Monday, February 20, 2012

Charles Dickens, Two Hundred Years On

2012 is the two hundred year mark since one of our most cherished writers was born. On February 7th, 1812, in Landport England, Charles Dickens arrived as the second child, and eldest son. While he lived, he enjoyed fame and fortune. As time marches on, we look back at his work with renewed reverence.

Growing up, we had a personal tradition of watching "A Christmas Carol," on December 24th as we wrapped presents. Like many viewers of this timeless classic, I felt grateful in the knowledge that conditions had vastly improved since the days of Dickens. Knowing that there are no workhouses, no child labor, no parents beside themselves with worry about being unable to get medical care for a sick child, I thought that as human beings, we had evolved to create more caring societies. The world depicted by Dickens, based on his terribly real experience of being sent to work in a factory while his father languished in debtor's prison, I believed had come and gone.

The Hindustan Times has this to say regarding the Dickens bicentenary: “Adam Pushkin, Head of Arts, British Council, India says, 'Dickens wrote about urban development, capitalism, corruption, private wealth, misery of the destitute and failings of the government. Now look around and what do you see? Celebrating him is not looking backwards but looking at the contemporary society through the world of Dickens.' ”

Two years ago we had a brief but lovely stay in the dear old city of Boston. In the Parker House hotel, we stepped into the bar for a nightcap after dinner. Long in the habit of reading any information found on menus, I was stunned to learn of the hotel's history. In the 1800's a group of writers met there every week one of whom was Charles Dickens. Unaware of his American experiences, I was surprised to learn that he kept company with the illustrious Transcendentalists.

In a search for the ladies room, I was directed to a staircase. As I climbed to the second floor, a powerful sense of heightened awareness caught hold of me and led me down a long hall. Doors holding plaques described different events in the hotel's history including naming the room where Dickens first read aloud from the freshly penned chapters of A Christmas Carol. I carried on down this passage as if floating, until I stopped in front of a large mirror.

The brass plate at the bottom held these words. “Mirror from the room of Charles Dickens.” I gazed at my reflection feeling as if I was not looking at myself so much as looking for the answer. I spoke out loud as I was alone in that vast corridor.

“Help me please,” I asked. “Help me as a writer, please Mr. Dickens.”

It did not take but a minute for a curious thought to literally pop into my mind. “Start the story where the story begins.”

I ran downstairs to the bar to tell my husband the good news.

In looking up facts about the life of Charles Dickens, I read that he stood in front of a mirror, spoke his character's dialogue out loud, found their quirks and odd habits, and indeed, discovered their very souls mirrored in his own reflection.

Here are the opening lines from "Great Expectations":

"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name being Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing larger or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip and came to be called Pip."

As a creative writing major, I heard these words many times: “Put the reader in the story.” We have many masters and many works of genius who managed this skill brilliantly. Some stand above all others. Consider this, if you will, from the first page of "Great Expectations":

“Ours was the marsh country down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrup, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried, and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes and that low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair for which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry was Pip.”

One hundred years from now, at the three century mark, at the tricentennial, we will marvel once again, with awe and reverence, this vivid and masterful writing.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens.


Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

'Start the story where the story begins' - something Dickens did so very well. I'm reminded of his great opening from Tale of Two Cities, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness" . Thank you Mr. Dickens, and thank you Liz for your thoughtful post about this great author

Mary Jane Honegger said...

How exciting you must have been to feel a connection to one of the world's writing masters... all because you stopped by the Parker House Hotel for a nightcap. What a fantastic story! In my continuing re-reads of the old classics, I think I'll read A Tale of Two Cities next in honor of his 200th birthday. Thanks for reminding us of Dickens.

Diane Stephenson said...

Great post, Elizabeth. I have loved Dickens for a very long time. I inherited a complete 18-volume set of his works including all the letters he wrote home from America and Europe. They were my grandfather's and were published in 1908. Even thought the binding is falling apart on most of them, I still cherish them. Many I have read two or more times, and I have many of them in movie form.

There is a story passed down in our family about Dickens. I think it was a great, great grandmother who lived near him. He evidently had an old piano case set up in his yard where he did a lot of his writing. Just a little trivia for you.

elizabethbrinton said...

Thank you so much for sharing such a rich history, Diane. I was thrilled to read it.
Mary Jane and Kathy, you have made me want to reread "A Tale of Two Cities."