Charles Dickens joins the party
February 7, 2013 13 Comments
I first met Charles Dickens at my grandfather’s knee. Actually to be strictly correct I should say on my grandfather’s knee. Because it must have been the Christmas of 1966 or 1967 when I remember sitting there with my grandfather reading A Christmas Carol to me. My grandfather was a courageous and inspired man and he held my attention not only with the great story (even though family members considered his dramatic rendition somewhat gory for a small child) by getting me to put my hand on his stomach while he blew smoke out through his ears, or doing that trick with thumb and finger that looks like you’ve severed a digit.
Anyway, that’s how I first met Charles Dickens, whose birthday it is today, and I’ve remained a firm friend ever since. Before I actually read his works in their entirety, I knew that he worked as a child in a ‘blacking factory.’ I didn’t (and still don’t really) know what a blacking factory is, but I knew that child labour wasn’t a pleasant idea or reality.
Charles made it to the big screen in 1968 with a film version of the musical Oliver! I already knew the music (and the story) because I had a record of the original cast recording (I still have it!) and had played it to death even by the age of five. I had a little red dansette and during prolonged stays in bed with sickness, Oliver! was one of my staple sing a long choices.
Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s there was a lot of Dickens on television and latterly film. I enjoyed lots of them in my formative years, but turning to the novels themselves added a whole new dimension. Dickens adapts well for drama because his writing is dramatic in tone and because his characters are compelling and memorable. He writes on a big stage, creating a whole world in a novel and offering plenty to keep everyone interested.
It’s the stories that have kept me captivated through my life. I suspect that I have Dickens to thank for the fact that I don’t think melodrama is a dirty word. For me, Dickens brings melodrama and social conscience hand in hand elevating both. He wrote very clearly for his time and yet he’s managed to transcend his time. He’s a writer who appeals to readers and he’s a writer’s writer. Charles Dickens has a lot to teach writers, especially writers of serial drama/fiction. He knew how to hold an audience both on the page and on the stage.
Charles Dickens also has something to share with the new breed of indie writer as publisher. He started out as a jobbing journalist, wrote ‘sketches’ for magazines and the commercial nature of the business was vital for him. Many of his novels started as serial works (which one should take into account when reading them as it explains some of the raggedness of editing!) One should always remember to read contextually with time and original intent. This is so not just for Dickens. Dickens worked fast and juggled many balls at once. He might be claimed for the self publishing or indie publishing world as well - he founded Bentley’s Miscellany Magazine and published his first novel Oliver Twist as a serial in it. He edited and founded other magazines over the years and used them to showcase his work. There’s a message here for modern day self published / indie writers who think they can just write the book, shove it out there and wait for fame to come knocking. Those of us who baulk at the demands of marketing and social media today would do well to remember that even writers of ‘classics’ have been down the same path. And that if you want success there is no short cut from hard work. Dickens toured America extensively and worked tirelessly to promote his writing (and his image) with the result that he became both rich and famous. He got in with the in crowd, made his own luck and played the game! There are plenty of his contemporaries who wrote great serials which did or didn’t become novels and did or didn’t gain public appreciation. Many of them are lost to us not because they were of a lesser quality than Dickens but more because the writers didn’t ‘play the game’ as effectively as Dickens. This is no criticism of Dickens, just a reminder that for every success there are many who do not succeed and that success isn’t the best judge of good writing.
But back to my personal relationship with Charles Dickens. He was with me through my A levels. I studied Little Dorritt and loved it. He was with me through my University career. Following a spectacularly poor result in 2nd year English Language I had to achieve some impossibly high score in my Literature paper to pass the course. Thanks to Great Expectations and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights I managed it. I knew both texts more or less off by heart and it was no hardship. I remember it as the first time I actually enjoyed an exam.
In the seven years I worked as a teacher/tutor I had Charles almost constantly by my side. Sometimes I confess I’d get confused as to which novel was which but if I asked my students to fill in the small details like names of characters and a few plot points, I could happily instruct them in how to write about Dickens like a pro. I developed a ‘system’ to get students through literature exams which involved linking themes and devices – and evolved into some amazing equations at times. I remember rendering Great Expectations into a sort of graph where one could follow the structural path of Pip’s journey, showing that as his financial status rose, so his moral probity fell. I don’t have a favourite Dickens novel, but Great Expectations holds a particular place in my heart. As a writer it taught me a lot about open endings (and if you think the ending of GE is happy, you need to re-read it and find out about the Dickens/publisher dispute about this aspect of the novel.) Dickens writes memorable characters, he appeals to people on many levels. I find it especially clever that he managed to gain reading appreciation from the very people he lampooned – realising that people don’t recognise themselves in fiction but do recognise their peers and love to laugh at them without realising they are actually being condemned themselves. The lessons Great Expectations has to teach about money and morality are constantly with me. And the depth of irony never fails to appeal to me.
However, when I was seriously ill in hospital in 1996 and thought I was about to make my dying wish, I demanded David Copperfield to read. I don’t know why. I think maybe it was because I remembered it as a happy Sunday afternoon drama from childhood. Or because of the first person narrative. I really don’t remember. I just remember that somehow, I managed to read my way through it before not dying and being released back into the world. So Charles has been with me through many of life’s highs and lows.
Before I eschewed ‘possessions,’ I was given a complete edition of blue leather bound Dickens, which I still own, as a 30th birthday present. I have to confess that when I read Dickens I do so in paperback though. I find I am in awe of hardback books and don’t get the same reading experience. I’ve not tried Dickens in ebook format yet.
Throughout my life it’s fair to say that Dickens gave me hope. In his own life I knew that he went from the blacking factory to writer and also to owning the house on the hill he always dreamed of. I hoped for a similar journey. I’ve had it for the most part. Perhaps not the literary success but he gave me confidence in a more spiritual and moral rags to riches story. He showed that there’s nothing wrong with writing for money. Or writing serially. And he shows what you need to do to become a ‘success’ both in Great Expectations and in his life, and allowed me to make a choice of which kind of Pip I would like to become. For me Magwitch is one of the stand out characters in fiction. He’s a really good character. In every way. And that’s what I love most about Charles Dickens. Through his characters you see the foibles and failings of real people and are able to pick your friends based on more than the surface. The ‘Veneerings’ of Our Mutual Friend are just one example of how the name tells you about the character. But Magwitch. I have a special place in my heart for him.
But I’d like to open this up to the floor and find out what other people’s favourite Dickens stories are. Tell us how you befriended Charles Dickens and what joy your relationship with him has brought you….
And while you’re thinking have a listen to this…and sing along if you like.