Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The 200th Anniversary of Charles Dickens' Birth

Today it occurred to me that 7 February must be one of the most important days in English pop culture. It was on this day in 1964 that The Beatles arrived in the United States for the first time. Of course, they would go onto become the greatest rock group of all time, as wildly popular in the United States as they were in their homeland. It was also on this day in 1812 that Charles Dickens was born in Landport, Portsmouth, England. Of course, Mr. Dickens would go onto become the greatest novelist in the English language, as wildly popular in the United States as he was in his homeland. It would seem, then that two of the most important events in English pop culture happened today, albeit 152 years apart.

Regardless of whether one agrees with my opinion of The Beatles, Charles Dickens, or 7 February, the fact is that both The Beatles and Charles Dickens have had an incredible impact on my life. Even if I did not have a good deal of English blood running through my veins (I'd have to go over my genealogy with a fine tooth comb, but it seems to me that I am mostly English in descent), The Beatles and Mr. Dickens would have been enough to turn me into an Anglophile. I am not sure when I was exposed to either of them. With The Beatles it may have been the animated series or it may have been on the radio. With Charles Dickens it may have been one of the many motion picture or television adaptations made over the years. Either way, I have never known life without either The Beatles or Charles Dickens and I have always love them.

Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 in Landsport, Portsmouth, England. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens, the second of eight children. His childhood would begin idyllically enough, spending much of it in Chatham, Kent. His father, John, had a huge library and young Charles read voraciously as a child. Cervantes, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, and Tobias Smollett would all form part of Charles' Dickens' education in English literature.

Unfortunately, this somewhat ideal childhood would come to an end. John Dickens moved to Camden Town, London in 1822, when young Charles was about ten. By 1824 John Dickens was deeply in debt and found himself imprisoned in Marshalsea debtor's prison in Southwark, London. Young Charles found himself boarding with family friend Elizabeth Roylance in Camden Town. To help pay his keep he worked ten hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse. He earned only six shillings a week under often brutal working conditions. His father John Dickens' release from Marshalsea would come about through what could be considered unfortunate circumstances. John Dickens' grandmother, Elizabeth Dickens died and he inherited £450.

Sadly, Charles Dickens' mother did not take him away from Warren's Blacking Warehouse right away. It would be some time before he stopped working there and attended Wellington House Academy in North London. Wellington House Academy was not the best of schools. The instruction there was haphazard at best and the headmaster tended towards downright sadistic cruelty. While young Charles was attending Wellington House, his father John Dickens sought work as a parliamentary reporter. As to young Charles, he eventually went to work as a clerk at the law offices of Ellis and Blackmore at Holborn Court, Gray's Inn. While working for Ellis and Blackmore, Charles Dickens taught himself Gurney's system of shorthand. He put it to use as a freelance reporter, in Doctors’ Commons and the police courts around London. He went onto become a parliamentary reporter, first at the True Sun and later at the Mirror of Parliament and the Morning Chronicle.

It was while he was a parliamentary reporter that he began writing of a more creative sort. His first short story, "A Dinner at Poplar Walk, was published in The Monthly Magazine in 1833. He also began writing sketches of life around London at the time. The first of these sketches was published in the December 1833 issue of The Monthly Magazine under the pen name Boz (the pseudonym he uses for all of his sketches). These sketches were eventually under the title Sketches by Boz in 1836. It was in March 1836 that his first novel he Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (AKA The Pickwick Papers) started being serialised. By Chapter 10 The Pickwick Papers was all the rage. Unauthorised copies of the chapters of The Pickwick Papers soon began to appear, as well as unauthorised merchandise. By the time the chapters of The Pickwick Papers was collected into a book in late 1837, late Charles Dickens was already a phenomenon, not unlike The Beatles nearly 130 years after The Pickwick Papwers was published. And like The Beatles, Charles Dickens would also conquer America. He was a success in the United States from the moment an unauthorised edition of The Pickwick Papers was published in five parts in 1836.

The success of The Pickwick Papers would be followed by Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, he Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty. Charles Dickens made his first trip to the United States, which proved very successful. Once he returned to England, he wrote what would become one of his most enduring works. A Christmas Carol would prove so popular that it is often credited with single handedly revitalising Christmas in both the United Kingdom and the United States. It was followed by two more Christmas tales, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. It was with Dombey and Son and David Copperfield that Charles Dickens' works became more serious and more complex.

The change in the themes and styles of Charles Dickens' novels did nothing to hinder their success. In particular, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations would prove incredibly successful. In his later years Charles Dickens' health began to fail. It was on 22 April 1869 that he suffered a mild stroke. Regardless, he started another novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was on 8 June 1870 that Mr. Dickens suffered another stroke, one from which he did not recover. It was on 9 June 1870 that Charles Dickens, by then arguably the most successful author of his time, died.

If Charles Dickens proved to be a phenomenon in the 19th Century and continues to be extremely popular in the 21st Century, it is perhaps because of his literary style. There can be no doubt that he owes a good deal to the genre of Gothic romance. His novels are filled with coach journeys on dark and windy nights, fog bound marshes, and even a run down estate (Miss Havisham's Satis House in Great Expectations). Although not often noted, more than one tragic romance figured in Charles Dicken's novels--Sydney and Lucy in A Tale of Two Cities, Pip and Estella in Great Expectations. Like the Gothic romanticists, Charles Dickens' prose style was often overly poetic and sometimes even florid.

While Charles Dickens' style had a good deal in common with the Gothic romances, at the same time his novels had touches of comedy. Even his most serious novels often featured humour, with the British upper classes often a target of parody. While his style greatly resembled that of the Gothic romance and humour often figured in his novels, at the same time Charles Dickens could be very realistic. Indeed, his detailed descriptions of life in London bring to life the Victorian Era more than any history book ever could.

Not only was Charles Dickens popular in his own time, but as today's many observances of his 200th birthday show, he continues to be popular. At no point have his works ever gone out of print. It was while Mr. Dickens was still alive that the first stage adaptations of his novels were made. As early as 1897 a film was based on the death of Nancy Sykes from Oliver Twist. It was in 1901 that the first film adaptation of A Christmas Carol was made. Over the years there have been over 300 short film, feature film, and television adaptations of Charles Dickens' various works.

A phenomenon in his own time whose novels continue to be popular, Charles Dickens' influence on English literature and English pop culture cannot be overestimated. There are many who believe that A Christmas Carol revitalised Christmas in the English speaking world, that Charles Dickens transformed the holiday from a more community centred, religious holiday into one that was more centred on the more festive observances of family and friends. Charles Dickens' other novels may not have had a direct social impact, but they certainly brought attention to social ills ranging from child labour to bureaucracy to sanitation.

As popular as he has continued to be since the 1830's, Charles Dickens would have a lasting impact on writers. His influence can easily be seen in the works of Thomas Hardy, who began his career not long after Mr. Dickens' death. The Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky expressed his admiration for Charles Dickens in his Diary of a Writer, published in 1873. Somerset Maugham and T. S. Eliot praised his creation of characters. Charles Dickens was one of George Orwell's favourite writers. Charles Dickens' influence can be seen in modern writers ranging from Tom Wolfe to Anne Rice to J. K. Rowling to Neal Stephenson.

As I mentioned above, I do not know when I was first exposed to the works of Charles Dickens. I have no doubt that it was one of the many film or television adaptations done over the years. I do remember the first time I read a novel by Charles Dickens. It was after I saw a 1980 Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of A Tales of Two Cities starring Chris Sarandon as Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay. I checked the book out from the library and I was hooked. I would go onto read Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and so on. While my favourite novel is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens is probably my favourite author.

It would seem that I am not alone in having Charles Dickens as my favourite author, as he would seem to be the favourite of many. I think Charles Dickens can be safely described as "The Beatles" of 19th Century authors and I think he remains so today. Indeed, A Tale of Two Cities could well be the best selling novel of all time. At 200 million copies sold, it has sold more copies than The Lord of the Rings, The DaVinci Code, or any of the "Harry Potter" books. And while there are many who continue to argue about the relevance of Charles Dickens in the 21st Century, his books continue to sell and sell well. Charles Dickens became a phenomenon with his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, and has continued to remain a phenomenon ever since. I am not sure that any author will ever be quite so successful.

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