Today we celebrate the 200th birthday of one of my favorite writers (and no doubt the favorite writer of a couple of billion others), Charles Dickens. As the photo above records, I made a pilgrimage to his house in Doughty Street, Holborn in the early 1990s. Now a museum, it is the house where he lived for two years, while writing Pickwick, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. With the large brood he and his wife had already produced by this point, this house was entirely too small, and I don’t know how he kept from going insane, let alone wrote three brilliant, funny and affecting novels. He must have been marvelously gifted at tuning other people out (and, as was the custom at the time, letting the wife take total charge of the children). At any rate, it’s easy to see why he moved after only two years.
I’ve read all but two of his novels at this stage (still haven’t gotten to his last two, Our Mutual Friend and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood). A few months ago I finally tackled Martin Chuzzlewit, the least favorite of many readers and critics, but one of Dickens’ own favorites. I put it on my agenda because I’m working on a play set in 19th century America, and knew that Dickens lay part of his action in this book there, a result of his own trip to the states in 1842. I’d already read his American Notes, so I knew his impressions were unfavorable, but wasn’t quite ready for the aggressive tone of Chuzzlewit.
Normally, we prize Dickens for his humanity, his largeness of spirit. He does have a satirical bent, but he normally directs it solely at the meanness of mean people, the sort of people who ruin the lives of those around them out of their own selfishness. At the time, he defended Chuzzlewit by saying he was only doing the same as regards the same kind of people whom he just happened to find in America. But I don’t think so. The portrait isn’t balanced. He depicts one decent American. The rest in the book are tobacco-chewing, gun-toting, jingoistic cretins, all of whom prate on about how America is the only country that understands or has a tradition of liberty. Undoubtedly, Dickens did meet a lot of such people on his trip, for they certainly made an impression. And how it must have rankled, given that America inherited a large portion of her entire notion of political liberty from the Mother Country…and the fact that Dickens himself took a back seat to nobody at the time when it came to forwarding liberal principles and human rights. To be lectured to on the subject by a bunch of yahooes must have ruffled his feathers plenty. Well, it plainly did; read Martin Chuzzlewit. The problem is, Dickens gets so mad, he loses his sense of humor, allowing himself to get as mean as one of his own villains. (Ah! This is how he could write them so well! That’s a little writerly secret, by the way.)
My own inspiration to assume a pen-name is partially adopted from Dickens’ “Boz” (and partially from G.B.S.) Dickens’ connection to the theatre and her subsidiary arts, less often spoken or written about, is very strong. His novels strongly influence the melodrama stage of his day; he wrote a couple of original plays and some of his fiction works were adapted for the stage even in his own time; he spent a lot of time and energy giving private theatricals in his home; he edited the memoirs of the great clown Joseph Grimaldi; and (what is probably best known) he was a frustrated actor, getting it out of his system on the lecture stage, giving readings of his novels wherein he would enact all of the characters. When you look at all that he did including that lecture tour schedule, you would be tempted to employ the overused adjective “tireless”…but for the fact that the tour eventually wore him out, killed him. Also: he was a major influence on the early cinema: D.W. Griffith and Charles Chaplin both owe an enormous debt to Dickens. They lay the foundation for the way Hollywood tells stories and the way Dickens told stories in print pointed the way. Truly, he is in our very bones.
The idea of Little Nell going up to heaven filled Oscar Wilde with endless mirth. But I have little doubt her author is occupying a place in the poet’s section of the Good Place even now.