Dickens at 200

The World

Today is Charles Dickens's 200th birthday and that is a big deal. Not just in Britain, where Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall are celebrating the event in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey but in countries from Albania to Zimbabwe are holding a read-a-thon from the author's work.

Dickens' biographer, Claire Tomalin, has written him (or his ghost) a letter published in The Guardian that is worth a look. She notes that Dickens himself went to a ceremony to mark the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, which is an interesting way to allude to the fact that Dickens is the only English writer who comes close to Shakespeare for the sheer scale of creativity and for his enduring popularity.

I'm a bit caught up in the celebrating – I recently read Tomalin's thorough and lengthy biography, Charles Dickens: A Life, in a couple of days, couldn't put it down. This surprises me because I am not a big fan of his work.

Of course, I love Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. I particularly love the great British film adaptations made of them in the late 40's and early 50's. I know the magic the novelist created in those stories, magic that works across generations: on Christmas Eve my six and a half year old daughter found herself wiping her parents' eyes as we blubbed our way through Ebeneezer Scrooge's odyssey to his better self.

My child wasn't crying, she saw the comedy in old Ebeneezer – or Alistair Sim's genius portrayal of him in the film. My wife and I, further down the highway, saw this tale of redemption of a life's mistakes through the eyes of those who have made a few errors of their own, and longed for a supernatural chance to correct them.

That is my problem with the work: things do seem to wrap up neatly – not in all the books, but in most. There is the sentimentality of the popular entertainer in Dickens – just as there is in Steven Spielberg's films. That sentimentality is just not something I buy into.

Dickens's exact contemporaries include Gustave Flaubert and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Those are my kind of authors.

And yet, there is the man. I am a big fan of the man. Partially because Dickens the man is all around me. Like every other Londoner – born or transplanted – many of the journeys I take around London are along streets he lived in and walked along. For all the considerable damage London suffered in the Blitz much of Dickens world is still something you can see. James Joyce is supposed to have said that if Dublin were to be bombed it could be reconstructed in detail from reading his novels. Dickens work is even more closely woven into the life of his city than Joyce's was in Dublin.

But these streets wouldn't mean all that much if I didn't know the stories that go with them.

I frequently drive down Bayham Street in Camden Town where the Dickens' family ended up after Charles's father's downwardly mobile journey began and the family were forced to move in from the Kent countryside to what the English call the "Great Wen." (Wen means a swollen, sebaceous cyst – the English really hate their capital city and those who are natives of it).

I nearly bought a flat on Marshalsea Road in south London, almost exactly on the site of the debtor's prison where his father was incarcerated for a time.

I spend a lot of time in Regent's Park close to where the author had a house, after he became successful.

He moved to Regent's Park after his house in Doughty Street, where the Dickens Museum is located, became too small for his enormous family. Doughty Street is my favored short cut into the West End. It's in the heart of lawyer-ville (Dickens started out as a journalist writing about the courts) near Gray's Inn. I have walked from there to Saffron Hill where there were foundling homes Dickens helped fund and past Mt. Pleasant Post Office, site of a prison Dickens worked hard to reform.

Here is what I mean about admiring the man: All those terrible experiences of his childhood, the end of the rural idyll, the progressive descent into misery balanced on the edge of complete poverty, his forcible removal from education at the age of 14. Dickens worked like a dog to rise above that and it would have been easy for him – like Ebeneezer Scrooge – to turn his back on the people he met when times were hard. He could have said, I've made mine by hard work, the rest of you can do the same.

But he didn't.

Instead, he became one of the great reformers of English society. Tirelessly working and organizing on behalf of the poor. Not as a figurehead or patron of charities but as a hands on leader in homes for women fallen into prostitution; improving conditions for orphans, and in penitentiaries.

If he were alive today Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh would be trashing him daily on the air and deriding him as a "liberal." Dickens would have fought back word for word.

Because all the while he was working with his charities he was writing, writing, writing. At one point, Tomalin's biography describes him working in the morning on Pickwick Papers and in the afternoon on David Copperfield – both were published initially as serials. That's thousands of words a day, words that endure, and at the same time he was editing a magazine, and writing journalism, and meeting the leading lights of Victorian England for long convivial suppers, and organizing reading tours – because in addition to being the most popular writer of his time, he was one of the most popular performers of his time.

He is an inspiration to anyone who earns a living by words.

So that is why I am celebrating. Dickens, the man, shows that there is a right way to live when you achieve great success, Dickens, the author, inspires for the sheer prodigiousness of his output.

There is a copy of Bleak House somewhere on my wife's book shelf. I may have to give it another go.

Simon Callow, actor, author, director and a man who knows as much about Dickens as anyone will take you on his own tour here. It's worth the visit (sorry about the commercial).

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