Charles Dickens‘ characters fall into two main categories: the memorable and the totally unforgettable.
I can think of no other author who has created such vivid fictional characters. In no particular order: The Artful Dodger, Smike, Joe Gargery, Fagin, Scrooge. Wilkins Micawber, Sam Weller, Daniel Quilp, Mr Dick, Bill Sykes. Magwitch, Frederick Dorrit, Mr Merdle, Mrs Gamp, and, of course, all the title characters. And that’s just from memory. If I had a crib-sheet in front of me, the list would run to dozens, if not hundreds.
Charles John Huffam Dickens, 1812-1870
I was halfway through a post about Racism in Football when I spotted a reminder that today (February 7th) is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. How could I possibly let that pass? The world of Dickens has enchanted me ever since I first watched those atmospheric BBC black and white Sunday teatime adaptations in the 1960s. Although I’ve nothing against full-colour broadcasting, there is something about black & white telly that sprinkles even more magic dust over his characters and storylines.
The same goes for those hugely atmospheric David Lean film adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Here was a man who understood the inherent power of Charles Dickens characters. For some reason, we didn’t touch Dickens for school exams. There was no shortage of Chaucer and Shakespeare, great as they are. I had to discover Dickens’ writing because I wanted to, not because I had to.
For the past couple of months, the British media has been on Dickens overload. Every celebrity from Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins to Mariella Frostrup and Aled Jones has offered up their praise and opinions on the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. There’s a genuine risk of over-kill and a sad realisation that in a year’s time there’ll probably be no Dickens at all.
That’s the way media people think. No one has ever given me a proper explanation as to why newspapers, magazines, radio and TV don’t ‘do’ something unless they have an event to ‘hang it on’. I’d find Charles Dicken just as interesting 199-and-a-half years after his birth as exactly 200, but maybe I’m the odd one out.
Charles Dickens as Storyteller
There’s a theory that suggests that Charles Dickens’ characters and brilliant – if occasionally over-convoluted – plots were so well-crafted because he had to write them in instalments. The theory falls down when you realise that many other authors wrote to the same constraints and (sadly, perhaps) their work has grown ivy and perished over the years. I think we just have to admit that Dickens’s survived is because they were so extraordinary to start with. Take this extract from Little Dorrit:
Little Dorrit (1855-1857)
An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square courtyard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.
‘Nothing changed,’ said the traveller, stopping to look round. ‘Dark and miserable as ever. A light in my mother’s window, which seems never to have been extinguished since I came home twice a year from school, and dragged my box over this pavement. Well, well, well!’
He went up to the door, which had a projecting canopy in carved work of festooned jack-towels and children’s heads with water on the brain, designed after a once-popular monumental pattern, and knocked. A shuffling step was soon heard on the stone floor of the hall, and the door was opened by an old man, bent and dried, but with keen eyes.
He had a candle in his hand, and he held it up for a moment to assist his keen eyes. ‘Ah, Mr Arthur?’ he said, without any emotion, ‘you are come at last? Step in.’
Mr Arthur stepped in and shut the door.
Charles Dickens: Brief Biography
There’s no room for a complete Charles Dickens biography, but enough space not to ignore the basic facts.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire on February 7th, 1812. It was a memorable year all round: poet Robert Browning and the architect Augustus Pugin shared the same birth-year. The metric system was first adopted in France.
Napoleon invaded Russia (later commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture), and Britain went to war with the United States. By the time of Dickens’ death, 58 years, four months and two days later, he had written 15-and-a-half novels, 6 novellas and numerous shorter pieces.
The biggest selling of all his novels is A Tale of Two Cities. Don’t ask me why. The book with the most adaptations is A Christmas Carol, possible because Christmas comes around every year. There’s nothing like a bit of sentiment to start the cash registers ringing.
The BBC’s Big Read survey of Britain’s 100 favourite novels, undertaken in 2003, contained five from Dickens. They were: Great Expectations (17), David Copperfield (34), A Christmas Carol (47), A Tale of Two Cities (63) and Bleak House (79).
Dickens and Terry Pratchett shared the distinction of having the most works in the first 100. I wonder if that would be repeated in even 20 years from now.
For me, the big surprises were that Bleak House did so well. It was two years before the ground-breaking BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance. And that Oliver Twist did so badly, only managing to scrape in at number 182.
You would have thought that with all the adaptations, in particular Lionel Bart’s spirited musical would have propelled Oliver Twist into the top 150 at the very least. It’s not as if the storyline – including the memorable line: “Please sir, I want some more!” – isn’t well known. Or that Charles Dickens’ characters in Oliver Twist are not up to standard. My theory is that we prefer our Dickens a little darker… preferably in black and white.