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Charles Dickens didn’t live a long life. He was just 58 when he died in 1870, his health wrecked by overwork and a gruelling series of lecture tours in Britain and America. And yet he is probably one the few English writers of past centuries that most Britons could name. Dickens was a star in his own lifetime, his competitors the huge-selling Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins (a minority interest at best these days) and WH Ainsworth and George Meredith (all but forgotten).
And yet, with his 200th birthday approaching, Dickens seems to be bigger than ever. The day after Boxing Day sees a new adaptation of Great Expectations hitting our TV screens, and next year there will be a movie of the novel, starring Ralph Fiennes. Soon the British Film Institute begins a series of events celebrating ‘this most cinematic of authors’. But what is is about Dickens that keeps us coming back for more?
Part of the answer is in that unrelenting work ethic, possibly engendered by the financial traumas of his childhood. With his father thrown into the debtors gaol at Marshalsea and 12-year-old Charles taken out of school and set to work in a London boot polish factory, he developed a lifelong terror of poverty as well as an evangelical zeal in pointing out its evils through his work. If the young Dickens wasn’t quite Oliver Twist, it’s easy to see the parallels. Dickens worked ferociously and the result, over his 35-year writing career was 15 novels, numerous short stories, essays, plays, poems and lectures. He produced more work in collaboration with friends such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell, and he generated copious quantities of journalism.
Of course quantity alone doesn’t guarantee immortality – otherwise Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland would be literary giants today. Dickens was also a marvellously gifted writer, with a great eye for character and ear for language. Masterful at interweaving the narratives of half a dozen characters, without ever losing the thread for the reader, he was a terrific yarn spinner – and the fact his novels were initially serialised made him expert at ending chapters on a cliffhanger.
Another answer may lie in the willingness of TV and the movies to bring Dickens to the screen. Fictionalised or not, Dickens gave his people and buildings recognisably East End settings. There was exaggeration in his pen portraits, but they had the ring of truth. And it’s in this vividness and colour that a second clue lies to his enduring popularity. Dickens books could have been written for the screen.
Two early fathers of modern cinema tipped their director’s caps to him. Sergei Eisenstein, who developed much of the grammar of the movies in ‘Battleship Potemkin’, said: “Dickens’ nearness to the characteristics of cinema in method, style, and especially in viewpoint and exposition, is amazing.” And DW Griffith, the first to develop the narrative techniques of the American feature film in the technically brilliant (if morally repugnant) ‘Birth of a Nation’, admitted: “I borrowed the idea from Charles Dickens. Novelists think nothing of leaving one set of characters in the midst of affairs and going back to deal with earlier events in which another set of characters is involved. I found that the picture could carry, not merely two, but three or four simultaneous threads of action – all without confusing the spectator.”
For East Enders, there are numerous reasons to celebrate Dickens. His peripatetic childhood saw him moving beyond the towns of the north Kent coast and London. But Dickens identified particularly strongly with the East End, its colour, its character and its places. Much of that was down to his uncle Christopher Huffam, a Limehouse sailmaker and rigger. The young Charles spent many idyllic hours on the river with his uncle, and London and the river courses through the veins of his later work
Dickens saw a lot of the East End as a boy and it continued to fascinated him throughout his life.
“My day’s no-business beckoning me to the East-end of London,” wrote Dickens on one occasion. ‘I had turned my face to that point of the Metropolitan compass on leaving Covent Garden … and had got past Aldgate Pump, and had got past the Saracen’s Head. And I had come out again into the age of railways, and I had got past Whitechapel Church and was in the Commercial Road.”
Sometimes, as in Our Mutual Friend, real East End places were lightly fictionalized. Riverside pub The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, a haunt of the lightermen and dockers of the Thames, is supposedly based on Limehouse’s Grapes pub, which Dickens remembered from his many visits to his godfather’s house. “The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters…was a narrow lopsided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped one upon another.”
There was more about the East End. Much more. We touched on the killing of the young Edward V in the Tower of London in a recent East London History: in the Pickwick Papers Sam Weller refers to the slaying of the boy king. Mr and Mrs Daniel Quilp live on Tower Hill in The Old Curiosity Shop. David take Pegotty sightseeing to the Tower in David Copperfield. Pip, Herbert, and Startop row past the Tower while attempting to help Magwitch escape England in Great Expectations.
For centuries before Dickens, Whitechapel had been the starting-off point for travellers leaving London, lying just outside the walled city at Aldgate. And in our writer’s time, it still had a host of coaching inns: Pickwick, Sam Weller, Weller Sr and Peter Magnus set off for Ipswich from the Bull Inn here in Pickwick Papers. In Barnaby Rudge, John Willet sends Joe off to London having arranged for him to dine at the Black Lion on the Whitechapel Road. And David Copperfield, arriving in London for the first time, stays at an inn in Whitechapel, recalling: “I forget whether it was the Blue Bull, or the Blue Boar; but I know it was the Blue something.” In Pickwick again, Sam Weller’s wife is a member of the Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association.
Our third reason for an enduring sentimental attachment to this most sentimental of writers lies in his ‘invention’ of Christmas, alongside that other great Victorian, Prince Albert. It seems to us today that images of snow, holly, mistletoe and sleighs have been around for ever. But as late as the 1820s, writer Leigh Hunt called it an event “scarcely worth mention”. Many in Britain believed that the holiday would die out. In the 18th century, a week’s holiday had been the norm, but by 1840 that had shrunk to a day. As we know, even that one day was resented by Ebenezer Scrooge.
His prime vehicle was the Christmas stories of course. Not just ‘A Christmas Carol’ but ‘The Chimes’, ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ and the rest, appearing every year during the mid-1840s. Dickens then set to producing special Christmas editions of his periodical ‘Household Words’. Throughout, were scattered images of happy families reunited around roaring fires, a goose on the stove and the Christmas tree (courtesy of Prince Albert) in the parlour. Christmas revived (the Victorian invention of Christmas cards helped too) and, while much of it was a fanciful recreation of Christmases past, it had a very Dickensian flavour. So as you raise a glass this Christmas (and perhaps settle down to watch ‘Great Expectations’ on the telly) you might remember the man who brought the festival back to the East End, and perhaps even borrow Tiny Tim’s toast: “God bless us, every one.”