Monday, February 07, 2011

In Memoriam: Charles Dickens

When I began* reading Peter Ackroyd's superlative (not to mention thorough to the point of obsession) 1990 biography of Charles Dickens as part of a larger campaign to become better acquainted with the most influential novelist in the history of English literature, the plan was to read the biography until I get to the point where he published a novel, then to set aside the biography until I'd read the novel in question. Ambitious, perhaps**, but as a spur to get my own literary career moving far superior to the method I've previously used, which is yelling at myself in the mirror over what a loser I am; surprisingly, this hasn't been successful at all***...

Photobucket Born on this day in 1812, the foremost writer of the Victorian era was actually born well before the woman who gave that remarkable age her name, meaning that his formative years were spent in far more licentious (and therefore, more interesting) times - the Regency. Despite this, Dickens is very much a Victorian novelist; there is very little sex in his works, for instance, even compared to those of his contemporaries.

As described by Ackroyd the child Dickens was precocious, sensitive, funny, and possessed of a photographic memory; though the first dozen years of his life saw the family's fortunes dwindle, such a happenstance served to spur the adult Dickens on, causing in him a kind of restless ambition that eventually saw a dozen hefty novels published in as many years while simultaneously writing nonfiction pieces and editing newspapers besides.

Born in Hampshire, at five the family moved from Portsmouth to Chatham; Dickens was ten when his family left Kent for London, and just twelve when his father was imprisoned at Marshalsea for insolvency. At this time the younger Dickens was sent to work in a factory where he bottled shoe polish; much of the anguish inherent in this time of his life would later inspire the reforming zeal present in Dickens' works, especially where it concerned the expression of compassion towards the downtrodden. No politician was ever as successful at winning hearts and minds to the cause of charity as Charles Dickens, likely because none had ever actually been in need of it as he once had.

Within the year his father was out of prison and the younger Dickens was finally sent to school; by all accounts it wasn't a very good school, and so was born the famous disdain for authority. As an ebullient youth Dickens longed for a career on the stage, but fortunately was both too small and too bright for the theatre; given his size the only parts he could have gotten would have been character parts, and given his high spirits and engaging mien he could have easily upstaged the leads even while standing still, which surely would have killed his career before it began.

After a brief time clerking in a legal office (during which time was born his virulent ambivalence to lawyers and the law) Dickens taught himself shorthand and within a couple of years he was the most sought after Parliamentary reporter in London. The work was hard, though, and soon he began looking for an alternative outlet for his ambitions. Having seen much of the country in the course of his work, and ever one to seize upon an opportunity, Dickens took to writing fiction as quickly and as passionately as the reading public took to the fiction he wrote.

Over the next three decades he chronicled the exploits of hundreds of beloved characters in more than a dozen novels, none of which has ever gone out of print; if anything, his popularity has grown since his early death in June 1870, and now just about every place with any connection to him houses a museum of some sort. Though many of his works have been adapted again and again for film and television, no biopic has ever been made about the man himself, which is surely an egregious oversight, and one which the Pop Culture Institute would like to see remedied forthwith.

*Sometime in 2007.
**Also pretty near impossible! Several years later and I'm not even finished 1837's
The Pickwick Papers
yet. Nor am I close to finishing the biography. (Sigh...)
***I have had better luck following his example, though, by serializing my own first novel,
The Barington Encounter, here.

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