Charles Dickens Turns 200: How He Captured the Highs and Lows of His Time

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 7 2012 11:30 AM

Read Dickens Now!

On his 200th birthday, two biographies remind us of his vast social imagination.

Charles Dickens, 1843
Charles Dickens, 1843.

Charles Dickens, the clear-eyed chronicler of abundance and want, turns 200 years old today. His buoyant imagination was matched by bitter realism, making him the perfect choice for readers who like their escapism in a minor key. Dickens often, but not always, allowed light and warmth to win out over the cold and dark. Last November, Michael Levenson wrestled with the novelist’s legacy in a review of two new Dickens biographies. The original piece is reprinted below.

Dickens! Should’st be living at this hour and should’st be writing for Slate and publishing fiction online. The world needs vivid laughter, wider vision. Even just to recall the names of characters—Smike, Scrooge, Guppy, Copperfield, Nell—is to wake to lost possibilities of what novels can reach and do. All our talk of the middle class these days is fine, but Dickens knew the higher and the lower, the much lower: the mudlark, the wasting orphan, the prison child, the crossing sweeper, the dun, the dustman, the shabby clerk, the street philosopher. He knew the textures of their everyday lives, their talk, their walk, and the urban abyss yawning near.

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He turns 200 in February (party at my house, everyone invited), which is one good explanation for two new biographies appearing just in time. But it will be good for all of us to stage his cell-break from “Classics” and to let him be where he belongs, always on the reading shelf marked “The Way We Live Now.” Think back to the three-and-a-half decades of the career, from the spectacular appearance of The Pickwick Papers in 1836, which brought world fame to a 24-year-old, to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, left unfinished when a stroke blew through his frantic brain in 1870.

During those years, Britain grew more self-regarding and other-dominating, complacent, and imperial. The Podsnap of Our Mutual Friend is a skewering caricature of puffed-up national pride, British exceptionalism. Here he lords it over a “foreign” guest at a dinner party.

“We Englishman are Very Proud of our Constitution, Sir. It was Bestowed Upon Us By Providence. No Other Country is so Favored as This Country.”

“And ozer countries?—“ the foreign gentleman was beginning, when Mr. Podsnap put him right again.

"We do not say Ozer; we say Other; the letters are ‘T’ and ‘H;’ You say Tay and Aish, You Know; (still with clemency), The sound is ‘th’ – ‘th’!”

“And other countries,” said the foreign gentleman. “They do how?”

“They do, Sir,” returned Mr. Podsnap, gravely shaking his head; “they do—I am sorry to be obliged to say it—as they do.”

Dismissing his gnat of a guest, “with his favorite right-arm flourish, he put the rest of Europe and the whole of Asia, Africa, and America nowhere.” Podsnappery, Dickens knows, is loathsome all on its own, but then it’s even worse in its blighting of other lives. The swarming London poor give the haunting example. But everywhere there is the waste of gift and the decay of promise. For the mid-Victorians, government intervention was unthinkable, the market was king, only private philanthropy was tolerated, “in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only” (A Tale of Two Cities, 1859). So he has caught up to us, or we have reverted to him. Either way, it’s time to return to Dickens if you’ve been away.

Full disclosure: I love these novels the way you're supposed to love only a parent, a partner, a child. I have no patience for the disenchanted readers you can meet along the road: the distracted ones who say they get bored (“so read while you’re awake!”), or the academic ones who see Dickens as complicit with power, in bed with the bourgeoisie (“and what are you?!”).

He was flawed; he was mixed. Growing cold and then colder to his wife, he humiliated her in a cramped statement of 1857, published in the Times and his own journal, Household Words. Casual with the prospects of most of his 10 children, he treated them as he would never want a child in his fiction to be treated. The novels sometimes meet the limits of their sympathy and falter into stereotype. But the flaws are a small price for the immensity. Here is earth’s plenty. The reach of feeling to the least of us (poor Tim), the savage caricature of cold wealth or local cruelty, the accord with booming bristling London, the hilarity, the food, the sentimentality that brings true (as well as false) emotion. And then there’s the thrill of the words, the surprise in sentences that seem to leap into empty space, tumbling through tones and moods, twisting backward over clicking heels of metaphor, only to land where no one, maybe not even Dickens, could have guessed.