist or the Parish Boy's Progress (1837-39)
Perhaps the most famous of Dickens' books. It starts out in satire and ends in sentimental melodrama. Nobody would call it tightly plotted, as the plot arrives on the scene somewhere in the middle of the work. That said, it is an icon in itself and well worth a read. Oliver (who says "Please, sir, I want some more", not "may I have some more"), Fagin, Bill Sikes and Nancy are among Dickens' most famous creations, but if you start this book, you must promise to stick with it till the end and not reject it out of hand because it is so clearly a work in progress. Contains heavy satire of dreadful conditions. But is should not be the only Dickens novel you read in your life.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39)
Rather similar to Oliver Twist in some ways (partially written alongside it). It contains the same mix of satire and melodrama (a staple of Dickens' writing throughout his career), but it is perhaps slightly better balanced. Quite episodic, but with moments of glory. Smike, the evil Squeers and the good Cheeryble brothers in a story where (unsurprisingly) the good end happily and the bad unhappily -- that is what fiction means. Any attempt at summary is defeated, not so much by episodes as by variety of characters. There is an evil uncle, menaced innocence and a strange troup of actors, among other things.

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41)
If you want a sentimental fix, this is the one. Or a giggle, if like Oscar Wilde, you find that "one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing". Apocryphal stories has Americans shouting from the pier to British ships to find out whether Little Nell still lived. She didn't. Sorry. Can you spoil a classic? I am sure her death is the only thing about this story which is still part of the cultural background noise, although the creepy Quilp deserves some attention, and the gambling addict grandfather seems very topical.

Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (1841)
This is Dickens' first historical novel. It is set during the Gordon Riots, but also contains a mystery (which Poe claimed to have solved after the second instalment -- you could always try to replicate the feat) or three. It focuses not on the major political developments, but on the tangential people swept up in events. It is frequently ignored, and you can baffle uppity intellectuals at parties by referring to it.

A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being A Ghost Story of Christmas. (1843)
Like Oliver Twist, it is one of those books you will know without having read it. There are so many adaptations, it is hard to even get at the book itself. It is the first of four Christmas books, the others being The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (1844) (which like the Carol tells a story of redemption which may or may not be due to supernatural intervention), The Cricket on the Hearth. A Fairy Tale of Home (1845) (which, even in the face of The Old Curiosity Shop I would not hesitate to declare Dickens' most sentimental work), The Battle of Life: A Love Story (1846) (the only Christmas book with nothing supernatural about it), and finally The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, A Fancy for Christmas-Time (1848) (which displays a strangely psychological understanding of how the mind works). These books are the only ones among Dickens' longer texts to be published originally in one piece. And the Carol, especially, is very tighly constructed. Read it around Christmas.

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44)
Dickens went to America and came back again. He was not terribly impressed (in part because they wanted his books for free, in part because they kept slaves). And so he wrote another book, episodic and character-based, set to a great extent in America. Americans were not amused. This is where you will find the great Mr Pecksniff and Mrs Gamp. It is not Dickens' most read work, and can in that respect serve somewhat the same purpose as Barnaby Rudge. Or simply entertain and educate on the horrors of America and the evils of hypocrisy.

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation (1846-48)
Here Dickens started plotting and planning. It is the first of more coherent, less episodic books. When Paul Dombey dies (yes, Dickens' good children always die -- this is not a spoiler, you will see it coming), Thackeray is supposed to have declared “There’s no writing against such power as this -- one has no chance!”. It also contains railways. And a woman at the centre.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (1849-50)
This is another of Dickens' iconic books, often touted as autobiographical (a dangerous claim, lodged in minor pieces of the text (an abandoned child in a factory, in particular; and a father figure in a debt prison; and the central character's turning out an author. It is a lovely read, with some lovely characters (I claim Betsy Trotwood as my own for ever and always); and it contains one of the most convincing sketches of a sadist I have encountered, as well as perhaps Dickens' most revolting character in the guise of Uriah Heep. Ick. That said, I am sure Agnes has a sinister secret life which we are never privy to, because the alternative is very dull.

Bleak House (1852-53)
This book I love (this had to get personal). If you study law you are not allowed to not read it. It is not bleak (occasionally dark, yes). It is an impressive structure of plot and imagery, with two narrators (one of which may appear a little insipid, but there may be more to her than meets the eye), three opening chapters and one spontaneous human combustion. It is also sometimes considered the first proper English detective novel. But with a hundred subplots and a wonderful variety of characters.

Hard Times -- For These Times (1854)
This is the shortest of the lot (if that is a consideration, and with the exception of the Christmas books), but perhaps not the easiest read. It is a bit of an aberration in Dickens' authorship. It is not set in London, it had no illustrations, and is divided into sections of "sowing", "reaping" and "garnering". It is a fairly focused attack on those who reject the immagination in favour of cold facts and statistics. But at the same time it seems like a departure from the normal exuberance of Dickens' imagination.

Little Dorrit (1855-57)
Another favourite of mine, centering on the strange institution of the debtor's prison. Again, this is not a depressing book. Any summary will make it sound like one, because a summary consists in taking out all the stuff that makes Dickens fun to read. It is also a highly topical book on financial speculation which should be salutary in these crises-ridden times, methinks. But fun to read. With another hundred subplots (I hasten to stress that this is a good thing).

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Here you will find the most famous opening lines in all of English literature, I think: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". Yet another favourite, but for very different reasons. This is Dickens' second historical novel (although it must be stressed that Dickens' historical novels are not like those of Dumas). It is set in the French revolution, which is being knitted by a woman. This book is all about doublings and mirrorings, and it is perhaps the easiest read among all of Dickens' books (except the Christmas books). It is focused with few departures from the main plot, and is neatly tied up.

Great Expectations (1860-61)
A book everyone has heard of and few have read, I think. Most will recognise the figure of Miss Havisham, growing old in her wedding dress, but that is about it. To some extent this seems like a return to the earlier books which follow a protagonist from childhood towards formation, but it is more closely structured than they were. It was originally written with a sad ending (which can still be found in some editions), but Dickens was convinced by Bulwer Lytton (whose books nobody reads now, but who was quite big at the time) that nobody would buy a sad book.

Our Mutual Friend (1864–65)
Another of those big, subplot-rich books that span all levels of society. And another of my favourites. Big does not mean boring. There is murder and mystery and glorious hypocrisy, and a great big apology to Jews everywhere for the preposterous Fagin. And there is love, and there is a will. And there is insane jealousy and some of Dickens' most shaded and psychologically interesting characters. Among the men. The women, don't talk to me about the women. I have decided Dickens was parodying something in Bella Wilfer and Lizzie Hexam.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)
Here is mystery. Dickens left this book unfinished when he died, and it is consequently one of those books rarely approached by people who have not already read quite a lot of Dickens. Nobody knows how it would end (not for sure), and I won't prejudice your reading of it. If you do read it, tell me what you think is going on.

It matters which Dickens book you read. They are not all the same, and forming an idea of the rest of the books based on one alone is a dangerous thing to do.

If you are anything like me, you will balk at the extreme attention which will be lavished on Dickens today and over the next year or so. It is only February, and there has already been so much coverage that op-ed pieces about how there has been too much coverage are themselves becoming trite and repetitive. I choose, therefore, to embrace it. Dickens, for me, is all about overwhelming heterogeneity and insane overabundance, of rejecting statistics and anything that might reduce the particular to only one of the many. If we can just keep the mass of commentary from being all the same (save me from all superficial and slightly erroneous paeans spiced with Wikipedia), then I think I may have a chance of surviving the year.

Now, go read.
Tor, Hanna Maja likes this

Comments

Camilla,  07.02.12 12:54

If you want to, you can read all of Dickens' novels in instalments at Dickens Daily (one instalment a day), or you can read the novels published in magazines (like A Tale of Two Cities) in searchable facsimiles of the original magazines (Household Words and All the Year Round) at Dickens Journals Online.

You can also find some resources on Dickens at the British Library, analyse his texts with the OED interactive text analyser, or attend one of the myriad Dickens-events that you can find at the Dickens 2012 site.

And then there is today's word of the day from the OED: Pecksniff.

So

Tor,  07.02.12 22:58

Having just celebrated Dickens' birthday with a nice dinner, I feel more like going to sleep than reading. But during the year, I'll try to read a couple of these. So far, I've only read A Christmas Carol and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so I guess I can't claim to be a hardened Dickensian. At least I'm certainly not comfortable calling him "Boz".

I think I'll start with Barnaby Rudge, as I like the idea of baffling uppity intellectuals.

Just askin' &c.