On the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birthday just about everyone wants to lay claim to the most famous author of Victorian England. The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall laying a wreath in Westminster Abbey surely takes the biscuit, however.
Dickens expressly stated his wish not to be buried there. And the privilege, wealth and inherited rank represented by Charles and Camilla, symbolising a Britain brutally unequal as it was in his days, would surely make him turn in his grave.
All this hero-worship (and blatant commercialisation) might queer the pitch for literary purists. But writers, actors and museum curators who have revisited the author’s life and work have brought him into the 21st century with a vengeance.
Actor Simon Callow, who is reading in a birthday tribute at St Mary’s church, near the author’s Portsmouth birthplace, who attacked the way that the Establishment ignored Dickens’ desire to be buried in Rochester cathedral, speaks movingly of the writer’s personal and literary achievement:
“The reason I love him so deeply is that, having experienced the lower depths, he never ceased, till the day he died, to commit himself, both in his work and in his life, to trying to right the wrongs inflicted by society, above all, perhaps by giving the dispossessed a voice. From the moment he started to write, he spoke for the people, and the people loved him for it, as do I.”
Dickens was one of eight children. When he was only 12 years old, his father was arrested for debt and sent to Marshalsea Prison in Southwark, where the young boy spent his weekends. He somehow lifted himself out this abject existence and, as Callow writes, “threw himself into life with a blazing enthusiasm, becoming a beacon of energy and fun. The rest of his life was a negotiation between those high spirits and the dejection with which he had been acquainted so early.”
While he shared prejudices of the era, including anti-Semitism, he responded to criticisms and sought to redress his portrayal of the Jewish criminal Fagin in Oliver Twist, by halting the printing of the book in order to change the text. On his first visit to the United States in 1842, he spoke out against slavery.
Best-selling Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, author of the outstanding Wallender detective series, sums up the multifaceted aspects of the man’s genius. Dickens introduced something “new and brave,” Mankell writes.
He points to Dickens’ sympathy for the large number of women who were forced into prostitution by their circumstances. Mankell rightly says that Oliver Twist is a political novel: “When young Oliver takes his empty bowl and asks for more food, it is one of the most revolutionary acts ever depicted in a novel. How many people have found courage and power from this act of defiance?”
Dickens’ stories seethe with a multitude of unforgettable characters, literary and stylistic innovations and above all, through the stories, there is an anatomical dissection of patriarchal, brutal Victorian capitalism.
Dickens’ close contemporary and the other supreme anatomist of 19th century capitalism, Karl Marx, wrote of him and “present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England” that they "...issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”
Dickens’s greatest achievement was the way he embraced all the contradictions in the society of his day, setting the lives of individuals into a complex web of social relations. He showed the brutality of capitalist society economically and psychologically and, significantly, how people defied it.
The brilliant opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities could have been written about today:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...”
A World to Win secretary
There’s an exhibition about Dickens and London at the Museum of London