The misunderstood and diminished Charles Dickens gets the Know who you’re Googling treatment – take it away, Loretta Barnard…
Who said, “Please sir, I want some more”? Yep – starving little Oliver Twist, who had no end of trouble when he asked for more gruel. Gruel! That’s how hungry the poor kid was. What a novel. What a statement about social injustice. What a picture of the squalor of London.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) devised marvellous intricate plots and filled his stories with vibrant memorable characters, some of the most memorable in English literature.
Consider these three just to get the ball rolling.
Since being jilted by the man who also ripped her off, Miss Havisham has never taken off her wedding dress, now yellowed, tatty and no doubt a bit stinky. The putrescent wedding feast remains on the table untouched, save by mice and microorganisms. If ever there was a portrait of bitterness seeping from every pore, Miss Havisham is it.
Fagin offers destitute children (Oliver Twist among them) a place to live, but grooms them into pickpockets and petty crims. If a child is caught and hanged, Fagin quickly procures another child to take their place. He is completely repulsive, yet he’s far from being a one-dimensional character. His dismay at his own imprisonment is one of the great scenes from literature.
Having spent most of his life as a miserly grumblebum, Ebenezer Scrooge has three ghostly visitations on Christmas Eve and finally realises that being kind and loving are really quite effective ways of making friends and finding happiness. Dickens did a good villain, that’s for sure, and one who turns his life around – well, it’s gold really, isn’t it.
Charles Dickens was enormously popular during his lifetime and is often called the first modern celebrity. Photographs show a prosperous, successful author at the height of his powers, but it wasn’t always so.
Dickens was one of eight children from a poor family. At the age of 12, he left school to work long hours in a factory when his father was tossed into prison for outstanding debts. Mr Dickens Senior was the model for Mr Micawber, the loveable but feckless optimist who befriends David Copperfield.
The pittance Dickens earned from the factory helped support his family, and the experience shaped his attitude towards children and the adults who should have cared for them (just think the aforementioned Oliver Twist).
His 15 novels were published over long periods – as instalments in monthly publications. Serialisation meant he could reach larger audiences, particularly those who couldn’t afford to buy printed novels. He could leave readers hanging at the end of each instalment. A soap opera in print, no less.
As well, this method of publishing meant he could gauge readers’ reactions and if necessary make plot changes along the way. When sales of The Pickwick Papers were languishing, Dickens introduced a new character, the quick-witted Cockney Sam Weller, and sales steadily shot up. Weller became another much loved character.
Dickens had a remarkable facility for characters and what made them memorable. It’s hard to go past Sydney Carton and his redemptive sacrifice; Uriah Heep’s fawning malice; the uppitiness of Lady Dedlock; the drunken incompetent midwife Sairey Gamp; the self-serving hypocritical SethPecksniff.
Then there are the names. Just fabulous names. The Artful Dodger, Mr Wopsie, Noddy Boffin, Edwin Drood, Wackford Squeers, Jeremiah Flintwinch, Mr Pumblechook, Augustus Snodgrass. The list is long.
His private life was pretty fascinating. He had ten children with his wife Catherine Hogarth, but left her at 45 to pursue an affair with the actress Ellen Ternan, 27 years his junior.
But it’s his books we love him for. Bleak House, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Dombey and Son. His works have never been out of print. And there’s no humbug in that.