Sunday Times, 25 September 2011
At midnight on Monday, February 6, a group led by the theatre director John Caird will enter the monumental gloom of Highgate’s western cemetery. They will gather at the graves of a Victorian family to hear readings, probably about the death of a child — one of the graves contains Dora Annie, who died of convulsions aged eight months. “It will,” Caird says, “be very Dickensian.”
The readings will be from the works of a family member who does not lie in Highgate soil. He lies beneath a simple slab in Westminster Abbey marking the date of his death — June 9, 1870 — and the date of his birth — February 7, 1812. The Highgate vigil will mark the 200th birthday of Charles John Huffam Dickens, now widely regarded as the second greatest English literary artist, after Shakespeare. He is certainly the most read, a bestseller and superstar in his own lifetime; all his novels still line the classics shelves in bookshops. A Tale of Two Cities is said to be the bestselling novel of all time, with an estimated 200m copies sold. He is certainly the most quoted of writers.
“He is far more deeply ingrained in the culture than any other writer,” says Florian Schweizer, director of the Charles Dickens Museum in London. “Journalists refer to him in the sports pages and even the business pages. People just get it. They know who Micawber is, and football matches between Madrid and Barcelona are referred to as a ‘tale of two cities’.” Schweizer adds that it is hard to find a contemporary novel that does not, in some way, refer to Dickens. Yet, as little as 40 years ago, the claim that he was second only to Shakespeare would have seemed absurd, even deranged. In 1948, FR Leavis, the most influential British critic of the 20th century, omitted Dickens from his book The Great Tradition, his survey of the English novel, grudgingly suggesting that only Hard Times had the required stature as a moral fable. This view — that Dickens was little more than a gifted popular entertainer — was the orthodoxy of the age. This in spite of the fact that even Tolstoy had described him as the greatest novelist of the 19th century. It was not until Leavis recanted in 1970 that the tide began to turn.
With the publication of Peter Ackroyd’s biography in 1990, he was elevated to the pantheon on the right hand of Shakespeare, and has remained there ever since. Ackroyd’s book was followed by Michael Slater’s biography in 2009; next month, in time for the anniversary, it will be joined by Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. His story was already intimately known, almost from the day he died, but it still seems available for endless retelling. “I think,” Tomalin says, “a great man can have many portraits from different perspectives, so there can also be many biographies.”
Around the world, the great Dickens academic conference industry — he is especially big in America and Japan — will grind to a higher gear for the anniversary. Perhaps the strangest of these academic events is run annually by the Dickens Project at the University of California in Santa Cruz. The week-long Dickens Universe is a kind of immersive summer camp in which one book is studied — Bleak House next year — and there is a general air of Dickensian jollity. They even have Victorian teas. “Hot tea and cookies,” says the project’s director, John Jordan. Cookies? “It’s a very California take on the Victorian tea.”
Jordan’s grandmother, an Anglophile, once told him she had never met anyone in her life whom she had not first met in the pages of The Pickwick Papers. Ever after, he was hooked. “He’s a great storyteller, he’s funny, and scholars have come round to the view that, along with Shakespeare, he is the most powerful writer in English.”
The Dickens Universe has been a roaring success, attended by about 250 people from all over the world.
The actress Miriam Margolyes, a seasoned interpreter of Dickens characters in television serials, has been going there for a decade. She is deranged on the subject. “Because he is so f***ing good,” she told a startled writer from the New Yorker. “He gathers you into his world, and while you’re in his world you are ravished… I love him, I hate him, I admire him, I despise him. He is everything.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for such effusions is the attractive oddness of the man. He sticks out of English literature like a sore thumb. To the Victorians, his immediate superstar predecessors were Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Dickens admired Scott and, in his youth, adopted the romantic, dandy style of Byron, but he was like neither. Tomalin links him to Chaucer in his creation of characters, and Slater sees Ben Jonson as both an influence and a precursor. “In his amateur theatricals, he chose Jonson rather than Shakespeare, and he was very fond of Every Man in His Humour.”
Caird mentions Monty Python and Little Britain, for their “comedic characters and the satirical, angry laughter”. Ackroyd says Charlie Chaplin provides the only real sequels to Dickens. “Modern Times is his Hard Times, The Kid is Oliver Twist and City Lights is thoroughly Dickensian. There are extraordinary coincidences. Both became famous at a young age — Dickens at 24, Chaplin at 25 — both came from lower-middle-class families on the edge of poverty, and both had extraordinary mothers to whom they said they owed everything.”
Dickens’s oddity extends to the one great unresolved mystery about his life: did he or did he not have sex with the young actress Ellen Ternan? In her book The Invisible Woman, and in the new biography, Tomalin says he did, but both Ackroyd and Slater believe it was a platonic love affair. Either way, he treated his wife with astonishing callousness in view of the lachrymose pity for victims expressed in every one of his novels.
In spite of which, the big point is that Dickens is such an attractive man. In life, he brightened every room he entered with his brilliance and his intense fascination with character. He was theatrical, flamboyant, epically sentimental and superbly funny. He missed nothing. “He had this ‘clutching eye’,” Slater says. “He saw everything.”
In death, he seems equally attractive. It is this quality that George Orwell noticed in an essay that sets the standard for commentary on the works. He was writing before the current elevation of Dickens, and acknowledges much that is “bad and silly” in the man. But he also sees the genuine anger and rage for justice, and the genius with which he makes this palatable: “Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself. In its attitude towards Dickens, the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking stick as a delightful tickling.”
This is genius on genius. Orwell concludes: “But in his own age and ours he has been popular chiefly because he was able to express in a comic, simplified and therefore memorable form the native decency of the common man.”
So, is he really as good as we now think he is? The novelist Will Self is ambivalent. He notes a contradiction between Dickens our contemporary, the precursor of modernism, and Dickens the Victorian: “The strangely anomalous thing about Dickens is that he is quite modernist as a descriptive writer. I mean, you think of the lumbering dinosaurs at the beginning of Bleak House, or the almost schizoid man buried at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. There’s something rather alarming and kind of modern struggling to get out from beneath the quite caricatured characterisation and the perfectly reasonable but of-its-time kind of narrative propulsion in a three-decker novel.”
Dickens the modernist has often been noted — critics have compared him to Kafka, another creator of cruel, incomprehensible worlds. Self, however, points out that Kafka’s backdrop is always unstable, whereas, for Dickens, the social and political world through which his characters move is rock solid. As Orwell also noted, he was no revolutionary, not even really a reformer. He simply thought people should be nicer to each other to make the system work. One further question is paradoxical: can Dickens survive his own success? His work is infinitely adaptable. In his lifetime, often before books were even finished, he was performed theatrically, often by the man himself. Later, he became the source for endless film and television versions, to the point where it is probably true to say that more people know Micawber, Squeers, Pumblechook and Miss Havisham on screen than on the page.
When this is combined with the length of the books (Bleak House, for me his greatest, runs to about 400,000 words) and his loquacious style (Orwell noted how long it took Dickens to tell even the simplest story), the difficulty of getting today’s instant-gratification readers to pick up Dickens is obvious. Indeed, Self says grumpily that some teachers told his children not to bother finishing the books once they had been “done” in class.
Kate Harwood, the producer of the two new BBC serials (see box), doesn’t think she is doing damage to the books by remaking them for TV. “Great Expectations is one of my favourite novels, and I do hope we take the people back to the book — it is a beautiful, beautiful novel. But they are very long books, and I don’t know how much they are read now. Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House did bounce back up the bestsellers lists when they were on television.”
The taste of the future is unknowable, but, for now, Dickens sits, almost unchallenged, at Shakespeare’s right hand. Sometimes I think he belongs there, sometimes I don’t. Wherever he sits, though, he will live on as England’s great comedian and seeker after gentle justice, as when, in a moment of purest genius in Bleak House, he looks up from the corpse of Little Jo, the crossing sweeper, and howls at the whole of the nation’s hierarchy: “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.”
On reflection, I might join Caird at Highgate Cemetery on February 6.