Not many writers warrant a bicentennial celebration. Charles Dickens is considered one of the best-loved authors of all time, publishing a number of best-selling novels throughout his life. Dickens remains an important literary influence throughout the world and his tales have been handed down through generations – his cutting portrayal of Victorian society and the issues and conflicts of class and culture remain debatable to this very day. The intrigue of Charles Dickens’s works can be said to lie in his characterisation. Dickens provided the literary world with some of its most colourful characters – from Oliver Twist and the scrupulous Fagin to the wanderings of Miss Havisham; the impetuous Nicholas Nickleby to the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge – each character breathes life into the crooks and crannies of 19th century society, prompting many to proclaim Dickens himself as the quintessential ‘Victorian author’. February marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, prompting a series of commemorative events throughout the realms of television and literature – so what the Dickens is all this fuss about?
Dickens’s own story is shared amongst a number of his characters. Born on the 7th February 1812, Dickens enjoyed a moderately comfortable childhood, growing up first in Bloomsbury and then moving to rural Kent. This idyllic period came to an abrupt end in 1822 when the Dickens family moved back to London and Dickens’s father, unable to resolve his financial issues, was thrown into debtor’s prison. The incarceration of his father, embodied in the character of Mr.Micawber in David Copperfield, and the subsequent months Dickens spent working in a factory to pay off his family’s debts, features both figuratively and emotionally in many of his novels. Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, the latter of which is considered Dickens’s most autobiographical work to date, deal closely with the lower classes and offer a damning critique of the divide between rich and poor in Victorian society. Oliver Twist, which introduces some of Dickens’s most vivid characters, is particularly significant in its focus on the criminal classes and offers a dark, often vicious interpretation of what it means to be poor in Victorian society. The work itself is compellingly written, but it is in the characters themselves that the story really unfolds. Dickens authorial voice is often present in many of his works, but in Oliver Twist in particular, he allows the story to flow through his characters instead, and as a result the novel reads easily and naturally, despite its heavy social commentary. Dickens’s own experience of the darker side of London society flavour many of his works and set him aside from other writers of his age, as his lifelong dedication to ‘strike a hammer blow for the poor’ means he is considered to this day to be a great philanthropist.
Charles Dickens is similarly known for a love of storytelling that prompted his widely popular ‘open readings’, a series of public events that delighted audiences across Britain and America. Armed with only a book and a pedestal, Dickens would entertain crowds of over 200 with dramatic readings of his most famous works, delighting in the reactions to his tales, and often drawing out the most gruesome scenes in order to make his audience squeal. Dickens love for storytelling and theatricality can be found in his classic tale A Christmas Carol, which has a deviously fantastical air to it that can drive even the most stout-hearted of non-believers under the covers. Mixing Christmas cheer and ghostly apparitions shouldn’t produce a winner, but it is, and A Christmas Carol remains one of the best-loved festive classics to this very day. Despite his failing health, Dickens persevered in his public readings and continued to write to the very end. By his 58th year he had published at least 15 major literary works, as well as contributing to journal and newspaper articles published on both sides of the Atlantic. He died on the 9th June 1870 whilst working on his final manuscript, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and was buried in the poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey.
200 years since his birth, Charles Dickens remains one of the brightest writers of his generation and is sure to remain a literary influence for many years to come.