Today is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), arguably the finest novelist of the Victorian era and one of the greatest novelists of the past two centuries. A piece in The New Zealand Herald discusses the ongoing popularity of Dickens:
He wrote about life in the modern city, with its lawyers and criminals, bankers and urchins, dreamers and clerks.
He created characters still known to millions Ebeneezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, Pip and Miss Havisham, Fagin and Oliver Twist. And it made him a star, mobbed by fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
"You only have to look around our society and everything he wrote about in the 1840s is still relevant," said Dickens' biographer, Claire Tomalin.
"The great gulf between the rich and poor, corrupt financiers, corrupt Members of Parliament ... You name it, he said it." ...
"The quality of the writing is part of why we still relate to him today," said Jo Robinson, a graduate student at King's College London who is researching Dickens. "He's an incredibly vivid writer. He has such an array of characters and there's so much to get out of him ... Each generation sees it in their own way."
Part of Dickens' staying power stems from his incredible productivity. An insomniac who often roamed London's streets by night, he wrote more than 20 books, had 10 children, toured the world on lecture tours and campaigned for social change until his death from a stroke in 1870 at the age of 58.
"He believed he knew London better than any person alive, because he spent so much time walking the streets," said Alex Werner, curator of the exhibition "Dickens and London," running at the Museum of London until June.
It might well be an understatement to say that the prolific G. K. Chesterton was a huge admirer of Dickens. One of his first books—Charles Dickens (1906)—was about the novelist; in fact, Chesterton's writings on Dickens are credited with helping firmly establish (or re-establish) Dickens' reputation in the early 20th century. T. S. Eliot, who knew a thing or three about literary criticism, considered Chesterton to be the most perceptive critic of Dickens: "Dickens's 'best novel' is probably Bleak House; that is Mr. Chesterton's opinion, and there is no better critic of Dickens living than Mr. Chesterton". As is always the case with Chesterton, there are numerous quotes to select from, but I'll stick to just two.
The first is about some of the qualities of Dickens' unique genius:
Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. For this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted. And with this was connected that other fact which must never be forgotten, and which I have more than once insisted on, that Dickens and his school had a hilarious faith in democracy and thought of the service of it as a sacred priesthood. Hence there was this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension in it. The belief that the rabble will only read rubbish can be read between the lines of all our contemporary writers, even of those writers whose rubbish the rabble reads. Mr. Fergus Hume has no more respect for the populace than Mr. George Moore. The only difference lies between those writers who will consent to talk down to the people, and those writers who will not consent to talk down to the people. But Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up to the people. He approached the people like a deity and poured out his riches and his blood. This is what makes the immortal bond between him and the masses of men. He had not merely produced something they could understand, but he took it seriously, and toiled and agonised to produce it. They were not only enjoying one of the best writers, they were enjoying the best he could do. His raging and sleepless nights, his wild walks in the darkness, his note-books crowded, his nerves in rags, all this extraordinary output was but a fit sacrifice to the ordinary man. He climbed towards the lower classes. He panted upwards on weary wings to reach the heaven of the poor.
His power, then, lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncommon the things close to the common mind. But with this mere phrase, the common mind, we collide with a current error. Commonness and the common mind are now generally spoken of as meaning in some manner inferiority and the inferior mind; the mind of the mere mob. But the common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or else it would not be common. Plato had the common mind; Dante had the common mind; or that mind was not common. Commonness means the quality common to the saint and the sinner, to the philosopher and the fool; and it was this that Dickens grasped and developed. In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody: everybody means Mrs. Meynell. This lady, a cloistered and fastidious writer, has written one of the best eulogies of Dickens that exist, an essay in praise of his pungent perfection of epithet. And when I say that everybody understands Dickens I do not mean that he is suited to the untaught intelligence. I mean that he is so plain that even scholars can understand him.
The second is about Dickens' place in literary history:
The immortal mind will remain, and by that writers like Dickens will be securely judged. That Dickens will have a high place in permanent literature there is, I imagine, no prig surviving to deny. But though all prediction is in the dark, I would devote this chapter to suggesting that his place in nineteenth-century England will not only be high, but altogether the highest. At a certain period of his contemporary fame, an average Englishman would have said that there were at that moment in England about five or six able and equal novelists. He could have made a list, Dickens, Bulwer Lytton, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, perhaps more. Forty years or more have passed and some of them have slipped to a lower place. Some would now say that the highest platform is left to Thackeray and Dickens; some to Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot; some to Dickens, Thackeray, and Charlotte Brontë. I venture to offer the proposition that when more years have passed and more weeding has been effected, Dickens will dominate the whole England of the nineteenth century; he will be left on that platform alone.
Volume XV of the Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton contains most (or all? I'm not certain) of Chesterton's writings about Dickens. Alas, it appears to be on back order, and used copies are rather spendy. However, you can find quite a bit of Chesterton's writings here:
- Charles Dickens, Part I (1906) -- html (199K) -- text (195K) -- zipfile (75K) -- LibriVox audio book
- Charles Dickens, Part II (1906) -- html (189K) -- text (185K) -- zipfile (70K)
- Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, Part I (1911) -- html (244K) -- text (240K) -- zipfile (90K)
- Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, Part II (1911) -- html (187K) -- text (184K) -- zipfile (68K)
- Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (1911). Project Gutenberg edition. -- html (187K) -- text (184K) -- zipfile (68K)
On a personal note, I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read much by Dickens since my late teens. I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist in fifth grade (on my own, unabridged; I can hardly fathom it now), inspired by seeing the musical, Oliver!, when I was in fourth grade. Then, in high school, I read The Christmas Carol, The Old Curiosity Shop, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations. The latter two, I'm happy to say, are part of the Ignatius Critical Editons family:
• A Tale of Two Cities, edited by Michael D. Aeschliman (Professor of Education at Boston University, Professor of English at the University of Italian Switzerland)
• Great Expectations, edited by Jill Kriegel (PhD English, Palm Beach Atlantic University; instructor, St. Joseph's Catholic School, Greenville, SC.) Also available in Electronic Book Format and as a Downloadable Audio File.