‘I was born’. In that most well-known of opening passages, narrator David Copperfield reflects on his arrival in the world. And today, if you hadn’t already noticed with the mass of new editions, biographies, adaptations, exhibitions and so on and so forth, is the bicentenary of the author’s birth. Today and for the rest of this year, it’s time to mark and celebrate the life and works of that great Victorian novelist and social commentator: Charles Dickens.
So what exactly are we celebrating? What is Dickens’ legacy to us?
The novels Bleak House and Great Expectations, and perhaps David Copperfield too, are surely the greatest works Dickens has left for us. The scope of Bleak House with its many characters from all walks of life (so many, Andrew Davies’ adaptation had to leave some out), its complex weaving of plot, and its narrative control is just one thing to marvel at. And who doesn’t love Pip’s journey to Satis House and on to London with his encountering of the corpse-like Miss Havisham, the icy Estella and the brutal but loving Magwitch. Dickens sets it all out before us, and we can’t help but lap it up.
But it is more than just the stories and characters, the narrative craft and scope which Dickens has left to us in these works. Don’t we admire and respect the way in which the writer holds up a magnifying glass to scrutinise the social conditions of his day? The characters and plot are vehicles for Dickens to criticise the on-going social struggles of the crossing sweepers, poor mothers, child carers, brutal lawyers, and corrupt bankers. Dickens might not delve deep into the characters’ psyche (something he has all too often been criticised for) but he gives us that incredible picture of Victorian society and those excluded from it. The works are striking for their ability to pause and contemplate each character in his or her own social situation.
This is not merely evident in Bleak House and Great Expectations, but across Dickens. Little Dorrit and Nicholas Nickleby are just two others to mention. In considering these two works, we might see just how well the writer and his works speak to 21st Century readers. The murmurings of how timely the BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit was to the economic failures of this country and abroad is just one example of Dickens’ ability to speak to our own and future ages. Reading the novels can be like viewing a distorted, but none-the-less pertinent, reflection of our own time. And in the process makes us question whether we have any writers who can do something similar today. Surely this is the marker of the novels’ greatness.
How, then, can we celebrate Dickens and his works? If you’ve missed the BBC adaptations of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, then there’s a good place to start. There are also BFI showings of films as part of their Dickens on Screen series. Beyond the screen there are events in Dickens’ hometown of Portsmouth, exhibitions in London at the Museum of London and the Charles Dickens Museum, and a whole host of events and exhibitions happening all over the world. And last, but by no means least, there’s never any harm in picking up a Dickens to read.
We’d love to hear how you’ll be celebrating! And share your thoughts on your favourite novel, character, adaptation…