Monday, February 6, 2012
Charles Dickens: All Is Grist That Comes To The Mill
The celebration of February 7th, the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of world's greatest and best storytellers, has already begun in parts of the world. Given my moniker, I place a great deal of emphasis on how we are deeply influenced and largely formed by the period of history into which we were born. 1812 marked the official beginning of The Regency Era in the United Kingdom. I refer you to Alan Bennett's 1994 film adaptation of his play "The Madness of King George." You'll remember that the Prince of Wales was appointed Regent of England as his father, George III of the United Kingdom was thought to have become severely mentally ill and unfit to sit on the throne and rule. Then the son, George IV, ruled until his death 1830. This just is what was occurring on the homefront.
Abroad, the British Empire was waging war with its former colony, The United States of America. We, ever looking inward, refer to this as The War of 1812. However, closer to home, England was also fighting the French, under Napoleon Bonaparte. Most importantly, the Industrial Revolution, the watershed of Modern History had begun. It was the busiest of times.
But back to Mr. Dickens.
Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812 on the British island of Portsea, just off the southern coast of England. Charles's father was clerk who had 8 children to support. Charles, the second-born, was an outdoorsy boy, and he was able to attend private school for several years. Then, when Charles was age 12, his father John's habit of spending far more than he earned, landed John and all his family in the barbaric Marhsalsea debtor's prison...all save Charles. He had the remarkable good fortune to be taken in by family friend Elizabeth Roylance and escape this hellhole. But he did have to leave school and begin working perilous 10-hour days at a boot-blacking factory. Dickens memorialized the dilapidated blacking warehouse in several of his novels, especially his second, Oliver Twist (1838). The factory and its surrounding warehouse was a dangerous place, filled with vermin, lacking sanitation, and populated by other poor souls and their brutal, abusive counterparts.
Charles eventually went back to school, and became a student at The Wellington House Academy in North London--which was an institution of learning on par with the blacking factory. At 15, he became a junior clerk at a law firm for a period of 18-months. In the brief hours when he wasn't working, Charles taught himself shorthand, and then landed himself a job as a freelance reporter with a focus on court proceedings for 4 years. He later plumbed from these experiences to write The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and (one of my favorites) Bleak House (1853).
When his story "A Dinner at Poplar Walk" was published in 1833, Charles Dickens, age 21, officially became a published writer of fiction. However, he was already making a name for himself as a political journalist, concentrating on Parlimentary proceedings and traveling the country to cover elections. Dickens's his first novel The Pickwick Papers (pubished in 1837, but initially serialized in 1836) is about four members of a gentleman's club who undertake a journey all over England in order to report on their observations and discoveries to the rest of the club. (Shades of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell tour of The Hebrides in 1773 here! But I digress...)
Charles's novels continued to be received with great success. He married and had 10 children of his own. Yet whether you know the rest of the personal history--and I encourage you to learn more since his life continued to be as fascinating and heartbreaking as his books--Charles Dickens was tutored by the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and schooled by the hegemony of its descendant, the Victorian age and its extremes of class and economic status. Charles Dickens the writer emerged the champion of the poor, the downtrodden, and the disenfranchised. He paid them consistent and constant homage in his work. He railed against moral, legal, and economic injustice. Dickens did so with incomparable plots, unforgettable characters, unbelievable prose style, huge doses of sentimentality, bountiful wells of good humor, and wise observation of human nature. I count myself among many for whom their first knowledge of the inequities of Victorian society--inequities which continue in our current global society--were learned from the pages of Charles Dickens.