Monday, February 06, 2012

A Dickens of a Birthday

"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 — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

Charles Dickens
"A Tale of Two Cities"

As one who has always aspired to be a writer, I am left breathless by the greatest of the writers, so many of whom came along in the 19th century — Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Brownings, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, Ralph Waldo Emerson, many others.

And Charles Dickens.

Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth, an event that is being marked the world over, and I feel safe in stating that few, if any, writers of Dickens' time — or of any other — possessed his flair for realism, comedy and characters.

Especially the characters.

I've always held that a good story has good characters, and there have been few characters who were more enduring than Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. Others, too.

Every Dickens novel has memorable characters who, as none other than Virginia Woolf said, "exist not in detail, not accurately or exactly, but abundantly in a cluster of wild yet extraordinarily revealing remarks."

But even that doesn't capture the full range of Dickens' character development.

Take, for instance, Madame Defarge in "A Tale of Two Cities."

In the reader's first encounter with her, she is silent. But the reader is acutely aware of her knitting. It makes her seem harmless, in a way — submissive, devotedly domestic — but the reader comes to see how she is driven by bloodlust during the French Revolution and the role her knitting plays in her life as a tricoteuse at the public executions.

As I say, she is silent at first, communicating with her husband through darting glances and subtle nods. The reader comes to understand these things better, but, to the naked eye, it is tragically deceptive.

Often, those characters were modeled after people in Dickens' life. That's a common strategy for writers — I have frequently been advised, whether by teachers, professional colleagues or friends, to write about what I know — as is the time–honored method of writing (in as disguised a way as possible) about one's life experiences.

There wasn't anything new about those literary devices in Dickens' day. He just used them more effectively than his contemporaries. Maybe it was more personal for him than anyone ever realized.
"[L]ike many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."

Charles Dickens
"David Copperfield"

Well, "David Copperfield" had several autobiographical elements to it. There was never really any secret about that, even in Dickens' time.

But there was certainly more to Dickens.

He was a passionate advocate of social reform and took the occasion of his first visit to America in 1842 to write of his objection to slavery.

I am certain he would, at the very least, empathize with the modern–day Occupy movement. Financial disparity is a kind of slavery; the issues aren't the same, of course, although that may depend upon one's interpretation.

Anyway, following Dickens' death in June 1870, Queen Victoria wrote of him in her diary: "He had a large loving mind and the strongest sympathy with the poorer classes. He felt sure a better feeling, and much greater union of classes, would take place in time. And I pray earnestly it may."

Still waiting on that one. But it may yet come to pass.

In the last six or seven decades, though, it hasn't been necessary to wait long for a movie or TV adaptation of Dickens' works. When I was a child, a movie based on "Oliver Twist" was a big winner at the Oscars and a top money earner, and its success apparently inspired another Dickens adaptation (this one based on "A Christmas Carol") a couple of years later.

There have been others since. The stories have a timeless appeal.

As Annie Fischer observes, in the Kansas City Star, Dickens' "cultural relevance lives on."

Indeed it does.