Charles Dickens would have been 200 years old this month. His birth is being celebrated with museum and library exhibits throughout Britain and internationally.
Prince Charles, attending a celebration in Portsmouth, Dickens’ birthplace, read: “Despite the many years that have passed, Charles Dickens remains one of the greatest writers of the English language, who used his creative genius to campaign passionately for social justice. The word Dickensian instantly conjures up a vivid picture of Victorian life with all its contrasts and intrigue, and his characterisation is as fresh today as it was on the day it was written.”
What I wonder, is how many people still read him?
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) was my first introduction to Dickens. Assigned in high school freshman English, the book’s plots and characters were discussed and dissected, analyzed in essays and tested about in examinations. This was before study guides existed- no Cliff Notes, Spark Notes or Internet to help understand the reading.
I remember loving the novel. My father, quipping about my mother’s knitting, would compare her to Madame Defarge; the infamous character who knit the names of her intended victims into garments.
Sophomore year brought Great Expectations (1860-61) and Miss Havisham, the rich spinster who lived in a decrepit mansion. Even now, when cycling, I’ll comment about the appearance of a forlorn looking house, wondering if Dickens’ character lives there.
Then my reading of Dickens stopped. The rest of high school and college included other authors.
I bought used copies of his novels at the bookstalls on the South Bank of the Thames River and once again became enthralled with the plots and characters depicting Victorian England. When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced its 1985 revival of Nicholas Nickleby, (1838-39) an 8-½ hour long stage adaptation, I bought tickets, ready for the marathon. The play is divided into two parts with about an hour in between; it was a fantastic theater experience.
Returning to the US, and many years later, I took the children to Patrick Stewart’s solo performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) on Broadway. Stewart played 40 characters from the ghosts to Tiny Tim.
As each child entered high school, I reread some of these Dickens’ classics; it was a good way to inform dinner conversation about homework and provide ideas for essays. Their reading of Dickens also ended by 10th grade.
Happy Birthday Charles Dickens! You should be happy at least that teenagers are reading you, if not for pleasure, at least for school.