Happy birthday Mr Dickens!

From Downton Abbey to X-men and The Wire, the celebrity Victorian writer strides on.

Lontoo yöllä

Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 in the naval town of Portsmouth in south-west England. In the turbulent times that followed, with a maritime empire to exploit and continental revolution to contain, the celebrity author Dickens saw the drama of London, a collection of villages, turning into a modern metropolis with no shortage of opportunities, traps, characters... and smells. With a precarious place on the social ladder in a pre-welfare state, (the land of great estates becoming a land of estate agents) he experienced first-hand family humiliation brought on by debt. Money - the lack of it, how to get it, and how to hold on to it - was to run as a theme throughout his apparently exhaustive, and just occasionally exhausting, body of writing.

Self-styled as 'the Inimitable', Dickens fought ‘the battle of life’, writing manically to meet deadlines, satirising the mongrel English race and the chaos all around him. Dickens met life head on. He was a man of enormous energy. Whether walking the distance from London to his new home in north Kent (say, Helsinki to Porvoo) or giving readings at the ‘Boz Ball’ in New York with an audience of 3,000, Dickens was the nervous hub of all his characters.

His own life – that of the parliamentary reporter, the popular comic writer, the ambitious devoted family man, the exhaustingly prolix hoaxster, the keen moral commentator, and finally the incompatible husband – provided him with a wealth of material, material that cost him his life. He died in 1870, exactly five years after the railway accident which he and his protégée, the young actress Ellen Ternan, and her mother narrowly survived. His last great retrospective novel Great Expectations and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood arguably mark the beginning of the thriller genre.

Times change, and literary tastes change, but Dickens has proved oddly resilient. In the determinedly hard times of 1940 Europe, George Orwell asked 'Is Dickens merely an institution?', noting the civic duty to have read at least some Dickens. Was he just a relic of the Victorian era? 'No modern man could combine such purposelessness with so much vitality.' Orwell wrote.

Virginia Woolf thought she would have crossed the road to avoid his showman vulgarity. And yet despite professional literary disdain for his popular fame, we should remember his contemporary John Ruskin's balanced comment: 'But let us not lose the use of Dickens's wit and insight, because he chooses to speak in a circle of stage fire'. Dickens was to writing what the ringleader is to the circus.

Rooted in amateur dramatics and the acquisitive consumerism of the economist Adam Smith’s ‘nation of shopkeepers’, we might ask ourselves: without Dickens would we have Walt Disney's visual fantasies? Or Downton Abbey? X-men? Product placement or TV chefs? Computer games? Dare one say it, brands and branding? British TV serials and soaps – Coronation Street, Yes Minister, Dad's Army, The Fast Show, Little Britain - would be so much the poorer without his fiction, tailor-made as they are for adaptation. His was an angry smile.

As the world prepares to celebrate his 200th birthday the question for every society must still be: can we afford NOT to have bread and circuses in 2012? There is an essential childlike perspective in everything Dickens handled – from the nostalgia for simple homecomings to tilting against the windmills of events and systems too complex to even begin to comprehend, systems with an apparent life of their own. Even our sense of the French Revolution is distorted by Dickens's mixture of the apparently inevitable process of manufacturing a specially designed sharp implement - the guillotine - and having his women characters knitting while heads roll.

The Life of Dickens- A set of readings by members of the FinnBrits will take place at 6pm on Tuesday 7 February in Metsätalo, luentosali 2.

John Calton at Research Database TUHAT » »

Text: John Calton
Photo: 123rf
7.2.2012
University of Helsinki, digital communications


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