Tuesday, February 7 is British novelist Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. The author of classics including Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and many more famous literary works is all the more relevant today. Much of his writing depicts the “the great gulf between the rich and poor,” as one of his biographers, Claire Tomalin, says to the BBC.
Writing in the 1840s at the start of the Industrial Revolution, Dickens depicted not only the horrid, inhumane working conditions and poverty that many, including children, toiled in but the results on society and on individuals. Born on February 7, 1812, Dickens was the second of eight children. His own father was sent to a debtors’ prison when he was 12 and he was forced to leave school and work in a London blacking factory, where he had the “hellish experience” of “sealing pots of shoe polish and pasting labels on them.” As another biographer of Dickens, actor Simon Callow, point out, Dickens “knew what poverty was. He knew what it was to be rejected, to be cast aside, to live in squalor.”
A number of events are scheduled in the UK on Tuesday, including a wreath-laying ceremony at Dickens’ grave in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, London. The Guardian has a number of features, from “digested reads” of his novels to walking tours; many more events are listed at the Dickens2012 website. A global Dickens read-a-thon will start in Australia with a reading from Dombey and Son and continue in 23 other countries from Albania to Zimbabwe. You can see the manuscripts of A Christmas Carol and of some of Dickens’ letters thanks to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.
Amid all the hoopla, biographer Tomalin casts a worried note. At a time when the Occupy movement and the voices of the 99 percent are being heard, Dickens is indeed “amazingly relevant.” His novels depict not only the early 19th-century’s dispossessed and downtrodden, but a full cast of “corrupt financiers” and “corrupt MPs” and politicians. But Tomalin worries that today’s children “are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that’s a pity.” She also decries the “dreadful television programmes” that children see as making them “unable to appreciate” one of Dickens’ admittedly longish works.
At a time when ADHD and ADD are diagnosed in as many as 1 out of 10 children in the US and when books have a lot of competition (besides TV, there’s the siren call of video games, social media sites, flickering iDevices and many, many more), Tomalin’s comments are not surprising.
It might seem the worst of times for a writer like Dickens whose books’ length and 19th-century prose can be off-putting at the start of the 21st century. But in many more ways it could be the best of times. More than a few of Dickens’ 989 named characters have found their way into popular culture and the popular imagination: Who doesn’t know of Scrooge (named the most popular Dickens character in a poll), of the ghosts of Christmases of various times, of Oliver Twist? NPR points out that every one of Dickens’ major works has been adapted for the stage or for the screen, and sometimes many times over. There are apps for A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’ Dark London (with images of slums, children laboring in the dark, pickpockets).
Viewing these is not the same as working one’s way through Dickens’ prose but I’ll take an optimists’ perspective and hope that movie and multimedia presentations might ultimately draw people — kids — to read the originals. Years ago, I devoted myself to reading all of Dickens’ novels, but the first form I ever encountered his work in was Mickey Mouse’s Christmas Carol. While readers in Dickens’ time had far fewer distractions (the aforementioned TV, e-devices, etc.), they weren’t expected to read mammoth amounts of text at once. Many of Dickens’ novels (including the 900+ page Bleak House) were published in installments (20 for Bleak House). Start with a page or two or night and you’ll get quite far through one novel in a few weeks — and classic books by a master writer are well worth savoring at far slower rate than our click-click-click society has accustomed us too.
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