Like many fans of Charles Dickens, my first encounters with his works were not in books. As a child, I’d listen every year to my family’s scratched and worn LP of A Christmas Carol, narrated by Laurence Olivier, and I remember seeing the film version of the musical Oliver! when it was newly released in theaters. Indeed, Dickens’ work is certainly among the most often adapted to stage and screen, and it is quite easy to feel as if one has read him, even if one has not.
This month the world commemorates the bicentenary of Dickens’ 1812 birth, a suitable occasion for revisiting his writing—or encountering it for the first time. Why rediscover Dickens? Because he is not merely the verbose writer you were forced to read in high school English class (although he is undeniably verbose). He is a master storyteller, a sharp-witted social critic and a comic genius. Having recently read Oliver Twist for the first time, I was once again delighted and amazed by the scope of his talent for creating characters and situations that are as believable today as they must have been for his first readers. And did I mention that he is funny? That’s something that often gets lost in the otherwise excellent costume dramas Hollywood and the BBC have churned out.
The specifics of Dickens’ childhood are well known and often bleed into his fiction. The family’s penury and time spent in debtor’s prison inform not only the autobiographical David Copperfield, but seep into other novels and stories as well, like Little Dorrit. Even when he became a wealthy writer and international celebrity, Dickens never forgot his precarious youth. The details of his life have been meticulously detailed in Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens, now out of print, and in recent biographies by Claire Tomalin and Michael Slater. Novelist Jane Smiley has a concise biography in the Penguin Lives series. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s recent Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist covers his early career.
As part of the Dickens celebration, his great-great-great-granddaughter, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, in association with the Charles Dickens Museum in London, has put together Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012, a charming book full of photographs and documents. It even includes removable facsimile documents—manuscript pages, letters and even Dickens’ will—along with succinct chapters about the writer’s life and work.
The best way to celebrate Charles Dickens at 200, of course, is through his ageless writing. One of my own favorites is Great Expectations, with its surprising twists of fate and its indelible depiction of Miss Havisham’s madness, but it may be impossible to choose any single Dickens book as his best, so all-embracing is his literary vision.
Perhaps no one has said it better than the American critic Charles Eliot Norton, who, two years before Dickens’ death, wrote, “No one thinks first of Mr. Dickens as a writer. He is at once, through his books, a friend. He belongs among the intimates of every pleasant-tempered and large-hearted person . . . for, indeed, it is not in his purely literary character that he has done most for us, it is as a man of the largest humanity, who has simply used literature as the means by which to bring himself into relations with his fellow-man.”
For more on books by and about Charles Dickens, see our blog post on The Book Case.