In February Dickens will turn 200. A tidal wave of celebrations approaches. But the fuss is justified—he is second only to Shakespeare in our literary heritageby David Lodge / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
Celebration of the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth, which will fall on 7th February 2012, began prematurely this autumn with the publication and associated media coverage of new biographies by Claire Tomalin, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Dickens’s great-great-great granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley. The Guardian started the ball rolling with an extract from Tomalin’s book and a clutch of well-known writers choosing their favourite Dickens novels, and next day the Observer gave its readers a free wallchart of his characters and invited them to download a “Dickens walk podcast through London’s Clerkenwell.” This was only a foretaste of what awaits us. A perfect storm of Dickens-related events, publications, exhibitions, conferences, films, television programmes and theatrical performances is gathering on the horizon and is due to break in the new year. There is a danger that we will all be suffering from Dickens fatigue by the end of it.
The Museum of London will put on a special exhibition about Dickens’s links with the capital. “Recreating the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projections, you’ll be taken on a haunting journey to discover the city that inspired his writings,” it promises ungrammatically. The Charles Dickens Museum in Holborn, refurbished for the bicentenary, will host screenings, workshops, and a Dickens reading group throughout 2012. There will be a Dickensian Christmas market in Rochester, the town where he spent the happiest years of his childhood, and a statue of him will be unveiled in his birthplace, Portsmouth, in August. There will be a conference in Canterbury, New Zealand, as well as in Canterbury, Kent. The Château D’Hardelot in the Pas-de-Calais, a region visited by Dickens on many occasions, will mount an exhibition, as will the Museum Strauhof in Zurich.
Dickens will be colonising TV and cinema screens too. The British Film Institute is mounting “the biggest programme ever” of film and television versions of his works, while the BBC is planning an orgy of new adaptations, including two of Great Expectations—a TV serial and a film—and one of Edwin Drood. The Beeb is also co-producing a film based on The Invisible Woman, Claire Tomalin’s 1990 book about Dickens’s relationship with Ellen Ternan, the young actress who he claimed was his protégée but was probably his mistress. Miriam Margolyes will perform her one-woman stage show, Dickens’s Women, and Simon Callow, well known for his recreation of Dickens’s readings from his works, will publish Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World to coincide with the bicentenary.
Is all this fuss justified? Does Charles Dickens deserve to have his 200th birthday celebrated on such a scale? Is he really, as is routinely stated, second only to Shakespeare in the pantheon of great English writers? The answer to the first two questions is “Yes,” and to the third, “Who else?”
There will always be dissenters, people who “can’t stand” Dickens, but it is fair to say that his status has never been higher since his death than it is now, and that it is more secure than it was during his own lifetime. Milton was traditionally ranked second to Shakespeare in our literary heritage, but the decline of both Christian faith and the habit of reading poetry has now virtually confined his audience to those who study him for professional or educational reasons. There are several great English novelists, but only Dickens inhabits our collective consciousness from highbrow to lowbrow as Shakespeare does. His influence is indelibly inscribed in the English language, “Dickensian” being one of the few adjectives formed from a writer’s name commonly applied not just to his own work, but to the world at large. The Collins English Dictionary gives two examples: “working conditions were truly Dickensian” and “a Dickensian scene around the Christmas tree,” the second of which reminds us that, through A Christmas Carol and other writings, Dickens was largely responsible for the secular cult of Christmas in English-speaking countries as an occasion for lavish feasting, fun and family reunions.
More importantly, his characters and their sayings, sufferings and escapades are imprinted on popular culture, and known to people who have never read a word of his stories, but encountered them through other media: plays, musicals, films and television. Oliver Twist asking for more is as familiar as Hamlet asking, “To be or not to be?” Mr Micawber’s maxim, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery,” is proverbial, as is the loophole he invokes when guilty of ignoring it: “Something will turn up.”
At the other end of the cultural spectrum, among writers and literary critics, the greatness of Dickens’s achievement is universally acknowledged. It was not always so, and it is useful to trace briefly the ups and downs of his reputation to understand why it seems impregnable today. Fame came to him early. He was merely a promising young journalist, aged 24, writing sketches of London life under the name of “Boz,” when he was hired to supply copy to fill a monthly magazine of sporting prints by Robert Seymour, a well-known artist. The adventures of the Pickwick Club which he devised for this purpose proved so popular that they eclipsed Seymour’s engravings, and the unfortunate artist, who was a depressive, killed himself. Dickens continued The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club with another illustrator (“Phiz”), and achieved a sensational success. Only 400 copies of the first issue had been printed, but sales eventually rose to 40,000. The whole country was delirious with enthusiasm for Pickwick and its author, who published subsequent novels under his own name. The Pickwick Papers was hardly a novel, but a sequence of loosely connected episodes, and what enraptured its audience was its humour, its profusion of memorable characters, and Dickens’s wonderful way with vernacular speech—for instance the droll Cockney wit of Sam Weller (“Hope our acquaintance may be a long ‘un, as the gen’l’m’n said to the fi’ pun’ note”) and his father (“Poetry’s unnatural; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’ day”), or the staccato discourse of the rogue Jingle: “‘Heads, heads—Take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place—dangerous work—other day—five children—mother—tall lady, eating sandwiches—forgot the arch—crash—knock—children look round—mother’s head off—sandwich in her hand—no mouth to put it in—head of a family off—shocking, shocking!”
Dickens invested the casual speech of ordinary people with a hilarious eloquence—the landlady Mrs Todgers in Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance, on her lodgers’ insatiable appetite for gravy (“There is no such passion in human nature as the passion for gravy among commercial gentlemen”), or Mrs Gamp, the bibulous nurse in the same novel, who expresses her wishes by recalling conversations with a fictitious friend called Mrs Harris (“‘Mrs Harris,’ I says, ‘leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don’t ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged.’”) There was nothing like this in English fiction before Dickens. His contribution to what Mikhail Bakhtin called the “polyphony” of novelistic prose, its rich mixture of different registers and voices, is the foundation of his greatness. Not everyone approved—a letter published in the literary magazine the Athenaeum in 1860 seriously suggested that “an edition of Dickens novels should be brought out in classical English… the language of the lower orders ought never to appear in print”—but the early Dickens was enjoyed and admired by readers of all classes, his popularity reaching its peak with the publication of David Copperfield, which made him the most famous living writer in the English-speaking world.
A division of opinion began to emerge as Dickens matured as a novelist, when his view of Victorian society became more critical and his comedy darker in books like Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Hard Times. We see these novels today—certainly the first two—as among his best, but ordinary readers missed the comic exuberance and reassuring happy endings of the earlier novels, while the literati were increasingly out of sympathy with his artistic method—especially what a writer in the Contemporary Review called the “grotesque impossibilities” of his plotting and characterisation. The general tendency of prose fiction in the 19th century was towards greater and greater realism, depicting social life in the context of real history (eg the Reform Bill of 1832 as the background to George Eliot’s Middlemarch) and representing experience through the consciousness of the chief characters, a process which would lead eventually to the muting or silencing of the intrusive authorial voice.
The art of Dickens was increasingly out of sync with these tendencies. He was never a realist—the names of his characters tell you that: Cheeryble, Chuzzlewit, Pecksniff, Snagsby, Squeers, Swiveller, Skimpole, Tulkinghorn… Though he dealt with topical social issues it was always in a chronologically hazy context (Little Dorrit contains an implied critique of the civil service in the 1850s but features the Marshalsea prison, which belongs to the 1830s). And his method of representing consciousness was essentially theatrical and poetic: the characters act out their natures in behaviour and speech which is often highly idiosyncratic, while the authorial voice fixes their identities with bold rhetorical tropes and provides an oratorical commentary on the action (for instance, on the death of Jo the crossing-sweeper in Bleak House: “Dead! Dead, Your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.”) Victorians who claimed refined literary taste tended to prefer the more nuanced, gentlemanly style of Dickens’s great rival, Thackeray (whose bicentenary passed this year almost without notice).
For the majority of the British reading public Dickens was still “the Inimitable,” and as if to insulate himself from the pricks and goads of his critics in his later years he turned to giving public readings of his work, thrilling huge audiences—up to 2,000 at a time, without benefit of amplification—all over the country. He got from these occasions a reassurance that he was admired and loved, but the strain of these performances contributed to his death from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 58. The event was treated as the passing of a great writer, not only in Britain but in America. “I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning,” wrote the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Dickens continued to be widely read after his death—4m copies of his books were sold in the following 12 years—and in the early 20th century some writers, notably HG Wells in books like Kipps and Tono-Bungay, kept alive the Dickensian tradition of comic-satiric novels about the state of England. But it was not one that appealed to the novelists of high modernism, as they delved deeper and deeper into subjective consciousness and the unconscious. Virginia Woolf declared she would not cross the street to meet Dickens because of his “masculine self-assurance” and (curiously) his lack of “the foibles and eccentricities and charms of genius.”
The first world war provoked a revulsion in the younger generation against the Victorian attitudes and values of their elders who had led the nation into a futile and bloody waste of lives. Dickens’s cultural status suffered in the postwar period along with that of other eminent Victorians. It is symptomatic that Evelyn Waugh’s father, who was president of the Dickens Society, insisted on reading Dickens aloud to his two sons when they were boys, and that the younger one later wrote a novel, A Handful of Dust (1934), in which the luckless hero is trapped by a mad illiterate in the South American jungle and condemned to read the works of Dickens aloud to his host at gunpoint until the day he dies. It was the worst fate Evelyn could imagine.
The first half of the 20th century was notable for developments in literary criticism, but not much of this activity was devoted to Dickens. An effort to present him as a proto-Marxist because of his compassion for the poor was squashed by George Orwell, who demonstrated that Dickens had no coherent political or ideological point of view in a long essay of 1939 which, though not unappreciative of Dickens’s merits, emphasised his limitations. FR Leavis, the leader of the most influential school of academic criticism in Britain and the Commonwealth, excluded Dickens from the “Great Tradition” of the English novel in his 1948 book of that title, on the grounds that “his genius was that of a great entertainer, and he had for the most part no profounder responsibility as a creative artist than this description suggests,” exempting only the untypical Hard Times from this judgment. Leavis admitted he had changed his mind in Dickens the Novelist (1970), but the critical tide had turned in Dickens’s favour in the meantime without his help.
American critics such as Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Dorothy van Ghent, and Edgar Johnson led the way in showing that Dickens was a much more interesting, complex and artistically self-conscious writer than had previously been appreciated: a writer deeply divided between a desire to affirm the redeeming power of human goodness and the gleeful creation of colourfully imagined evil characters who subvert the overt message of his stories; a writer whose metaphoric inventiveness invests inanimate objects with a weird kind of life and transforms human beings into things, projecting a vision of a fundamentally disordered society; a writer who gave his vast sprawling novels thematic unity through symbolism and the carefully planned intersections of their multiple plot-strands.
Edgar Johnson’s 1952 book Charles Dickens: his tragedy and triumph initiated a series of excellent biographical studies on both sides of the Atlantic revealing fascinating connections, tensions and contradictions between the life and the work, focusing especially on the traumatic episode in the novelist’s boyhood, when he was made to work in a blacking factory on Thames-side in the company of rats and an orphan called Bob Fagin, and the mid-life crisis triggered by his infatuation with Nelly Ternan. By the time Leavis recanted, a whole academic industry in America and Britain was at work on Dickens’s oeuvre, and it continued to grow. Undoubtedly the expansion of higher education in both countries, and the requirement of university teachers to demonstrate their competence by “research,” was a factor in this development, but Dickens invites and sustains such intense scrutiny. His work has the essential quality of great literature, an inexhaustibility of meaning. You can re-read his major novels, like Bleak House or Great Expectations, every few years, discovering each time new things to relish in the abundance of memorable characters, scenes and settings, and in the energy and eloquence of the language in which they are embodied.
Popular enthusiasm for Dickens has developed and spread concurrently with the boom in academic studies of his work, but mainly through other media than the printed page, especially television. There is a natural compatibility between his novels and that medium, as the reception of the American TV series, The Wire, recently demonstrated. Generically a crime and detection story set in Baltimore, a city evidently in terminal social chaos, The Wire attracted a cult following and was hailed by many critics as the greatest television series ever. From early on fans compared its multiple plot lines (stretched over 60 episodes), vivid characters, atmospheric evocation of urban decay, and shocking exposure of social evils, to the novels of Dickens. A typical blog post declared: “The Wire’s world of hypocrites, self-serving officials, cheats, villains, child criminals, abandoned urchins and flawed heroes is a modern mirror for Dickens’s depiction of the world of the Victorian underclass.” The New York Times wrote: “If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would be watching The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it.” The makers of the show even played upon the comparison in the fifth series, with a newspaper editor telling a reporter to emphasise the “Dickensian aspect” of his stories.
The serial form underlies this perceived affinity. Dickens’s novels have far too much narrative content to be squeezed into the duration of a feature film or stage play. They fit more comfortably into the form of the television drama serial. One particularly successful recent example was Andrew Davies’s 2005 adaptation of Bleak House for the BBC, which adopted a soap-opera format and narrative tempo in 15 half-hour episodes shown more than once a week. The series attracted huge audiences and came close to replicating the kind of nationwide attention which the serial publication of Dickens’s novels received in his lifetime. He published all his novels initially in monthly or weekly parts before they were issued as complete books. He was often only one or two instalments ahead of his readers, and (like the producers of modern soaps) would modify the work in progress according to its reception—for instance, sending young Martin Chuzzlewit to America when sales of that novel flagged (which turned out not to be a good idea) and giving Mrs Gamp more lines when he realised readers couldn’t have too much of her.
The word “lines” is apposite, for it is impossible to exaggerate the influence of the theatre in the formation of Dickens’s imagination. He claimed to have seen a play almost every night as a young man between 1829 and 1831. His first ambition was to be an actor, and during his career as a writer he still devoted an extraordinary amount of time and energy to producing and acting in amateur theatricals, and he ended it performing extracts from his work especially modified for the purpose. He created marvellous parts and scenes for actors, as television adaptations have demonstrated again and again, though his own efforts at writing plays, usually in collaboration with others, were not distinguished. Victorian theatre (unlike the theatre of Shakespeare’s time) was not an institution that nourished great writing, and Dickens acquired some regrettable habits from his immersion in it which carried over into his fiction, especially a tendency to put melodramatic rhetoric into the mouths of his virtuous characters at climactic moments. TV viewers are spared these speeches, which are invariably simplified and abbreviated in the process of adaptation.
As readers we can’t avoid them—we just put up with them, as we do with Shakespeare’s puns. The aspects of Dickens’s work that alienated sophisticated readers in the past—the melodrama, the sentimentality, the insipidity of most of his heroines and his excessive subservience to the Victorian code of reticence in the treatment of sexuality—are no longer seen as fatal flaws. They are forgiven or forgotten in the glow of the genius that shines from other elements of his work.
I was struck recently by a passage in Michael White’s review of a biography of the composer Gustav Mahler in the Tablet. He observed: “It took half a century, until the 1960s, for the symphonies to be accepted into the standard repertory… Why? …The qualities for which his music was attacked during his lifetime—its neurotic instability; its heart-on-sleeve emotionality; its childlike interweaving of the kitsch and the sublime; its celebration of extremes and opposites presented side by side in stark unmediated conflict—were the very things a later, post-war, maybe more neurotic generation could applaud.”
These words, it seems to me, could be applied Dickens’s work, and to the contrast between its reception in the era of modernism and in the last half-century, especially if we substitute for “postwar” the word “postmodern.” In our ironic, eclectic, inclusive culture, we will accept almost any kind of literary and dramatic narrative if there is enough imaginative vitality and memorable characterisation to sweep us off our feet.
The Wire, which continues to live on in DVD box sets, recently provoked an interesting postmodern appropriation of Dickens. In August a web magazine called The Hooded Utilitarian published a spoof academic article by Joy DeLyria and Sean Michael Robinson claiming to have discovered a 19th-century serial novel called The Wire by one Horatio Bucklesby Ogden, set in the city of Bodymore, that resembled Dickens’s novels, but was superior to them: “The genius of The Wire lies in its sheer size and scope, its slow layering of complexity which could not have been achieved in any other way but the serial format,” wrote DeLyria and Robinson. “Dickens is often praised for his portrayal of the setting as a character: the city itself an antagonist. Yet in The Wire Bodymore is a far more intricate and compelling character than London in Dickens’s hands… In fact Dickens in later novels which incriminate fundamental social institutions… seems to have been influenced by The Wire.”
The article contained mocked-up reproductions of pages from Ogden’s novel, illustrated by line drawings reminiscent of Victorian magazine serials. One of these scenes anticipates a famous episode of the HBO serial in which two detectives investigate the scene of a murder and communicate their reactions to the evidence entirely by the words “fuck” and “motherfucker,” repeated with varying intonation and facial expressions. Embedded in a pastiche of Victorian narrative prose these expletives produce a transgressive stylistic effect which is the essence of postmodernism. The article excited such an amount of enthusiastic comment on the internet that an American publisher has commissioned a full-length version of the Victorian Wire, to be published in spring 2012, perhaps the most offbeat of the many tributes to Charles Dickens planned for this bicentenary year. Whatever you think of them collectively, they can only have the effect of making people read, or re-read, his novels, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.