Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Bicentennial, Mr. Dickens

This is quite the year for anniversaries, so I thought I'd start acknowledging them both on the Farm (when appropriate) and on the Cabinet--beginning with Charles Dickens's 200th birthday. Dickens worked and wrote tirelessly about the appalling social conditions in nineteenth-century England, and many of the causes he championed were the same ones William Morris embraced.

If I needed any prompting to remember the date, Google's Doodle for today provides a cute reminder, along with a linked Google search on Dickens (coming up with the Wikipedia article first, of course, followed by Google Books editions of his works; you can get a better list using "Charles Dickens"). But since I try to encourage inquiry beyond the obvious, I thought I'd link a few choice bits here for anyone inclined to celebrate.

During my otherwise largely misspent youth, I binged for some time on nineteenth-century English novels, especially those of Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Dickens. My interest paid off, because when a grad student in the English department at Penn needed someone to type his dissertation on Dickens's serial techniques, I got the gig, and gave him a deal: 50 cents a page. I loved doing it, and took away a much deeper understanding of the man and his work.

The Dickens oeuvre is massive (online versions of his works abound, but go to Project Gutenberg for a list that includes audiobooks (the link is to the "D" page; scroll down). Folks like me, who prefer hard copy, can find numerous editions at Half Price Books, and occasionally snag nice old copies with pretty covers, like my People's Editions from 1883. Marks inside the covers show I spent between 50 cents and a dollar for each. I bought a good acid-free copy of Our Mutual Friend in London, and should probably begin again to remedy lapses in my library.

This week's news outlets are packed with stories, and many tout his social views: against slavery, supportive of "fallen women," and especially his identification with the poor and downtrodden: The Guardian (on literacy), The Christian Science Monitor (on the 19th century 99%), but not, alas, the Daily Poop, which has noted only what others are doing. My favorite bit is from The Guardian: A Fiendishly Difficult Birthday Quiz, for the true aficionados. And no, I haven't taken it, nor would I do all that well if I did, having not read the man's work for forty years. But that copy of Our Mutual Friend I bought in 1971 is next on my list of bedtime reading.

Some of the absolute best sources on Dickens can be found on the web. My favorite is the official Dickens Museum site, and the Dickens Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth (a late, dear friend of mine was also born in Portsmouth, and loved this museum). The Morgan Library and Museum's online exhibit, Charles Dickens at 200, is spectacular. If you're in New York, you can visit it yourself--although it closes February 12.

Huge numbers of films have been made of the books, most of which I have refused to see because Dickens's plots and characters are far too complex for Hollywood not to mangle. The 1946 David Lean version of Great Expectations is the only exception I can think of (mainly because I saw it when I was young and, as yet, untutored in things Dickensian; the link is to the Criterion Collection edition, which is beautiful)--although my husband swears by the 1977 serial television production of Nicholas Nickleby. Perhaps on some dark and stormy night I'll relent and start collecting selected DVDs.

There was also a PBS biographical series on Dickens back in 2003. It's probably time to see if that's available, since his own life story is every bit as interesting as his fiction. Speaking of biographies, there's a relatively new one out by Michael Slater (2009), Charles Dickens: A Life Defined By Writing (Yale UP, 2009), which I haven't read but intend to get. Last November, David Gates reviewed two more in The New York Times (by Claire Tomalin and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst).

There are a number of good Dickens portraits available online (my favorite is the George Herbert Watkins photo that opens this post), in many media. A quick image search can locate dozens. But because Dickens was such an outspoken figure, he was frequently lampooned. The best of the caricatures is probably this one, by André Gill ("Dickens crosses the English Channel, carrying books from London to Paris" from the cover of the French newspaper, L'Eclipse. Gill was a prolific caricaturist, and many public figures relished being portrayed by him.

Not far from where I lived in Philadelphia, in one of the vest-pocket parks the city has sprinkled all over the urban environment, is this statue of Dickens and Little Nell, the heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop. I remember a lit prof once telling the class that ships passing one another while crossing the Atlantic as the book was appearing in serial form would call to one another, "Does Little Nell still live?" My, how things have changed.

I'll have to think of an appropriately Dickensian brew for the Beloved Spouse this evening, and raise a glass to a superb novelist with an admirable social conscience. He ought to be assigned reading for people running for political office.

Image credits: Photograph of Charles Dickens by George Herbert Watkins; albumen print, 1858. (National Portrait Gallery; also available on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons. The photo of Clark Park's Dickens and Little Nell statue is by Bruce Anderson, via Wikimedia Commons. The Gill cartoon is from the Wikipedia Article on L'Eclipse.