Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body Joseph Addison, English Essayist, Poet, Dramatist and Statesman. 1672 - 1719

'Clarice's Book Page' is the 'reading room' of the 'Elizannie' page at:

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Happy Birthday Mr Dickens!

Dedicated to my friend Joan from the US, who stood with me at the National Portrait Gallery looking at the young Dickens with tears in her eyes. Hope you feel better soon.

Try to imagine a world if Charles Dickens had not been born 200 years ago today. Think of all those characters and the phrases associated with them, often referred to in ordinary conversation, that would have to be replaced:
Jarndyce and Jarndyce; Uriah Heep and his 'umbleness;
Mr Micawber and his famous quotation:
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds
nineteen and
six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual
expenditure twenty
pounds ought and six, result misery.

Think about those characters whose names became household words or gave rise to things now enshrined in popular culture:
'Sarah Gamp' - whose surname became synomous for an umbrella.
'Dolly Varden' - who inspired a fashion style, which in turn gave rise to popular songs etc in the late 19th century.
'Sam Weller' and 'Samuel Pickwick' - between these two there have been over the years several household items named for them and the adjective 'Pickwickian' and several Christmas card scenes can be traced back to the book The Pickwick Papers!

Other authors could not always leave Dickens alone:
Oscar Wilde said:
One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.
William Thackerary, who was knonw to turn a harsh phrase at many a writer, said about A Christmas Carol that
Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this? It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness

Anthony Trollope satirised Dickens as 'Mr Popular Sentiment' in The Warden.

Certainly Dickens detractors have criticised him for illustrating problems without proposing curative measures. But the mere fact he alerted Victorian Britain to its shortcomings meant others like Lord Salisbury picked up the baton and ran with it [Olympic metaphor in 2012] to lobby for and make the parliamentary changes.
Dickens did a lot of charitable work himself, founding a home for Fallen Women with Angela Burdett-Coutts and Dickens did pick his targets. He wrote A Christmas Carol after several societal ills had been massing in his mind including the Royal Commission on on the working of the Cornish Tin Mines which showed the iniquity of children's working and his concerns on the conditions of the working classes generally. [Also in October 1843 Dickens had been fund raising for the Manchester poor, sharing a platform with Disraeli and Cobden, and speaking about Ragged Schools which he had visited during the previous month] Little Dorrit satirises the awful supplies system to the military in the Crimean War where stocks rotted not far away from where soldiers were dying from need. Bleak House illustrates the verbosity of a legal system which in the end favours only those who practise the law and not those who need its help.

Many biographical facts about Dickens are known now, thanks to the biographies written in the years since his death in 1870, which were unknown in his lifetime. F'r instance we now know that his childhood was not as happy as it could have been due to his father's 'liberality' with money [like Mr Micawber] and how Dickens was set to work in a factory at a very early age. This was a secret which Dickens guarded during his lifetime. We also are led to believe that Dickens was not a good husband and father, certainly he had a least one mistress in Ellen Ternan. However the affair with Ellen seems to have been a real love affair. When judging Dickens we should try to do it with 19th century eyes and taking all facts into consideration!

So I want to thank you Mr Dickens if you are listening to me for all the pleasure you have given me with your writings over the years so far. I miss you and may you sleep gently.
Picture above courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London

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