In the context of the celebration of the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth we have already discussed the writer’s influence in popular culture, primarily through the production, decade after decade, of emblematic films. This time, however, I want to focus on the trade that Dickens chose as his occupation: writing. Two hundred years is a long time, and the question is just begging to be asked: in the age of BlackBerries and twitter, of digital socializing and instant communication, what is the relevance of Dickens’ writing? Moreover, beyond his stories, which evidently continue to affect people around the world to this day, is there room in the society of the XXI century for Dickens’ literary style?
Born in Portsmouth, on the southern coast of England, on February 7, 1812, Dickens’ family moved to London when he was 10 years old. Rather than for the benefit of his education, however, this change came as a consequence of his father’s difficult financial situation, which ultimately led to his imprisonment in the Debtor’s Prison, still standing today in Southwark, by the Thames. Aged 12, Charles Dickens was sent to board at a family friend’s, and was forced to work ten-hour shifts on a daily basis to pay for his and his family’s maintenance. Indeed, Charles Dickens was only saved from the bleak destiny that so often marks his characters by the happy chance of her grandmother’s death, who left an inheritance large enough for his father to pay his debts and once more incorporate himself to the open society. Dickens then attended a somewhat mediocre school and worked as a clerk at a law firm in Holborn, before setting off on a brief career as a journalist at the tender age of 18.
This biographical digression is of particular importance in this case, specifically. Most commonly described as “the conscience of Victorian England,” Dickens did not develop such concern, insight and awareness about the less privileged classes in the eminently industrialized environment of XIX century Britain out of thin air. On the contrary, Charles Dickens’ heartfelt empathy and engaging characterizations of young protagonists in utter distress, from David Copperfield to Oliver Twist, stem from his own experiences as a teenager – perhaps the most impressionable period in a man’s life.
But if direct confrontation with the vicissitudes faced by the working classes – combined, of course, with a remarkable storytelling talent, a most acute sensibility to identify the essence of a situation and a gift to communicate with his readers – provided Dickens with the substance, the content, as it were, of his continued success, he still had to give such material its shape. And therein resides, more than anywhere else, the true greatness of his literary merit. Dickens’ craft was good enough to gain certain level of reputation by the mid-1830s, having only published a series of sketches (or rough short stories). But when the publishing house, Chapman & Hall, approached him to provide the storyline to a series of illustrations by Robert Seymour, he had the vision and the talent to create the adventures that were to become The Pickwick Papers, today considered his first novel, which was sold in monthly installments between April 1836 and November 1837 for a shilling apiece.
In the future, Dickens would be less known for the comic strain that shapes The Pickwick Papers, even if humor would always play a role in his characterizations. One crucial legacy of this successful incursion in the world of fiction by Dickens, however, would be the format of the publication, in brief, periodical, sections. Indeed, The Pickwick Papers was so successful that, from that point onwards, serializations came to be regarded as economically viable and thrived throughout the rest of the XIX century in Britain and Europe.
Dickens himself exploited the resource to the maximum in the years that followed, publishing Oliver Twist between February 1837 and April 1839 at Bentley’s Miscellany magazine, of which he had become editor in 1836, before returning to his favored publisher, Chapman & Hall, to produce Nicholas Nickleby between 1838-39, and to print his own literary journal, Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840-41), which included weekly serializations of The Old Curiosity Shopand Barnaby Rudge. By then, Dickens was something of a celebrity: not only had he been confronted and identified the major issues of his time, but he had also discovered, practically, the best way to convey them to the public at large.
In the years to come, Dickens would explore new formats, issuing seasonal short novels or novellas, specifically targeting the Christmas spirit. The first of these, Christmas Carol (1843), was one of the last of Dickens’ works published by Chapman & Hall, following the relative failure of Martin Chuzzlewit, published in monthly installments between 1843-44. For the next 15 years Dickens would publish with Bradbury & Evans, owners of the famous satirical journal, Punch, who would go on to produce some of his greatest classics, including David Copperfield (1839-40), Bleak House (1852-53), and A Tale of Two Cities (1855-1857), all of which were serialized monthly. From 1850 onwards, he would also “conduct” a weekly journal, Household Words, which blended fiction and non-fiction, and where Hard Times was first printed in 1854. Household Words would turn into All the Year Round in 1859, when Dickens fell out with Bradbury & Evans and returned to Chapman & Hall, but the journal retained its spirit, combining fiction with non-fiction, focusing on social issues and serializing Dickens’ works: the first issue of All the Year Round contained the first installment of A Tale of Two Cities, and the following year, between 1860 and 1861, it included the last of Dickens’ great novels: Great Expectations.
Talented and crafty, bold in his experimentation and yet aware of the sensibility of his time, immensely popular and, therefore, hugely successful, famous and influential, the publishing history of Dickens is almost a close mapping – a Who’s Who – of the literary scene in Victorian England. And yet, none of this warrants him a place in the day-to-day reality of our lives, other than as a venerable figure of the past – a mummy of sorts – which is akin to no place at all. Other than being old, which often constitutes a major stumbling block when it comes to engaging the younger generations, Dickens’ English is sometimes cited as an important barrier between his message and new readers. But, while it is true that the construction of his sentences can sometimes seem unnecessarily convoluted, Dickens is no Shakespeare (after all, who can follow the meaning of a phrase, let alone a whole play, in Iambic pentameter), and, in the end, the substance of his words are far closer to the surface than it might at first appear.
Moreover, such substance – the issues he explores – are amazingly relevant, two centuries later, to the predicament that assails the western world in the XXI century. Hardship, labor, sacrifice and the uncertainty of the future are all tropes that have recently returned to the discourse of leading politicians around the world – and when those issues reach political spheres, it is because they have been felt in the reality of the population for a long time.
But literature does not always have to be edifying and moral: sometimes it can just be entertaining. And, while Dickens is often described as a “realist” writer concerned with the “social conscience” of Victorian England, such categorization flagrantly ignores the Romantic influence in his writing and the careful crafting of his stories. If Dickens had dealt merely with the social issues of his time in prosaic essays he might have been forgotten, or merely relegated to academic circles. But he didn’t: he built them into complex and often likable characters immersed in even more complex and engaging circumstance that come to life page after page after page. As a matter of fact, if Dickens didn’t invent the term page-turner, he certainly was the first master of the cliffhanger. In this respect, he is the forefather, and indeed the senior, of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. What is more, he is also the forefather (and senior) of the telenovela phenomenon, with implausible plots and highly emotional twists continuously manipulating his readers’ responses.
By which I mean to say not so much that the best of Dickens is present in Dan Brown and Leonardo Padrón, but that if you like an intelligent thriller or an emotional soap opera (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?), then you will love Dickens. Guaranteed. Just nip out to your local library and give A Tale of Two Cities a chance. I accept all responsibility if you don’t get hooked and consider it a waste of your time!
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, MARCH 17, 2012.