Today we celebrate the birthday of one of my favorite writers (and no doubt the favorite writer of a couple of billion others), Charles Dickens (1812-70). 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 of Dickens novels as of a few years ago (Our Mutual Friend was the last piece in the puzzle), as well as the non-fiction American Notes. I’ve read almost all of these books more than once; some of them a half dozen times, and of course have seen dozens of stage adaptations, films and TV series adapted from them (at present my favorite is the 1994 BBC Martin Chuzzlewit).
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. Just look at this before and after:
This is a man who gave his life to his art.
Also: he was a major influence on the early cinema: D.W. Griffith and Charles Chaplin both owe an enormous debt to Dickens, as does stage and screen comedian W.C. Fields. 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.
Dickens is one of the few book authors I’ve devoted an entire section to on Travalanche, though it could do with some expansion. Of particular note are posts on Simon Callow’s book Charles Dickens and The Great Theatre of the World; a 2012 exhibition on him at the New York Public Library; and all the screen versions of A Christmas Carol.
I’ve joined a group with a yearlong project to re-read his whole body of work; I’m certain to do a good bit more posting on the topic as a result.