Charles Dickens was the most famous writer in the English language during the 19th century. And one of the best-selling authors, of all time. He can seem remote, the frock coat, the velvet collar, the fish tail beard, the bow tie.
But he has a lot to say to us today. And that's because he had a remarkable ambition. He believed the writing could play a big role in fixing the problems of the world. Dickens didn't just write.
From the very beginning there were signs of a great showman. As a child he loved putting on plays in a family kitchen. And singing songs, standing on the table in the local pub. Before radio or television, going to hear Dickens giving a reading was to experience an exceptional showman. Often to the dismay of later literary friends, entertainment remained at the heart of what Dickens was up to. He was always hoping to get us interested in some pretty serious things.
The evils of an industrializing society. The working conditions in factories. child labour vicious social snobbery the maddening inefficiencies of government bureaucracy.
In theory, we recognized that these and the modern versions are pretty worthy themes. Bu if we are honest with ourselves, we admit that they don't sound very inviting as things to read about in a novel in bed or the airport. Dickens's genius was to discover that the big ambitions to educate the society about its failings didn't have to be opposed to what his critics called: fun.
Racy plots, a chatty style, clownish characters, weepy moments and happy endings. He rejected the idea that we have to make a fatal choice between being worthy but dull, or popular but shallow. Dickens sat at educate via entertainment Because he so well understood how easy it is to us individually and collectively to resist certain tricky but important lessons. Dickens is significant because he was working out for his own time how to do something that's crucial for us.
How to be seductive about serious things. Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in February 1812. His father was a clerk in a navy office. They had to constantly move about to follow his different appointments.
It was a genteel life at first But there were always money trouble looming. When he was only ten, Dickens had to leave school, because his parents could not longer afford the modest fees. He was send to work in London at the blacking factory. Where they made polish for giving a dark sheen, much admired at the time to metal surfaces. It was a grim experience.
Young Dickens hated the fumes and numbing speed with which he had to carry out repetitive tasks. The people he worked around were bullying and sinister. Then his father was arrested for debt. At that time debtors could be confined to prison along with their dependence by their creditors until they were able to start paying off what they owned. So the whole family moved into the squalid Mashalsea prison. Except young Dickes who lodged nearby and continued with his horrible job.
Part of the continuing popular affection for Dickens comes from his very strong sense of the precariousness of life. And his deep compassion for those who are its victims. When Dickens's live improved, in his early twenties he discovered that he was an outstandingly brilliant journalist. Dickens was very good at remembering his own suffering. And he used it in a very clever way. He always put really nice characters into the awful places of Victorian England.
The blacking factory is described in David Copperfield through the eyes of young David, who is sensitive, intelligent and charming. David is the reader when young or the reader's son, or nephew. Dickens is saying, imagine someone like you or someone you like was in somewhere like that. When he writes about poor houses, which were local force labour camps for people unable to support themselves, Dickens sends in a little Oliver Twist who actually belongs to a well to do family from whom he's been separated by a series of tragic accidents. Oliver is not typical at all of the people who ended up in poor houses.
But he is there, so that his readers -who at that time would genuinely be quite prosperous- could think, what if this were me? On one occasion when Dickens shows us the miseries of the debtor prison. It's in the company of a lovable buffoon, A modelled but very sweet and well-meaning man, called Mr. Micawber. The background protective assumption that only rather shady types could end up here is punctuated. Dickens was working with the key assumption: of course everyone knew already that there were poor houses, horrible working conditions and debtors' prisons, these were obvious facts of early nineteen century life in England.
The point was that comfortable people, the kind of people who had the power to change things, generally didn't feel much sense of urgency. They didn't feel personally connected to the problems. So Dickens used his own experience to get people to feel interested in and sympathetic to the plight of others that they normally had been emotionally very distant from. He didn't say look how awful it is for them! He said: here is what it would be like for you. In an ideal world we perhaps care equally about everyone, But in reality our concern is much more readily directed towards the misfortunes of people we know and find likeable. So if, like Dickens, your project is to draw attention to a failure in the system, it's a very good strategy to follow the methods he was using.
Get us to like the people who are having a hard time and then, and only then, can we start to feel engaged. The other thing that Dickens did to keep us on board with his high minded vision of social reform, was to keep on showing how well he understood the cosy, pleasing, enjoyable things of life. He desperately didn't want the big causes to come across his meaning, you couldn't keep on liking all the sweet comforts of life. So Dickens was particularly good of evoking the pleasures of home. In one of his novels, he takes us to the house of a lovable old eccentric who's refashioned his small suburban house as a miniature castle, complete with the tiny drawbridge that can be pulled up by legs of twine to keep the wild world at bay.
Dickens loved picnics, games of cricket in the park, going shopping for a new tie, donoughts, sitting by the fire, having friends around for a dinner, warm blankets and going on holiday. Being a caring and good person - he is saying - doesn't mean disdaining the ordinary small pleasures. This is a key element in Dickens's general strategy.
He knows it is going to be hard to get people to think about difficult things, if you don't start from the deep recognition of what we are already like. Otherwise you can come across as cold and a bit obsessive . Dickens took the practical business side of writing very seriously. He was immensely productive, he churned out books and he was deeply concerned about copyright laws, sales figures and profit margins. But Dickens didn't simply want to sell a lot of novels. He wanted to change things in the world. But he knew perfectly well that a book wouldn't have an effect unless it was in wide circulation, unless the business side was going well.
His writing draws attention to many things that were going wrong. The poor law, the dreadful state of schools, rampant nepotism and harsh working conditions. But he wasn't trying to advocate specific schemes of reform. If you'd ask what exactly the government should do to improve the conditions in factories or what the better legal system would look like he wouldn't have had carefully worked-out alternative policy to hand.
What he was doing, was shaping the climate of feeling and opinion, which makes it much easier for people trying to get an act through Parliament raise funds or make local improvements. Others can much more readily see the point of political action. Once the issues have moved up the mental agenda and feel close to us emotionally. Dickens was very interested in trying to help the world. And hugely sensitive to the suffering of others. But closer to home, things didn't work out so well.
He wasn't a good husband or father. He got married in 1837 when he was in his mid-twenties to Catherine Hogarth. And they had 10 children together, 8 of whom survived into adulthood. But Dickens increasingly found her dull and passive, and when he was in his mid-forties he fell in love with a nineteen year old actress, Ellen Turner. He couldn't get divorce: it was completely taboo for a major public figure to take such a step. So they separated, his wife left after 20 years together and they never saw each other again. Dickens was unimpressed by all of his children whom he regarded as idle and ever ready to sponge off him. They were prone to drinking too much and to gambling.
Dickens is a painful reminder of the terrible conflicts that can arise between different kinds of devotion. Dickens was immensely painstaking with his work. He'd stay up as late as needed. He'd think of it at first in the morning, he exhausted himself.
Yet around his children and his wife, he was plodding, conventional and often coldly detached. We could blame him and say he should have been a better partner and father, or we can feel a touch of pity to the horrible limitations of our nature, which can make it hard to us to be very good at two very different kinds of things at the same time. And hopefully a little of this pity can extend to ourselves.
Since we are the ones who now actually need it.. On the 8th of June 1870, when he was 58, Dickens died at home after his usual intense day's work. He was at the early stages of his fifteenth novel. The Guardian published in the obituary the next day: Dickens's power doesn't lie just in the particular things he wrote. What's even more impressive is the bigger idea to which he was loyal all his life. That the task of writing and art more generally is to make goodness attractive, to make it easier and more bearable for us to learn uncomfortable lessons and to broaden our sympathies by helping us to identify with people whose outward lives are maybe unlike us but whose inner lives are not unsimilar.
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