A.N. Wilson on Why Charles Dickens Still Matters
With his customary verve and eloquence, A.N. Wilson has written a brand new biography of Charles Dickens to mark the 150th anniversary of the literary titan's death. In this exclusive essay, the historian discusses why Dickens and his works have endured and he remains globally popular in the twenty-first century.
Dickens was the first best-selling author in the modern sense of the term. His career spanned the period when there was a vast increase in the population of Britain, a growth in literacy, and, via railways and steam-ships, the capacity to reach far-flung audiences. He was always popular in America, and his final tour of the United States in 1867-8 saw huge crowds flocking to his public readings. He was as popular in his day as a famous rock star of today.
He was popular because, more than any other writer, either of political philosophy or economics or science or fiction, he explained the nineteenth century to itself - its pathos (the frequent deaths of children) its pitilessness (the conditions of the poor), its extreme violence. He told his stories not as journalistic realism, but as visionary pantomime. Yet when they read of Mr Dorrit imprisoned in a Debtor’s Jail and trying to keep up a pathetically unconvincing surface of gentility, or of Oliver Twist nearly starving in the workhouse, and then being drawn into the criminal underworld of London; when they read of the cruel, materialistic world of the industrial towns in Hard Times, or when they saw the interminable legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce destroying the lives and sanity of those it engulfed, they knew they were reading their own story.
Unlike the other famous writers of his age, Dickens had actually been down into the abyss. He was writing of what he knew. His own father was imprisoned for debt. Dickens was compelled to go out to work at the age of eleven and received nothing deserving the name of a formal education. He had witnessed and experienced the pitilessness of the Victorian Age as no other novelist had. His family and friends had no idea about his unhappy childhood. He had burst on the scene as the prodigiously successful writer, with the pen-name of Boz, and was a self-invented figure. The inner child, with all his rage against his parents, all his broken heart, was concealed behind the mask of a farceur.
That is why Dickens spoke to his contemporaries and it is also why he speaks to us today, far more intimately and vividly than any other writer of the nineteenth century. The vast array of characters which teemed from his brain – Magwitch the criminal, terrifying Pip in the fogbound Christmas churchyard in the Kentish marshes, relentless, unforgiving Mrs Clennam with her religion of punishment and vengeance, unloving Mr Dombey, obsessed by money and withholding love from his daughter, David Copperfield being punished by his cruel stepfather Mr Murdstone – they are all comic grotesques seen through the eyes of a child.
We have become accustomed, in a world where literature is something studied at universities, where much painting and music is hard to understand, to think that great art must of its nature be “difficult”. The immediate accessibility of Dickens, his comic gift – and every one of his novels is laugh-aloud comic – are not qualities which some of the great works of literature possess. To come to terms with Proust or Thomas Mann you have to be prepared to work at it. Dickens is as “easy” on one level as a visit to the pantomime,. It is only when you have become familiar with his work that you realize he has been speaking at the deepest level, as only great art speaks, to the inner child trapped inside all of us.
He does so with extraordinary linguistic gifts at his disposal. Only Shakespeare is his rival in the English language, for his verbal inventiveness, for his powers of description, whether of nature, storm, urban squalor, or the appearance and voices of human beings. Yes, he created a gallery of characters without rival in English Literature, which is why his work continues to be dramatized in films and TV. But wonderful as many of these adaptations are, they never rival the experience of reading him. Only when you read him, do you yield to the spell of his voice – which is why, of course, the public readings were so sensationally successful, whether he was enacting the murder of Nancy the prostitute, or describing the conversion of Scrooge by the Spirit of Christmas.
It is 150 years since the death of Dickens. To commemorate the event, I wanted to revisit the story of Dickens’s life, and to see if it was possible to winkle out, from the novels, and from the biography, the secret of his genius. He was a complicated man, all right, a Divided Self, capable of appalling domestic cruelty to his harmless wife, and maintaining a secret love life with a much younger actress while, on one level, appearing as the celebrant of the family and the domestic hearth. His energy, which pulsates from every sentence he published, was manifest not only in his novels, but in the prolific journalism, the acting career, the public readings, and in the tireless charitable work. He can make us laugh and cry. But it is a far from superficial gift of being a great entertainer. He speaks to our inmost selves, our own broken lives and unsatisfactory emotional baggage. He was a visionary whose projections of childhood horror and laughter into our supposedly grown-up world never fail to disturb and to console.
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