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Dickens At 200: A Birthday You Can't 'Bah Humbug'

Posted on 02/07/2012 7:41:19 AM PST by Borges

Tuesday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens — the great 19th century English novelist who gave us stories of pathos and comedy, and colorful portraits of the people of London, from the poor in the back streets, to the rich in the parks and avenues.

Lots of Dickens' phrases — like "Bah humbug" and "God bless us, every one!" — have slipped into our minds and our memories. And along with the words, the characters, too — from hungry orphan Oliver Twist to sweet and lonely little Nell to cruel Mr. Murdstone.

"After Shakespeare, Dickens is the great creator of characters, multiple characters," says Claire Tomalin, author of the new biography Charles Dickens: A Life. "He did these great walks — he would walk every day for miles and miles, and sometimes I think he was sort of stoking up his imagination as he walked, and thinking of his characters. The way he built his novels was through the voices of his characters."

Dickens liked to walk, as he said, "far and fast," gathering his thoughts and his strength to pour into his novels. The books were published as cliff-hanging serials in magazines or pamphlets before they became bound books — so nothing could be rewritten or reorganized.

"He would write these quite rapidly," Tomalin explains. "And very little was changed when they came out in book form, in volume form, afterwards. ... He was writing books that would become classics, and no other writer has done this."

EnlargeHulton Archive/Getty Images David Copperfield was Dickens' favorite work — and the first book he wrote in the first person. Above, an illustration circa 1850 depicts Mr. Micawber and young Copperfield.

Tomalin notes that there is bad writing to be found in Dickens' speedily produced novels — but the poor writing is eclipsed by the great writing. One of Tomalin's favorites is David Copperfield — which was also Dickens' favorite.

"It was his first sustained piece of first-person writing," Tomalin says. "Those first 14 chapters ... in which David Copperfield describes his childhood, are extraordinary documents about ... attachment and loss and cruelty and the sort of hazards of childhood."

If you were force-fed Dickens in middle school and hated him, it might be time to reconsider, Tomalin says. Novelist Jennifer Egan is a fan who came back to the books and unexpectedly found that Dickens felt modern.

"The way that Dickens structured his books has a form that we most readily recognize now from, say, the great TV series, like The Wire or The Sopranos," says Egan. "There's one central plot line, but then from that spin off all kinds of subplots. And so he would go off in all sorts of directions and create these amazing secondary characters who would go in and out of focus. But then there was also this sort of central spinal column of a plot that he would return to."

Part of her new attraction, Egan says, are the issues Dickens deals with — wealth and poverty, class and corruption, politicians who speak about morality but behave very differently.

"The things he's interested in are still very relevant," Egan says. "For example, [in] Bleak House, one of the major characters is [in] corporate litigation, and the way in which it consumes all kinds of people associated with it ... the way it kind of chews up and spits out people whose lives depend on the outcome of this case."

One of the characters ground down by the long-running lawsuit in Bleak House is one of the heirs — handsome, charismatic Richard Carstone — who starts to realize that the resolution of this litigation might make him rich.

"Dickens beautifully portrays the way this acts on him almost like a drug, like an addiction," Egan says. "He's constantly enthralled by this possibility that maybe he'll just become rich, and eventually the addiction — it kills him. He ends up with less and less and less until finally he just dies."

A Tale Of Two Centuries: Charles Dickens Turns 200 The beloved storyteller's two-dozen works of fiction have never gone out of print.

From Dickens Himself, Notes On 'A Christmas Carol' The author's manuscript is marked up with changes he made when performing his famous story.

Dickens' novels often had more than 100 characters — major and minor — each with their portraits vividly painted — each with their own characteristic manner of speaking. Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus wrote a birthday column calling attention to commonly used names and expressions that had their origins in Dickens: We call a miserly person a "Scrooge"; we refer to grouches who say "bah humbug"; and in Bleak House, it's Mr. Snagsby who uses the expression "not to put too fine a point on it."

Zimmer says that Dickens also used terms that were considered slang or vulgar, and brought them into the vernacular — "butter fingers" for a clumsy person, "flummoxed" to mean bewilder, "slaw bones" to refer to a surgeon. "He seemed very keen on bringing a new type of language into English literature," Zimmer says.

Dickens remains one of the most prolific, well-loved storytellers in the English language — and if you surrender to his winding narratives, his detours, his huge cast of characters — you will be rewarded. Perhaps like Jennifer Egan was:

"I was on a very bumpy plane ride, an overnight flight," she recalls. "I was so miserable, and I pulled out David Copperfield, and I forgot how scared and tired I was, and I thought, 'This is what reading should be.' I'm utterly transported out of my current situation."

TOPICS: Culture/Society; United Kingdom
KEYWORDS: bookreview; dickens; happybirthday
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1 posted on 02/07/2012 7:41:22 AM PST by Borges
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To: Borges

We visited the Dickens home in London;it’s well worth a visit on a London trip.

2 posted on 02/07/2012 7:48:27 AM PST by Dr. Ursus
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To: Borges

“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

I still think that’s one of the best opening lines to a book that I have ever read.

3 posted on 02/07/2012 8:01:27 AM PST by Thane_Banquo
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To: Dr. Ursus

I’ve read each and every novel at least twice. David Copperfield 6 times. In fact my sign on name is a Dicken’s novel. Martin Chuzzlewit.

4 posted on 02/07/2012 8:01:35 AM PST by Chuzzlewit
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To: Chuzzlewit

The Morgan Library in NYC has a Dickens exhibition,which is online. I’d imagine you’d be familiar with all the material.

5 posted on 02/07/2012 8:07:09 AM PST by Dr. Ursus
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To: Borges
After Shakespeare, Dickens is the great creator of characters

Yes, some Shakespearean characters are classic -- who can forget Falstaff or Shylock or the glorious Henry V -- but many of them are drawn from historical antecedents, not necessarily Shakespeare's own mind. Dickens' characters are every bit as notable, but are entirely his own creations.

6 posted on 02/07/2012 8:12:39 AM PST by IronJack (=)
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To: IronJack

They may have been historical characters but Shakespeare animated them. It’s not like there were any recordings or real knowledge of what they were like.

7 posted on 02/07/2012 8:13:57 AM PST by Borges
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To: Borges

Hubby in London and visited the Dickens house this morning. Got a peek at Prince Charles who was also visiting.

8 posted on 02/07/2012 8:19:26 AM PST by bonfire
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To: Thane_Banquo
"I still think that’s one of the best opening lines to a book that I have ever read."

Better than another Dickens classic? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....

That and the following lines capture the chaotic nature of the French Revolution better than just about anything else could.
9 posted on 02/07/2012 8:26:12 AM PST by Old Teufel Hunden
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10 posted on 02/07/2012 8:27:45 AM PST by deoetdoctrinae (Gun-free zones are playgrounds for felons)
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To: Borges

Amazing. A Tale of Two Cities yet again listed as an also-ran. Like Chuzzlewit, I’ve read all of Dickens numerous times (and still struggle to remember lesser characters’ names!). And, although TTC isn’t my favorite (that’s Bleak House), it is the most notable. No other English writer at or near the time (and I can’t think of any Americans) dared reveal the French Revolution and its aftermath for what it was—a senseless, endless bloodbath that had nothing to do with liberte, equalite, fraternite and everything to do with greed, envy, hate, and, of course, distribution of wealth and state-sponsored atheism. And from the bloody mess of that revolution comes Sidney Carton, drunkard, jaded lawyer, and the very essence of heroism. Maggie Thatcher understood this.

11 posted on 02/07/2012 8:49:28 AM PST by Mach9
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To: Mach9

Dickens scholars regard ATOTC as one of his worst novels along with Barnaby Rudge.

12 posted on 02/07/2012 9:07:31 AM PST by Borges
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To: Mach9

It’s very hard to decide on a favorite Dickens book for me. I think it’s Little Dorrit - No, Bleak House - No, Nicholas Nickleby - No, David Copperfield :)

” ‘Anywhere! I’m a-going to seek my niece through the wureld. I’m a-going to find my poor niece in her shame, and bring her back. No one stop me! ‘ “

Mr. Peggotty is maybe my favorite serious character. I think he’s symbolic.

But I _really_ like Newman Noggs a lot.

Little Dorrit I have in an antique form. Also have antiques of David Copperfield, in more than one volume (as a set). Little Dorrit is a great character.

I think David Copperfield isn’t the only one that brought tears to my eyes; I think I cried when I read “Tale of 2 Cities” and “Little Dorrit” and “Oliver Twist” too — But David Copperfield is the one that has made me cry several times!

Am glad that I was familiar with the character of Steerforth, so that when I finally ended up going out into the big city on my own, I was able to identify people like that, and (hopefully) stay away from them — Not to mention Uriah!

I love it when Aunt Betsey (Betsy?) saw Uriah and said “Don’t be galvanic, sir!” and asked what was the matter with him.

” ‘I ask your pardon, Miss Trotwood . . . I’m aware you’re nervous.’ “

Mr. Micawber is great.

“He’d write letters by the ream, if it was a capital offense!”

Think I’d better stop now ... :)

13 posted on 02/07/2012 9:25:06 AM PST by zorro8987
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To: Borges

Personally I came to loathe Dickens. Our high school reading lists were packed full of him. Part of the ongoing indoctrination on the Eeeeeeeevils of Capitalism.

14 posted on 02/07/2012 9:30:12 AM PST by Buckeye McFrog
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To: Borges

Yeah... well I don’t agree :)

the critics / scholars write a lot of stuff that I don’t agree with, in the essays that I’ve read about Dickens. If the criticism is positive and sheds light on something, that’s great for me, but otherwise I just don’t like it. He is either my favorite author, or my second-favorite after George MacDonald, ... The thing about “Tale of Two Cities” is the concept of Sidney Carton redeeming himself by doing one great deed in the end — that’s the wonderful thing that I like about it — I could “care less” about the other stuff that they criticize about it.

15 posted on 02/07/2012 9:34:10 AM PST by zorro8987
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To: zorro8987

i used to say that “tale of two cities” was my favorite Dickens book! Just can’t make up my mind anymore. That one did make me cry too :)

16 posted on 02/07/2012 9:36:25 AM PST by zorro8987
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To: Borges

Figures. I liked Barnaby Rudge, too! I’d heard that Old Curiosity Shop was the “worst.” Depends whom you’re reading. Just hazarding a guess here, but contemporary critics of ATOTC would very likely side with the English poets (a literary station far above mere novelists) and, to a degree, Jefferson—all of whom seem to have had an unnatural, puerile crush on the revolutionaries and the Terror leaders. And we shouldn’t forget that damning ATOTC is also a secret-handshake kind of poke-in-the-eye to those arrogant American revolutionaries who refused to use or encourage mob vengeance tactics.

17 posted on 02/07/2012 9:48:46 AM PST by Mach9
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To: Buckeye McFrog

Bunk. High schools lists had a lot of Dickens because he’s the most highly regarded writer of prose fiction in the language. And his world view is conservative.

18 posted on 02/07/2012 9:49:47 AM PST by Borges
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To: Buckeye McFrog

Thank the Lord you went to a good school!

19 posted on 02/07/2012 9:50:37 AM PST by Mach9
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To: Mach9

The knock against those two is that Dickens wasn’t good at historical novels set in other lands. When he got away from his native time and place his powers of evocation dropped.

20 posted on 02/07/2012 9:51:37 AM PST by Borges
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