Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Charles Dickens, 1852
Source Library Company of Philadelphia
Author Antoine Francois Jean Claudet
From en.wikipedia.org

Education is a kind of lottery in which there are good and evil chances, and some men draw blanks and other men draw prizes. Education means the whole set of circumstances which go to mould a man's character during the apprentice years of his life and a prize when those circumstances have been such as to develop the man's powers to the utmost, and to fit him to do best that of which he is best capable. Charles Dickens' education, however untoward and unpromising it may often have seemed while in the process, must really be pronounced a prize of value quite inestimable.
Perhaps no novelist ever had a keener feeling of the pathos of childhood than Dickens, or understood more fully how real and overwhelming are its sorrows. No one, too, has entered more sympathetically into its ways. And of the child and boy that he himself had once been, he was wont to think very tenderly and very often. Again and again in his writings he reverts to the scenes and incidents and emotions of his earlier days. Sometimes he goes back to his young life directly, speaking as of himself. More often he goes back to it indirectly, placing imaginary children and boys in the position he had once occupied.
Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) was but two years old when his father left Portsea for London, and but four when a second migration took the family to Chatham. Here we catch our first glimpse of him, in his own word-painting, as a "very queer small boy," a small boy who was sickly and delicate, and could take but little part in the rougher sports of his school companions, but read much, as sickly boys will—read the novels of the older novelists in a "blessed little room," a kind of palace of enchantment, where "'Roderick Random,' 'Peregrine Pickle,' 'Humphrey Clinker,' 'Tom Jones,' 'The Vicar of Wakefield,' 'Don Quixote, 'Gil Blas,' and 'Robinson Crusoe,' came out, a glorious host, to keep him company."
There is one of Dickens' works which was his own special favorite, the most cherished, as he tells us, among the offspring of his brain. That work is ‘David Copperfield.’ Nor can there be much difficulty in discovering why it occupied such an exceptional position in "his heart of hearts;" for in its pages he had enshrined the deepest memories of his own childhood and youth. Like David Copperfield, he had known what it was to be a poor, neglected lad, set to rough, uncongenial work, with no more than a mechanic's surroundings and outlook, and having to fend for himself in the miry ways of the great city. Like David Copperfield, he had formed a very early acquaintance with debts and duns, and been initiated into the mysteries and sad expedients of shabby poverty. Like David Copperfield, he had been made free of the interior of a debtor's prison. Poor lad, he was not much more than ten or eleven years old when he left Chatham.
So little Charles, aged from eleven to twelve, first blacked boots, and minded the younger children, and ran messages, and effected the family purchases—which can have been no pleasant task in the then state of the family credit,—and made very close acquaintance with the inside of the pawnbrokers' shops, and with the purchasers of second-hand books, disposing, among other things, of the little store of books he loved so well; and then, when his father was imprisoned, ran more messages hither and thither, and shed many childish tears in his father's company—the father doubtless regarding the tears as a tribute to his eloquence, though, heaven knows, there were other things to cry over besides his sonorous periods.
‘David Copperfield’ was published between May, 1849, and the autumn of 1850, and marks the culminating point in Dickens' career as a writer. All the scenes of little David's childhood in the Norfolk home—the Blunderstone rookery, where there were no rooks—are among the most beautiful pictures of childhood in existence. In what sunshine of love does the lad bask with his mother and Peggotty, till Mrs. Copperfield contracts her disastrous second marriage with Mr. Murdstone! There come harshness and cruelty; banishment to Mr. Creakle's villainous school; the poor mother's death; the worse banishment to London, and descent into warehouse drudgery; the strange shabby-genteel, happy-go-lucky life with the Micawbers; the flight from intolerable ills in the forlorn hope that David's aunt will take pity on him. Here the scene changes again. Miss Betsy Trotwood, a fine old gnarled piece of womanhood, places the boy at school at Canterbury, where he makes acquaintance with Agnes, the woman whom he marries far, far on in the story; and with her father, Mr. Wickham, a somewhat port wine-loving lawyer; and with Uriah Heep, the fawning villain of the piece. How David is first articled to a proctor in Doctors' Commons, and then becomes a reporter, and then a successful author; and how he marries his first wife, the childish Dora, who dies; and how, meanwhile, Uriah is effecting the general ruin, and aspiring to the hand of Agnes, till his villanies are detected and his machinations defeated by Micawber—how all this comes about, would be a long story to tell.
Now to this story, as Dickens tells it, French criticism objects that he dwells exclusively on the sin and sorrow, and sets aside that in which the French novelist would delight, viz., the mad force and irresistible sway of passion. To which English criticism may reply, that the "pity of it," the wide-working desolation, are as essentially part of such an event as the passion; and, therefore, even from an exclusively artistic point of view, just as fit subjects for the novelist.
The mere desire to see and hear Dickens, the great Dickens, the novelist who was more than popular, who was the object of real personal affection on the part of the English-speaking race,—this would have drawn a crowd at any time. But Dickens was not the man to rely upon such sources of attraction, any more than an actress who is really an actress will consent to rely exclusively on her good looks. "Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well," such as we have seen was one of the governing principles of his life; and he read very well. Of nervousness there was no trace in his composition. To someone who asked him whether he ever felt any shyness as a speaker, he answered, "Not in the least; the first time I took the chair (at a public dinner) I felt as much confidence as if I had done the thing a hundred times." This of course helped him much as a reader, and gave him full command over all his gifts. But the gifts were also assiduously cultivated. He labored, one might almost say, agonized, to make himself a master of the art. Mr. Dolby, who acted as his "manager," during the tours undertaken from 1866 to 1870, tells us that before producing "Dr. Marigold," he not only gave a kind of semi-public rehearsal, but had rehearsed it to himself considerably over two hundred times. Writing to Forster, Dickens says: "You have no idea how I have worked at them (the readings).... I have tested all the serious passion in them by everything I know, made the humorous points much more humorous; corrected my utterance of certain words; ... I learnt 'Dombey' like the rest, and did it to myself often twice a day, with exactly the same pains as at night, over, and over, and over again."
The results justified the care and effort bestowed. There are, speaking generally, two schools of readers: those who dramatize what they read, and those who read simply, audibly, with every attention to emphasis and point, but with no effort to do more than slightly indicate differences of personage or character. To the latter school Thackeray belonged. He read so as to be perfectly heard, and perfectly understood, and so that the innate beauty of his literary style might have full effect. Dickens read quite differently. He read not as a writer to whom style is everything, but as an actor throwing himself into the world he wished to bring before his hearers. He was so careless indeed of pure literature, in this particular matter, that he altered his books for the readings, eliminating much of the narrative, and emphasizing the dialogue. He was pre-eminently the dramatic reader.
(Adapted from 'The Project Gutenberg eBook, Life of Charles Dickens, by Frank Marzials')

Dickens dream
Dickens's study in his home at Gad's Hill Place
An unfinished painting by R.W.Buss, 1875
Donated by the artist's grandson - 1931
Source Dickens museum
From en.wikipedia.org

Dickens loved the style of 18th century Gothic romance, although it had already become a target for parody. One "character" vividly drawn throughout his novels is London itself. From the coaching inns on the outskirts of the city to the lower reaches of the Thames, all aspects of the capital are described over the course of his body of work.
His writing style is florid and poetic, with a strong comic touch. His satires of British aristocratic snobbery—he calls one character the "Noble Refrigerator"—is often popular. Comparing orphans to stocks and shares, people to tug boats, or dinner-party guests to furniture are just some of Dickens's acclaimed flights of fancy. Many of his characters' names provide the reader with a hint as to the roles played in advancing the storyline, such as Mr. Murdstone in the novel ‘David Copperfield’, which is clearly a combination of "murder" and stony coldness. His literary style is also a mixture of fantasy and realism.
Dickens is famed for his depiction of the hardships of the working class, his intricate plots, and his sense of humor. But he is perhaps most famed for the characters he created. His novels were heralded early in his career for their ability to capture the everyday man and thus create characters to which readers could relate. Beginning with ‘The Pickwick Papers’ in 1836, Dickens wrote numerous novels, each uniquely filled with believable personalities and vivid physical descriptions. John Forster, said that Dickens made "characters real existences, not by describing them but by letting them describe themselves."
Another important impact of Dickens's episodic writing style resulted from his exposure to the opinions of his readers. Since Dickens did not write the chapters very far ahead of their publication, he was allowed to witness the public reaction and alter the story depending on those public reactions. A fine example of this process can be seen in his weekly serial ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, which is a chase story. In this novel, Nell and her grandfather are fleeing the villain Quilp. The progress of the novel follows the gradual success of that pursuit. As Dickens wrote and published the weekly installments, John Forster pointed out: "You know you're going to have to kill her, don't you?" Why this end was necessary can be explained by a brief analysis of the difference between the structures of a comedy versus a tragedy. In a comedy, the action covers a sequence "You think they're going to lose, you think they're going to lose, they win". In tragedy, it is: "You think they're going to win, you think they're going to win, they lose". The dramatic conclusion of the story is implicit throughout the novel. So, as Dickens wrote the novel in the form of a tragedy, the sad outcome of the novel was a foregone conclusion. If he had not caused his heroine to lose, he would not have completed his dramatic structure. Dickens admitted that his friend Forster was right and, in the end, Nell died.
Dickens's novels were, among other things, works of social commentary. He was a fierce critic of the poverty and social stratification of Victorian society. Dickens's second novel, ‘Oliver Twist’ (1839), shocked readers with its images of poverty and crime and was responsible for the clearing of the actual London slum, Jacob's Island, that was the basis of the story. In addition, with the character of the tragic prostitute, Nancy, Dickens "humanized" such women for the reading public; women who were regarded as "unfortunates", inherently immoral casualties of the Victorian class/economic system. ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Little Dorrit' elaborated expansive critiques of the Victorian institutional apparatus: the interminable lawsuits of the Court of Chancery that destroyed people's lives in ‘Bleak House’ and a dual attack in ‘Little Dorrit’ on inefficient, corrupt patent offices and unregulated market speculation.
In ‘Oliver Twist’ Dickens provides readers with an idealised portrait of a boy so inherently and unrealistically 'good' that his values are never subverted by either brutal orphanages or coerced involvement in a gang of young pickpockets. While later novels also centre on idealized characters (Esther Summerson in ‘Bleak House’ and Amy Dorrit in ‘Little Dorrit’), this idealism serves only to highlight Dickens's goal of poignant social commentary. Many of his novels are concerned with social realism, focusing on mechanisms of social control that direct people's lives (for instance, factory networks in Hard Times and hypocritical exclusionary class codes in ‘Our Mutual Friend’).

Charles Dickens, Circa 1867
Author Jeremiah Gurney
From en.wikipedia.org

Dickens continues to be one of the best known and most read of English authors, and his works have never gone out of print. At least 180 motion pictures and TV adaptations based on Dickens's works help confirm his success.
Through his journalism he campaigned on specific issues—such as sanitation and the workhouse—but his fiction probably demonstrated its greatest prowess in changing public opinion in regard to class inequalities. He often depicted the exploitation and repression of the poor and condemned the public officials and institutions that not only allowed such abuses to exist, but flourished as a result. His most strident indictment of this condition is in ‘Hard Times’ (1854), Dickens's only novel-length treatment of the industrial working class. In this work, he uses both vitriol and satire to illustrate how this marginalized social stratum was termed "Hands" by the factory owners; that is, not really "people" but rather only appendages of the machines that they operated.
His writings inspired others, in particular journalists and political figures, to address such problems of class oppression. For example, the prison scenes in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ are claimed to have been influential in having the Fleet Prison shut down. As Karl Marx said, Dickens, and the other novelists of Victorian England, "...issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together...". The exceptional popularity of his novels, even those with socially oppositional themes (‘Bleak House’, 1853; ‘Little Dorrit’, 1857; ‘Our Mutual Friend’, 1865) underscored not only his almost preternatural ability to create compelling storylines and unforgettable characters, but also ensured that the Victorian public confronted issues of social justice that had commonly been ignored.
(Adapted from 'Charles Dickens' at en.wikipedia.org)

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