77 Charles Dickens

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Charles John Huffam Dickens (February 7, 1812 – June 9, 1870), pen-name «Boz», was an English novelist of the Victorian era.

The popularity of his books during his lifetime and to the present is demonstrated by the fact that none of his novels have ever gone out of print.

Dickens’ writing style is florid and poetic, with a strong comic touch. His satires of British aristocratic snobbery — he calls one character the «Noble Refrigerator» — are wickedly funny. Comparing orphans to stocks and shares, people to tug boats, or dinner party guests to furniture are just some of Dickens’ flights of fancy which sum up situations better than any simple description could.

The characters themselves are amongst some of the most memorable in English literature. Certainly their names are. The likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, Fagin, Mrs. Gamp, Micawber, Pecksniff, Miss Havisham, Wackford Squeers and many others are so well known they can easily be believed to be living a life outside the novels, but their eccentricities do not overshadow the stories. Some of these characters are grotesques; he loved the style of 18th century gothic romance, though it had already become a bit of a joke.

One character most vividly drawn throughout his novels is London itself. From the coaching inns on the out-skirts of the city to the lower reaches of the Thames, all aspects of the capital are described by someone who truly loved London and spent many hours walking its streets.

Most of Dickens’ major novels were first written in monthly or weekly installments in journals such as Household Words and later collected into the full novels we are familiar with today. These installments made the stories cheap and more accessible and the series of cliff-hangers every month made each new episode more widely anticipated. Part of Dickens’ great talent was to incorporate this episodic writing style but still end up with a coherent novel at the end. The monthly numbers were illustrated by, amongst others, «Phiz» (a pseudonym for Hablot Browne).

Among his best-known works are Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol. David Copperfield is argued by some to be his best novel — it is certainly his most autobiographical. However, Little Dorrit, a masterpiece of acerbic satire masquerading as a rags-to-riches story, is on a par with the very best of Jonathan Swift and should not be overlooked.

Dickens’ novels were, among other things, works of social commentary. He was a fierce critic of the poverty and social stratification of Victorian society. Throughout his works, Dickens retained an empathy for the common man and a skepticism for the fine folk.

Dickens was fascinated by the theatre as an escape from the world, and theatres and theatrical people appear in Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens himself had a flourishing career as a performer, reading scenes from his works. He travelled widely in Britain and America on stage tours.

Much of Dickens’ writing seems sentimental today, like the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. Even where the leading characters are sentimental, as in Bleak House, the many other colourful characters and events, the satire and subplots, reward the reader. Another criticism of his writing is the unrealistic and unlikeliness of his plots. This is true but much of the time he was not aiming for realism but for entertainment and to recapture the picaresque and gothic novels of his youth. When he did attempt realism his novels were often unsuccessful and unpopular. The fact that his own life story of happiness, then poverty, then an unexpected inheritance, and finally international fame was unlikely shows that unlikely stories are not necessarily unrealistic.

All authors incorporate autobiographical elements in their fiction, but with Dickens this is very noticeable, particularly as he took pains to cover up what he considered his shameful, lowly past. The scenes from Bleak House of interminable court cases and legal arguments could only come from a journalist who has had to report them. Dickens’ own family was sent to prison for poverty, a common theme in many of his books, in particular the Marshalsea in Little Dorrit. Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop is thought to represent Dickens’ sister-in-law, Nicholas Nickleby’s father is certainly Dickens’ own father and the snobbish nature of Pip from Great Expectations is similar to the author himself.

At least 180 movies and TV adaptations have been based on Dickens’ works.

Questions about the text

1. Charles Dickens used the pseudonym «Boz».
True.
False.
We don’t know.

2. Ebenezer Scrooge was the name of Dickens’ wife.
True.
False.
We don’t know.

3. The capital of England is very well described in his novels.
True.
False.
We don’t know.

4. Some of his novels appeared in journals.
True.
False.
We don’t know.

5. He criticised the differences between classes in the Victorian era.
True.
False.
We don’t know.

6. Charles Dickens never liked performing.
True.
False.
We don’t know.

7. Poverty is a common subject in his books.
True.
False.
We don’t know.

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  ENGLISH READINGS

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