Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dickens' bicentennial

Born 200 years ago today was a man who would change the course of the novel, making it accessible to all strata of society and becoming an international sensation in the process. "We're put off by this notion we have of Charles Dickens as this great Victorian novelist because it implies that he's serious," writer and comedian Armando Iannucci told the BBC Magazine. "In fact, I think he's the finest comedian we've ever produced. Much comedy today is conditioned by the way Dickens wrote it in the 19th century and comedy writers today owe a huge debt to him. It's that sense of the rhythms, the colloquialisms and the way we speak. In reality, we don't finish our sentences and we all interrupt each other."
Several museums vie for the distinction of having the most substantial and the coolest Dickens-related material. Among them are the Morgan Library (which I wrote about yesterday), the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Charles Dickens Museum. Based in 48 Doughty Street, the author’s only surviving London house, the latter claims to hold the world's most important collection. Its more than 100,000 items include manuscripts, rare editions, personal items, paintings, and other visual sources. A favorite item with visitors is the original of "Dickens' Dream," an unfinished watercolor by Robert William Buss. On hearing of Dickens' death in June 1870, Buss began painting this large piece, which showed the dozing author seated in his Gad's Hill Place study surrounded by many of the characters he had created.
As reported here previously (see "What Larks!" above right), a swell free poster is available which also portrays many of said characters. 
And what is Daedalus's part in the Dickens bicentennial frenzy? We are happy to offer you his most popular book, Great Expectations, as well as Oliver Twist the book and the 2005 Roman Polanski film with Ben Kingsley.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has the original manuscripts for 11 of  Dickens' major novels. Their "Bicentenary Display" focuses on his most autobiographical work, David Copperfield. It examines the development of the book from the original manuscript through to its publication and shows the variety of children's books, comics, and theatrical productions inspired by the story. Using thumbnail images, this page gives an overview of the vast holdings of Dickens-related material in the V&A, including this 1859 portrait by William Powell Frith.
Morgan Library & Museum:  One of George Cruikshank's drawings for "Oliver Twist"
How many Dickens novels have you read? I confess to having read only one, Little Dorrit, and I was bowled over by the powerfully inventive ways he uses language, in both dialogue and narrative. And all the while writing and revising in longhand with a serial deadline looming!  
Click through for a pungent extract from the spot-on sermon given at Westminster Abbey on the occasion of Dickens' death.
I profess not here to sit in judgment on the whole character and career of this gifted writer. That must be left for posterity to fix in its proper niche amongst the worthies of English literature.
Neither is this the place to speak at length of those lighter and more genial qualities, such as made his death, like that of one who rests beside him, almost "an eclipse of the gaiety of nations." Let others tell elsewhere of the brilliant and delicate satire, the kindly wit, the keen and ubiquitous sense of the ludicrous and grotesque. "There is a time to laugh, and there is a time to weep." Laughter is itself a good, yet there are moments when we care not to indulge in it. It may even seem hereafter, as it has sometimes seemed to some of our age, that the nerves of the rising generation were, for the time at least, unduly relaxed by that inexhaustible outburst of a humorous temper, of a never-slumbering observation, in the long unceasing flood of drollery and merriment, which, it may be, brought out the comic and trivial side of human life in too strong and startling a relief.
But even thus, and even in this sacred place, it is good to remember that, in the writings of him who is gone, we have had the most convincing proof that it is possible to have moved old and young to inextinguishable laughter without the use of a single expression which could defile the purest, or shock the most sensitive. Remember this, if there be any who think that you cannot be witty without being wicked--who think that in order to amuse the world and awaken the interest of hearers or readers, you must descend to filthy jests, and unclean suggestions, and debasing scenes. So may have thought some gifted novelists of former times; but so thought not, so wrote not (to speak only of the departed) Walter Scott, or Jane Austen, or Elizabeth Gaskell, or William Thackeray: so thought not, and so wrote not, the genial and loving humourist whom we now mourn. However deep into the dregs of society his varied imagination led him in his writings to descend, it still breathed an untainted atmosphere. He was able to show us, by his own example, that even in dealing with the darkest scenes and the most degraded characters, genius could be clean, and mirth could be innocent.


  1. I love the Dickens mania! Makes me really want to start digging into his obscurities. Sadly, I've only scratched the surface with his usual suspects: "Great Expectations, Tale of Two Cities, etc"

  2. I haven't read anything by Charlest Dickens but I've seen a production of "Oliver Twist" and enjoyed it immensely!

  3. Ditto on the Dickens mania, Mr Fink. I've read the first few pages of Tale of Two Cities, must finish it.

  4. Virginia RumrunnerFebruary 7, 2012 at 6:19 PM


    Google celebrates the Dickens... out of Dickens :)

  5. I like the illustrations provided here, especially of Miss Havisham from "Great Expectations" and of Oliver Twist. This is how I imagined both characters, more or less! Dickens will probably still be celebrated in another 200 years.

  6. David Copperfield is an amazing novel. Mr. Dickens created his characters in such a brilliant way that you will meet pieces of them throughout your life.

  7. Eva - you should download the poster! Lots of great characters there. (See "What Larks")

  8. I started out with A Christmas Carol in fifth grade, and that captured my interest in Dickens. Had seen the movies, but reading the actual book really stopped me in my tracks.

  9. my birthday was on the 7th too! we are birthday buddies! :)