Charles Dickens’ characters fall into two main categories: the memorable and the totally unforgettable. I can think of no other author who has created fictional characters the equal of vivid Victorians such as (in no particular order): The Artful Dodger, Smike, Joe Gargery, Fagin, Scrooge, Wilkins Micawber, Sam Weller, Daniel Quilp, Mr Dick, Bill Sykes, Magwitch, Frederick Dorrit, Mr Merdle, Mrs Gamp, and, of course, all the title characters. And that’s just from memory, if I had a list in front of me, the list would run to dozens, if not hundreds of names.
I was halfway through a post about Racism in Football (hopefully following not too far behind…) when I spotted a reminder that today (February 7th) is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. How could I possibly let that pass me by? I have been enchanted by the worlds Dickens created ever since I first watched those atmospheric black and white Sunday teatime adaptations the BBC put out, as a young boy back in the 1960s. Although I’ve nothing against full colour broadcasting, there is something about monochrome that sprinkled even more magic dust over Dickens’ characters and stories. The same goes for those hugely atmospheric David Lean film adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist of the 1940s. For some reason we didn’t touch Dickens for our exams (no shortage of Chaucer and Shakespeare, though), and I had to discover Dickens’ writing because I wanted to, not because I had to.
For the past couple of months, the British media has been on Dickens overload in which everyone from Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins to Mariella Frostrup and Aled Jones have offered up their praise and opinions on the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. There’s a genuine risk of over-kill and a sad realisation that in a year’s time there’ll be no Dickens around. That’s the way media people think. To this day no one has given me a realistic explanation as to why newspapers, magazines, radio and TV don’t feature anything unless they have some event to “hang it on”. I’d find Charles Dickens’ characters and indeed the great man himself, to be just as interesting 199-and-a-half years after his birth as exactly 200, but maybe I’m odd.
There’s a theory that suggests that Charles Dickens’ characters and brilliant – if occasionally over-convoluted – plots were so good because they were written in instalments. The theory falls down when you think how many other authors wrote to the same constraints and, sadly, their work has grown ivy and perished over the years. I think we just have to admit that the reason Dickens’ stories and characters have survived is because they were so extraordinary to start with. Take this extract from Little Dorrit:
An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square court-yard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.
‘Nothing changed,’ said the traveller, stopping to look round. ‘Dark and miserable as ever. A light in my mother’s window, which seems never to have been extinguished since I came home twice a year from school, and dragged my box over this pavement. Well, well, well!’
He went up to the door, which had a projecting canopy in carved work of festooned jack-towels and children’s heads with water on the brain, designed after a once-popular monumental pattern, and knocked. A shuffling step was soon heard on the stone floor of the hall, and the door was opened by an old man, bent and dried, but with keen eyes.
He had a candle in his hand, and he held it up for a moment to assist his keen eyes. ‘Ah, Mr Arthur?’ he said, without any emotion, ‘you are come at last? Step in.’
Mr Arthur stepped in and shut the door.
There’s no room here to offer a Charles Dickens biography, but enough space not to ignore the basic facts. Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire on February 7th, 1812. It was a memorable year all round: poet Robert Browning and the architect Augustus Pugin shared the same birth-year; the metric system was first adopted in France; Napoleon invaded Russia (later commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture); and Britain went to war with the United States. By the time of his death, 58 years, four months and two days later, Dickens had written 15-and-a-half novels, 6 novellas and numerous shorter pieces. The biggest selling of all his novels is A Tale of Two Cities. Don’t ask me why. The book with the most adaptations is A Christmas Carol. Well, Christmas does come around once a year…
The BBC’s Big Read survey of Britain’s favourite novels, undertaken in 2003, contained five from Dickens in the Top 100. They were: Great Expectations (17), David Copperfield (34), A Christmas Carol (47), A Tale of Two Cities (63) and Bleak House (79). Dickens and Terry Pratchett shared the distinction of having the most works in the first 100. (I wonder if that would be repeated in even 20 years from now.) For me, the big surprises were that Bleak House did so well (a clear two years before the ground-breaking BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance), and that Oliver Twist did so badly – only managing to scrape in at number 182.
You would have thought that with all the adaptations, in particular Lionel Bart’s spirited musical would have propelled Oliver Twist into the top 150 at the very least. It’s not as if the storyline – including the memorable line: “Please sir, I want some more!” – isn’t well known or that Charles Dickens’ characters in Oliver Twist are not up to standard. My theory is that we prefer our Dickens a little darker… preferably in black and white.