Today is what would have been the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, one of the finest authors ever to have graced the English language and a firm favourite of mine. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a few remarks on just some of the things I think are what make Dickens so great. I’ve read a couple of his novels in the last three months, so he was very much on my mind even before the explosion of Dickens-related offerings from the BBC over Christmas – in relation to which, I might add, I’ve decided to avoid watching any adaptations of Great Expectations, which I read before Christmas, since the original is just too perfect to be tampered with. The other novel I read recently was A Tale of Two Cities, which wasn’t quite in the same league, but it had a hard act to follow.
The thing that surprised me most when I read Dickens for the first time was the humour. I found it laugh-out-loud funny in places, being a sense of humour that appeals greatly to my own – and it’s surprisingly modern in its humour, too. Take this passage from Great Expectations, for example, in which the unfortunate Pip is enduring breakfast with the insufferable Mr Pumblechook:
I considered Mr Pumblechook wretched company … his conversation consisted of nothing but arithmetic. On my politely bidding him Good morning, he said, pompously, ‘Seven times nine, boy?’ And how should I be able to answer, dodged in that way, in a strange place, on an empty stomach! I was hungry, but before I had swallowed a morsel, he began a running sum that lasted all through the breakfast. ‘Seven? And four? And eight? And six? And two? And ten?’ And so on. And after each figure was disposed of, it was as much as I could do to get a bite or a sup, before the next came; while he sat at his ease guessing nothing, and eating bacon and hot roll, in (if I may be allowed the expression) a gorging and gormandising manner.
I enjoyed that passage (and subsequent references to Mr Pumblechook and his arithmetic) so much that I actually read it aloud to several of my friends so that they might share in my amusement. Few (if any) modern authors could rival that. I also greatly enjoyed the character of Wemmick and his father, variously referred to by Wemmick, and subsequently also by Pip, as “The Aged”, “Aged Parent” or “Aged P”. So funny, and just as amusing to the modern reader as to a Victorian audience. Dickens is known for his funny and improbable names (those in Bleak House are some of my favourite – Mr Tulkinghorn, Lord and Lady Dedlock, Mr Smallweed, Mr Krook), but there’s a lot more to his humour than that.
And there’s a lot more to his novels than their humour, too; Dickens’ greatness arguably lies in his ability to combine humorous and often slightly surreal characterisation with poignancy and astute observation of human nature (to say nothing of his gripping plots). Dickens is adept at showing his characters react to difficult moral dilemmas, and they do so in a realistic and believable way – Pip’s rise to fortune and his subsequent alienation of the good-natured Joe being a classic example. Reading Pip’s changing fortunes, we are forced to admit uncomfortable truths to ourselves – that, had we been in his situation, there’s a strong possibility that we might have responded and behaved in the same way.
Furthermore, Dickens can turn a character from someone who is a bit of a laughing stock to begin with, to someone who can make one’s heart ache with compassion – just look at Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, who had me welling up by the end of the novel. Dickens clearly meant us to feel a great deal of empathy for Joe in Great Expectations, unjustly cast aside by Pip as he climbs the social ladder – someone who goes from being a role model for the young Pip, to someone he treats as an embarrassment and beneath him, until he comes full circle and loses his fortune, realises how abhorrent his behaviour has been, and goes home to Joe – who, for all his lack of money and social grace, has demonstrated by far the greater emotional intelligence and has remained loyal to the undeserving Pip.
My final point of the evening is that I consider it to be the mark of a brilliant author if they can strike a chord with me by shrewdly pointing out the universal truths of human life, leaving one with the feeling that life – and all its joys and tragedies – is a shared experience, that we all live through the same situations and the same emotions, that however much one feels the odd one out, there are others out there who wonder the same things, suffer the same embarrassments, ponder the same moral dilemmas. George Eliot, in my opinion, is the true master of this astute observation – but Dickens displays it a lot as well. I’ll leave you with another passage from Great Expectations, which expresses something we’ve probably all thought about at some time or another – how differently would things have turned out, had it not been for what happened that day when…?
That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.