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Mixed Feelings About Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens - Scenes in his life., Digital ID 1222890, New York Public LibraryCharles 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)

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Dickens and Annie Fields

Enjoying bumping around on the blog, after reading your excellent recent Richard Yates post. One of my own recent reading paths just moved from Sarah Orne Jewett to Annie Adams Fields, where I ran into one of those fascinating bits from Dickens' life that you mention, along the exact lines of his times being defined by his work, with his own magnetic personality also playing a role. I knew a little bit about James T. Fields and the visits of Dickens and Thackeray to America, but all of the stuff about Annie Fields as cultural hostess is new to me. My prior sense of the trip to America and the public readings was from the viewpoint of how it wrecked his health. I was surprised to read about how the Fields were both completely obsessed with Dickens, trying to care for him but at the same time feeling as if they were on intimate terms with the Shakespeare of their age. Annie Fields was devastated when Dickens returned to England, and the Fields rushed over to visit him within a year, seeming to realize for the first time how the trip to America had damaged his health. Annie Fields was frustrated by the inadequacy of her own literary career (although she was keeping a notable diary at the time), and apparently it was purely through Dickens' example and agency that she became a pioneering social worker. I was just reading about this last weekend, and it was a strange place to find Dickens making a tremendous impact, although it's not really surprising. I read Dickens all in a rush 20+ years ago, and haven't spent any time going back to fill in the gaps or reread in midlife. It was all great fun at the time, but I had a lot more intellectual stamina in those days. My guess is that your mixed feelings and enjoyment in seeing them end is because they're definitely "baggy monsters," and they also play with a social realism that the perfectly measured bourgeois fairy tales of Jane Austen don't attempt--it's not a fair comparison. In the end, perhaps, the personality is even bigger than the books: that seems to have been the case for Annie Fields, and she was the one drinking "punch" with him every night.

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