Why I Love Dickens

On what would have been Charles Dickens' 201st birthday, Mark Richardson reflects on why he loves Dickens' writing. 

(source: zazzle.com)

I must say that I have some misgivings about the current emphasis on Dickens. Yes, I am a devotee of the man’s work, and so you might expect me to be really pleased by the emphasis on Dickens and his work in the bicentennial year (2012). But it seems to me that we are creating a myth of Dickens, a myth that causes resistance to CD, not enthusiasm. And it’s not the first time this has happened.
When I was impossibly young, Dickens seemed to be everywhere. Because I was young and therefore didn’t know much about “everywhere”, let alone “Dickens”, I thought I knew everything about him. As it happens, such ‘knowledge’ was actually as a result of one thing: television. And television was, frankly, everywhere as far as I knew. Seemingly every Sunday on BBC there would be another dull, dark, incomprehensible, serious-sounding misery inflicted on impressionable young people “everywhere”, namely a Dickens adaptation. Barnaby Rudge (what a lovely-sounding name that is), Little Dorritt, The Old Curiosity Shop (the only interesting thing being that a girl dies; at least she didn’t have to endure the rest of it), Bleak House (how cheerful again), Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations (my great expectation was that it would end soon; it didn’t) and David Copperfield were endlessly and irritatingly paraded before this slack-jawed dolt who was being made to watch it because it was “good for you”. Thanks, mum.

But then something happened. Eventually, improbably, I grew up. Even less predictably, I found myself doing a degree in English Literature. More predictable was, of course, that in the second year I found myself having to read Dickens. And I was amazed. He was funny! He was moving, he wrote fantastic stories and made me care, he wrote great sentences, but, above all, he was funny! Where had that come from? Why on earth had those serials been so DULL? Why had they missed the humour? This guy was great!
OK, after a while I calmed down, and got much more laid-back about the whole affair, but I realised that, despite the worst efforts of the BBC and my parents combined in an unholy alliance, I loved CD. Still do. I have to admit to being not entirely faithful in my love: there are dozens and dozens of writers I also love, and some of them, I would have to admit, are even more loved, but I love CD in my fashion, let us say.

So, hence my misgivings. Elevating him to a pedestal changes the reality into a myth, makes him into something that he certainly isn’t as a writer, and can turn off a whole generation of readers. If it weren’t for a university course that made me read five of his novels, all about a thousand pages long, in three weeks, and write a lengthy essay on him, I am sure I’d be of the same opinion as I was when aged 10: “Dickens? Please God, no!!!!!”
The editors of Portsmouth Point commissioned this piece as an impassioned defence of the work of CD. As you can see, I have made an exceptionally poor start, spending nearly all of the time attacking his work. Except, cunningly, I haven't. Did you see what I did there? What I've been doing is talking about the perception of his work, a myth fostered in my case by very earnest and crushingly dull adaptations of some of his novels. But it's the writing itself that I am defending. It's the experience of his prose that had such a positive impact on me, not those adaptations, where the very heart and soul of his work were squeezed out so relentlessly.

I realised there were two approaches I could take, although I could not decide which I preferred. The first was character-based: what I revelled in during that mad burst of reading was the huge range of minor characters that populated the pages, characters usually inessential to the main plot strands but who gave the books a form of life that no other novelist ever quite matched. The second was connected with the first in a way, and involved a bit of sleight of hand: the most important character in Dickens was the character of his writing itself. Those characters were created by words, and it was the words he used that constituted the central character of his writing. Then, having been asked to contribute to some sort of Dickens smack-down with a formidable opponent, Mrs Godfree, I realised that, in reality, those two topics were really one and the same: those characters seemed so vibrant, so rich, so engaging because of his writing, not because of the idea of the characters (which I feel is often what people identify with when they talk about character). 
Take, for instance, Mr Jellyby, a much put-upon man in Bleak House. He has a great deal to put up with, as his wife is a do-gooder whose own domestic household is in complete chaos. After a very long, detailed description of the horrors to be found in the house, we find the following bald, quiet but touching sentence: ‘During the whole evening, Mr Jellyby sat in a corner with his head against the wall as if he were subject to low spirits.’ And that’s how he copes: so much so, that a mark develops against the wall where his head increasingly rests. When the going gets tough, Mr J silently, despairingly, moves his chair to the wall and rests against it. It’s both funny and touching, and it’s a seemingly thrown-away detail that counters detailed description of all the frustration that he endures, albeit in such a helpless and pathetic way. The gathering despair of Mr Jellyby is beautifully and agonisingly depicted in little moments in the background of the novel, to create a very modern picture of loneliness and depression. There are lots of others: Betsey Trotwood and Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield, Mr Wickfield in Great Expectations, Jo the crossing sweeper and Grandpa Smalweed in Bleak House: some comic, some touching, some downright nasty, but all created by deft touches.
So, in those ‘minor’ characters lies his mark of his writing power. But I want to conclude with a couple of lengthier examples of prose. Firstly, here’s the churchyard and its surroundings at the end of the opening chapter of Great Expectations, a passage that is spare, evocative and powerful, and actually is in itself full of ideas and themes that will be developed in the rest of that novel:

The marshes were just a long black horizontal line then, as I stopped to look after him; and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed. On the edge of the river I could faintly make out the only two black things in all the prospect that seemed to be standing upright; one of these was the beacon by which the sailors steered - like an unhooped cask upon a pole - an ugly thing when you were near it; the other a gibbet, with some chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate.
Finally, here is Dickens when he gets his teeth into attacking injustice, complacency and indifference. It comes in Bleak House, with the death of the small, poor boy whose job it is to sweep the horse manure from his section of a street so that the ladies and gentlemen can walk across a road without soiling their dainty shoes. Dickens rises up and launches into a passage that is full of rage. Children are suffering everywhere and the great and the ‘good’ take scant notice. The children of the poor die and no-one seems to care:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.

Muppet Christmas Carol? Bah, humbug. Pick up a novel: it’s long, it’s enveloping and it’s a testament to the power of great writing.

This article was originally published in Portsmouth Point magazine, in June 2012.