Happy 200th birthday, Charles Dickens
February 7, 2012 marks the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Dickens, whose work is as popular today as it was when he was a celebrity in Victorian England. U of T Professor Emeritus John Baird discusses just what is it was – and is – that makes Dickens exceptional in the history of literature.
Professor Baird is giving a public reading of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers on Feb. 7 at the Jackman Humanities Institute on U of T’s St. George campus.
Why is the work of Charles Dickens still so important 200 years after his birth?
We’re still reading Charles Dickens. He continues to be taught in courses on Victorian literature, but he also continues to be read by people who are just looking for an interesting read. This is really a continuation of the success he enjoyed in his own time. He was a hugely popular author, read by everybody from Queen Victoria down throughout English society. He found this audience early in his career with his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, when he was 25 years old, and he never lost that grip on his public.
His popularity has survived a variety of shifts in critical opinion. Fifty years after his death in 1870, he was looked down upon by sophisticates like Oscar Wilde who felt Dickens was a rather artless writer whose work was full of sentimental passages one could only laugh at, someone too simple-minded to be a great artist. But people continued to read his work.
Do you think he was a great artist?
Undoubtedly. He wrote 12 major novels, and each one is an imaginative world of its own. He was a writer who ceaselessly reinvented himself as times changed. He was also an important person in the history of fiction. He wasn’t the first person to write novels with complicated plots, but Dickens, in Bleak House in particular, was really a pioneer of the detective novel. It was his assistant editor in the weekly magazine he put out, Household Words, a man named Wilkie Collins, who went on to write a number of novels which are now regarded as the prototypical detective novels. Collins and others were following in a direction where Dickens had set the standard.
The other striking thing about Dickens is his use of language. His writing comes alive. These aren’t just words strung together into sentences. When you read the sentences they have a dynamic kind of relationship with each other, which makes reading Dickens a lively experience. Dickens’s language has a poetic quality, which is in keeping with the kinds of stories that he tells.
Dickens seems to be a novelist who succeeds as both a literary artist and a popular writer.
Dickens was exceptional in the social range of his readership. His contemporary William Makepeace Thackeray wrote much more for a well-heeled, educated audience. Dickens wrote for everybody, and in that respect he’s like Shakespeare in his plays for the Globe Theatre, where the audience ranges from the nobility in the boxes to the groundlings standing in front of the stage — and Shakespeare is speaking to all of them. Dickens was that kind of writer and exceptional in that respect.
He was also quite a celebrity, wasn’t he? He did lecture tours that were quite popular. I believe he lectured in Toronto at one point, didn’t he?
Yes, he visited Toronto first at the end of his first North American tour in 1842 and was very pleased to get out of the United States and find himself in Queen Victoria’s empire once again. The public readings were enormously successful but also quite demanding on him and in the end his doctors urged him to stop. He finally did not long before his death. His audiences kept demanding — and he was drawn to it — his version of the end of Oliver Twist where Bill Sykes kills his girlfriend Nancy. It’s a very melodramatic episode and Dickens was physically exhausted by it.
The other aspect of Dickens’s work is that it has an almost journalist aspect to it. In Oliver Twist, for example, he exposed the poverty in London at the time to readers.
That was a very important part of his writing. He began life as a journalist. He became a highly esteemed shorthand reporter around 1830 before he started writing himself. He became a parliamentary reporter. This was just before the reform bill of 1832 and there was a tremendous amount of speechmaking in parliament and elsewhere, and Dickens was very much in demand as a reporter because he was so good at it.
His work as a parliamentary shorthand reporter gave him a lifelong distaste for parliament, which he once called the “national ash heap”. It started him on a career in journalism that in a sense never ended. He became a successful writer of fiction with The Pickwick Papers when he was about 25, but he also edited a daily newspaper for a time. Later for many years he published his own magazines, in which novels were serialized, his own and those of other authors. And his novels are full of reflections of the issues of his day.
He was quite pointed in his social commentary, wasn’t he?
Yes, he touched on many subjects, but three run through all of his novels.
The first was public health, which was very important from the 1830s to the 1860s. Issues like drainage, sewage, provision of clean water, the problems of congested urban areas and the way that disease proliferated in such districts. He not only wrote about public health in his novels, he also campaigned for it — he became president of a society devoted to improving public health.
Another theme is crime, also an issue of continuing concern in the England of his day. How do you catch criminals? And once you’ve caught them, then what do you do? He was involved in debates about the function of prisons — are they places where you take people who have done wrong out of circulation for a while, or are they places where people can be reformed and rehabilitated?
And the most important was education, a crucial issue throughout Dickens’s lifetime. Education was a battleground between various religious organizations, which argued that education had always historically been a function of the church and ought to remain so, and others contending that in the modern world, education was the responsibility of the state to see that everybody had basic literacy.
These debates were raging throughout Dickens’s life and he goes back again and again in his novels to question how you get education to people, especially to the poor. How do you rescue children from a life of crime or from child labour, how do you get them educated, what are the schools to be like?
Nicholas Nickleby starts out with scenes in Yorkshire schools, which were notorious in the 1830s as places where parents could send children who they had no interest in. Dickens went to Yorkshire and looked into these schools and had his hero, Nicholas Nickleby, look for work as a schoolmaster in a Yorkshire school. This is a good example of the way Dickens used his fiction to expose a social problem. It’s also a good example of his campaigning against the mistreatment of children.
Is there one novel that can be called his best?
That’s a hard question. I usually think that Dickens’s best novel is the one I happen to be reading at the time.
Perhaps the easiest novel to read for somebody who’s never read Dickens is David Copperfield, which is partly autobiographical, the story of a boy who has a difficult childhood, rather like Dickens’s, and who goes on to become a successful parliamentary reporter and novelist.
But the novel he wrote after that, Bleak House, to me is the novel that conveys more of Dickens’s qualities. Its two stories — one is a retrospective account and one in the present tense. The two stories alternate throughout the novel. They seem to be disconnected, but eventually converge in the same spot and the same moment in time. This shows Dickens’s powers of construction in fiction extremely well, and it’s an exciting read.
You’re reading from The Pickwick Papers. Why?
My bicentennial project is to read all the novels in chronological order and I like to re-read The Pickwick Papers, which is the first one, at Christmas every year. Also, the trial scene that I’m reading was one of Dickens’s favourite readings.
Pickwick was hugely important for him because he came to write it almost by accident. He was asked to take on this job of writing monthly installments to provide an opportunity for a popular artist to draw pictures and the idea was that readers would pay a shilling a month to get four pictures and 24 pages of prose narrative. He took this on because they were offering him 14 pounds a month and that would enable him to get married.
After two months the original artist died and Dickens got more control over the project. The monthly installment went up to 32 pages of narrative and he found an illustrator who would follow his wishes. Gradually he developed the monthly episodes into something quite different. Within a year the print run went from 400 copies a month to 40,000 a month. This was a runaway bestseller and it set Dickens up as the most popular writer of his time, and he never lost that position in later years.