Charles Dickens - Scenes in his lifeI have mixed feelings about Charles Dickens. This is probably an embarrassing admission from someone who’s preparing a public presentation on the works of Dickens for the fall and winter, but the fact remains. I’ve read most of the major novels, some more than once, and while I always start them with lots of gusto and enthusiasm, I’m never sorry to see them end. Many years ago, in an over-flowing of Dickensian high spirits, I bought a set of the Oxford Illustrated Dickens from Scribner’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue (I know I date myself). It was a snowy afternoon and, since the carton was too heavy to carry back to the Upper West Side, my wife and I got a cab and hurried home to unpack our treasure. Handling the books and trying to arrange them on the shelf (alphabetically? chronologically? according to the colors of the dust jackets?) was exciting—a case of book-lust gratified--but the actual reading proved to be anti-climactic. When it comes to novels, what accounts for this transition from appreciation to dutifulness? I never feel that way about Jane Austen.
So what prompted me, you might ask, to choose Dickens as a subject?
There is bibliographic interest. Dickens is probably the most recognized author in English after Shakespeare, and the collections of the New York Public Library reflect that eminence, from the original monthly parts of the serial publication of David Copperfield; to international editions such as Sochinen¯iia Charlza Dikkensa, the collected works in Russian; to a run of All the Year Round [1859-1895], the weekly periodical edited by Dickens. Currently, a catalog search for Dickens as author brings up 1631 entries. Many of these items, including a lot of Dickensiana such as one of his own writing tables, are held in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
And then, the more I learn about Dickens himself, the more fascinating a figure he becomes: his work is as engaged by the times he lived in as, in a sense, the times were defined by his work. As a writer, he depicts contemporary life exhaustively, confronting most of the major social and moral issues of the nineteenth century. Even now, when we think of Victorian London, with fog, gaslight, and winding alleyways, it is an image that is derived largely from Dickens’s fiction (or, in our media-glutted world, from movies and BBC adaptations). In addition, my interest is stirred by all those engrossing elements of Dickens’s biography: the family’s imprisonment for bad debt; the never-forgotten boyhood experience of the blacking factory; the inexhaustible energy which produced the huge list of novels, autobiography, travel books, plays; the estrangement from his wife after the birth of their ten children, while maintaining relations with his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan; and the celebrated public readings which hastened his early stroke.
Don’t mistake my “mixed feelings” for dislike. I am sometimes in awe of the complex structures these novels weave, of the vivid characters which populate them, and of the feel and pulse of life which animates each sentence. It’s simply that now, when I pass my Oxford Illustrated Dickens on the shelf, I wonder if I should re-read one of the acknowledged masterpieces, like Bleak House, or pick up one of the lesser works, like Barnaby Rudge, which I’ve never read before, and usually end up just passing Dickens by and moving on to something else. (The one book I return to again and again is A Christmas Carol. I’m as happy as any Victorian when Tiny Tim does not die. And hardly a holiday season goes by that I don’t find myself engaged in some dopey conversation about the “best” Ebenezer Scrooge: Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Mister Magoo, etc., etc.)
As I’m preparing this public talk over the next few months, I’ll let you know how and if my feelings about Dickens evolve.
(Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol image source)