Charles Dickens joins the party

dickens2Here we are on Day 7 of the 50 Days of Celebration and it’s time to welcome Charles Dickens who would be 201 today.

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.


About callyphillips

13 Responses to Charles Dickens joins the party

  1. Bill Kirton says:

    What a great post – about Dickens and about you. Glad to hear that you don’t think melodrama’s a dirty word or only appears in second rate literature. The stage versions of Dickens I’ve seen – here and in the USA – have been gripping, dramatic, but very real experiences. He’s a master of characterisation which gives you a quick character sketch and yet develops subtleties underneath the appearances that make for very complex relationships. He sets the standard in so many ways.

  2. Jan Needle says:

    Ee, that bloody Charles Dickens! Beat me to a birthday by twenty four hours and 213 years – what a show-off. And he was born in Commercial Road, Portsmouth, while I grew up in Church Street, a mean off-runner of that main thoroughfare. He even buggered up my school. When I went there it was called Church Street Primary, but many years later, when the city fathers finally got told who Dickens was, it became – you’ve guessed it! – Charles Dickens Primary.
    Likewise the New Inn, which me and my sister used to sit outside of eating Smiths Crisps (the factory was alongside Dickens’s birth house) and fighting over the screws of blue salt paper, and which is now called (try that guess again) – yes, holed in one: the Charles Dickens.
    Being an ignorant little working class git I didn’t get to read the great man until I took up with a university student, and I must say I was sold on Great Expectations, although some of the others did me ‘ead in in a very big way. That Bleak House? Come orf it, Charlie! (Although Gillian Anderson and the BBC seduced me with the greatest of ease. We all need an editor, don’t we? Be nice to have a Gillian Anderson, too.) Having just looked at the YouTube clip of Oliver, I think that thought can be taken further. I used to watch the film with the kids over and over, and we can all sing a lot of the songs – magic. And as for the death of Nancy, well surely Dickens would have wept for joy watching Robert Newton doing the dirty deed. Dickens as a treatment. There’s a thought. Come to think of it, when I went to university (very late – I had to get some A levels first after eight years as a journalist) I wrote a version of A Christmas Carol as an exercise in radio drama. Which I thought was very good, even if my tutor didn’t.
    Your point about the commercial element is a good one, Cally. (In fact the whole essay is brilliant. Thanks.) We all sniff at journos these days, although I still miss the sheer fun of subbing the tabloids and necking endless pints of bitter with bright and witty men and women, but Charlie would have thought such snobbery completely mad. He was a reporter, a shorthand writer, a snuffling terrier after truths, however sordid and degrading. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have written the books, would he? I mean, how many stories do you get in a blacking factory (another good Cally-point. What WAS a blacking factory?) Few stories in a blacking factory, but in the News of the World, remember, you could find ‘all human life’. And get paid for it!
    It’s Bert Brecht’s birthday on Sunday, although he’d only have been 115 if the cheap cigars hadn’t got him at the age of 58. Another great writer who understood the need to earn a living. Apart from anything else he wrote the probably most covered and casually sung song of the twentieth century. Altogether now:

    Und der Haifisch,
    Der hat Zaehne,
    Und die tragt er
    Im Gesicht
    Und Macheath,
    Der hat ein Messer –
    Doch das Messer –
    Sieht Man nicht!

    He also bought a swish car when he got a bit famous, and when he crashed it, called the Press to photograph him alongside the wreck, and asserted that any other car would undoubtedly have killed him. After that his cars were free…
    I think Mr Dickens would have saluted him!

    (Late thought. Possible definition of a blacking factory: The Daily Mail.)

    • Hi Jan – you’ll get yours TOMORROW. I’m working on it now. And you have given me the clue to your age BUT with my mathematical skills I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to work yer age out with any degree of clarity! And Bert on Sunday. I’m getting NO work done this week but having some fun bigging up some great writers. And celebrating by working – that has to be twisted even for me eh?

  3. What a fine essay. I love Dickens too. My mum was a complete Dickens nut and introduced me to him. I still miss the conversations we used to have, the things we used to quote to each other. ‘The infant phenomenon’ – known a few of those in my time! – the tableware that says ‘wouldn’t you like to melt me down!’ When she died, I inherited her complete set of Dickens in green mock leather – but they are lovely editions and I read them often. My favourite is probably Nicholas Nickleby – I love Nicholas’s hot headedness SO much. (And I have that one on my Kindle – they’re such fat books that it was very nice to have it on an e-reader) But it’s hard to choose a favourite.

    • All I can say is ‘wot larks Pip.’ But yes, I remember the Infant phenomenon too! Have you ever heard the musical Nicholas Nickleby (not the RSC version) I had it on tape somewhere… it was GREAT. Off to see if there’s any of it on youtube.

  4. Great essay, Cally, enjoyed reading it, and I don’t know what a blacking factory was either. I wonder if Google knows? One thing though, I’m sure Charles made it to the big screen before 1968. I remember being enthralled with the original film of Great Expectations with, I think, John Mills. I can always remember Miss Haversham sitting at her wedding table with all those cobwebs!

    • jakill says:

      I remember that film too because I saw it before I took my English Lit O level, and it helped a lot. Would have been in 1959 or 60.

  5. Karen says:

    Sorry Chas, but you leave me cold: possibly because you were forced on me at the tender age of 8 … I have tried again since then, but on every occasion I’ve never made it past the first couple of pages. But your books do make damn fine films and I’ve loved watching every screen adaptation on both the silver and the TV screen. Oh, and you did write one oif the greatest opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities. Umm, the first lines of David Copperfield were pretty good too. And I love the spoof Bleak Expectations on radio, although possibly that doesn’t count?

    • Jan Needle says:

      Half the country knows the first lines – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times (or vice versa) and the last line: it is a far far better thing i do now, etc. But has anyone ever managed to read any of the lines in between? Answers on a postcard, please.

  6. jakill says:

    Enjoyed reading this Cally. My understanding is that the blacking factory produced shoe polish.

  7. He wrote some wonderful ghost stories – The Signalman, for instance.

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