Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Dickens Bicentenary!

Today Charles Dickens turns 200! Or he would be if he weren't, you know, dead. On this auspicious occasion, I would like to let it be known how grateful I am for the lasting legacy of his funny, poignant and heart-felt writing. In this intriguing video of Simon Callow highlighting Dickens's London, Callow comments on the author's frequent presence on the city streets. 'He was everywhere, and he sort of still is in my imagination.' Well said! Dickens, thankfully, still is everywhere today. He pops up in bookstores, contemporary London, university education and (today especially) the worldwide web. He's given us the word Dickensian; such a delightful word to utter, Dickensian. Needless to say, I'm thrilled with his continued literary presence; may it extend far into the future.

Being the literary geek that I am, I have debated for weeks about how best to celebrate this blessed, blessed day. Naturally, some Dickens reading is the order of the day, so I have made a few reading plans for the month. First on the list is Great Expectations (my reasoning behind this selection is fully enumerated below). I also own a beautiful second-hand copy of Sketches by Boz, and I'm looking forward to burying myself in some classically Dickensian depictions of Victorian London. Finally, I am simply dying to get hold of Claire Tomalin's new biography on the man in question. A classic novel, periodical pieces and a biography: I think I've conjured a well-rounded reading plan in honour of the bicentenary.

The Drawing Room at Christmas

Ideally I would have made a trip to the Charles Dickens Museum in London today (the photo above is from a visit during Christmas 2010). Since I am roughly 5,000 miles away I might compel my family members to sing happy birthday to the long-dead author over a cake complete with birthday candles. I also came across a lovely Dickensian questionnaire (courtesy of the lovely blogs A Room of One's Own and Yet Another Period Drama Blog), my answers to which shall appear after the jump.

How were you first introduced to Charles Dickens?

I was first introduced to Dickens through an abridged edition of Great Expectations that was assigned reading in middle school. I hated it. (In my defense, I think that novel's plots, characters and themes don't make it the best introduction to Dickens for young readers). In any case, the traumatic experience successfully put me off all books of a Dickensian nature for years. Even though I am a devoted Victorianist, I maintained a firm dislike of him for some time. Now that I have discovered the joys of his novels, I am eager to reacquaint myself with this iconic text in the hopes that we will get on much better the second time around.

Which Charles Dickens novels and stories have you read? Which are your favourites? 

In the order they were read:
Great Expectations (abridged)
Hard Times
A Tale of Two Cities
Half of Little Dorrit (surely half of such a lengthy novel counts for something, right?)
A Christmas Carol
Oliver Twist
David Copperfield  
I've also read a few pieces from Household Words and All the Year Round

There's a lot of great literature in this list, but reading David Copperfield was pure magic.

Which Charles Dickens novels do you most want to read?

Apart from the reading aspirations outlined above, I am hoping to read The Old Curiosity Shop and Dombey and Son soon. And Our Mutual Friend. This is the problem with Dickens: once you start, it's hard to stop. 

What are you favourite Charles Dickens quotes? 

*'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.' -- A Tale of Two Cities
*'Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.' -- David Copperfield
*Finally, I thought an urban quote was in order: 'What an amazing place London was to me when I saw it in the distance, and how I believed all the adventures of all my favorite heroes to be constantly enacting and re-enacting there, and how I vaguely made it out in my own mind to be fuller of wonders and wickedness than all the cities of the earth.' -- David Copperfield

Who are your top three favourite Dickens heroines and why?

Um...? Here's the thing, Dickens heroines are, as a general rule, pretty drippy. They're very angel-of-the-house, the kind of women who make everything perfect for everybody else. They all seem to be virtually identical incarnations of Dickens's fantasy woman. It's his weak point as a writer. Having said that, I liked Rose Maylie of Oliver Twist better than most Dickensian heroines. 

Who are your top three favourite Dickens heroes and why?

Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities)
Arthur Clennam (Little Dorrit)
Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol)

Which three Dickens villains do you most love to hate?

Uriah Heep! He could give a lesson in creepiness to certified creeps. (David Copperfield)
Madame Defarge is delightfully insane, and I love the image of her knitting needles. It's like a subversive image of domesticity, the way she sits there quietly knitting death. (A Tale of Two Cities)
Bill Sikes is genuinely terrifying. (Oliver Twist)

Which three Dickens characters do you find the most funny?

Ooh, this is where it gets tricky. Dickens excels with comic characters...

Wilkins Micawber. May he write amusing letters and make punch in readers' minds forever. (David Copperfield)
Betsey Trotwood -- my favourite Dickens character of all time! (David Copperfield)
Mr. Bumble (Oliver Twist)

If you could authorize a new film adaptation of one of Dickens's novels which would it be and why?

I think it's about time they made a better adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. The 80s version is rather cheesy.

If you could have lunch with Charles Dickens today what question would you most like to ask him?

Hmm...a few questions come to mind:

How does The Mystery of Edwin Drood end? (It was unfinished at his death.)
What do you think of twenty-first-century London?
Finally, why were you such an ass to your wife? Please tell me you feel properly remorseful now?

Have you ever read a Dickens biography or watched a biographical film about him?

As I said, I've yet to read a full biography, though I've watched several informative and entertaining documentaries on Dickens. 

How many Dickens adaptations have you seen?

Several. I grew up watching various adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Other Dickens viewings, in my chronological order, include:
A Tale of Two Cities
Nicholas Nickleby
Oliver Twist
Bleak House
Little Dorrit
David Copperfield

Which Dickens adaptation is your favourite?

It's a tie. For drama, I'd go with Bleak House. It's so atmospheric! For comedy, I'd say David Copperfield. The incomparable Maggie Smith is perfection as Betsey Trotwood.

Have you seen multiple versions of A Christmas Carol? Which version is your favourite?

Yes. My favourite is, ahem, the Muppet version. In my defense, it's quite faithful in its interpretation of Dickens. 

Who is your favourite Dickens villain, and who does your favourite portrayal of him?

Probably Uriah Heep. Nicholas Lyndhurst as Heep makes my skin crawl. He's also the slightest bit funny.

Have you seen any musical adaptations of Dickens? If so, what is your favourite song?

Yes. I saw Oliver! as a wee girl, and I was a stage manager for my high school production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I often go around singing 'Food, glorious food!' even though I don't know all the lyrics. But it's so applicable to daily life. One has a reason to sing it approximately three to five times each day!

There are my thoughts on Dickens! Do you have any Dickensian reading plans in honour of the bicentenary? What have your Dickensian readings experiences been like? I would love to hear! If you haven't read him, I'd encourage you to give one of his novels a go. He's not the most accessible of authors for twenty-first century readers, but he's well worth the effort!

P.S. Past posts on Dickens: thoughts on Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.


Jillian said...

You've read way more Dickens than I have! :)

Diana said...

Jillian: a lot of my Dickens reading took place over the past year when I decided to devote a chapter of my MA dissertation to Dickens novels. It was the perfect excuse to dig deeper into his writing!

Ashley said...

I have not read nearly enough Dickens. I loved Little Dorrit, but upon completion I told myself I had filled my Dickens quota! Haha, I knew I was lying to myself even then.

As for Dickens' funniest characters, I'd have to vote for Flora from Little Dorrit. She was absolutely hysterical!

Cassandra said...

I am continually surprised by the number of avid readers who didn't like Dickens (aka THE GOD OF NOVELISTS) because of bad experiences with him in High School. For the first time in my life I am actually glad that we don't learn anything about English literature in school (I mean it. Zero.) I myself have loved Charles Dickens for as long as I can remember though I hadn't read anything by him until last summer. You know, Dickens is kind of common property: everyone knows him and judges him even if they haven't read a single line of his writing.

Oh, by the way: I am sooooooooo glad that this is Sydney Carton on top of your favourite heroes list! He is the coolest character ever! I am thoroughly in love with him now, that's why it's so hard to choose a book to read after A Tale of Two Cities; I don't want anything good to be ruined for me just because there's no Cartonlike hero in it.

You're of course right about Mr. Dickens heroines in general, but I have developed a stron appreciation for Miss Pross. She's just a minor character, but she's for once a really kickass female nonetheless :D

Diana said...

Ashley: How horrible is it that I don't really remember Flora even though I read approximately 400 pages of the novel? Oh, dear. I think I'm getting old.

Diana said...

Cassandra: I love Miss Pross too! That's what I think is interesting about Dickens. He does write several compelling female characters, but they never seem to be the heroines! Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Nancy, etc. are all interesting and well-rounded, but when it comes to writing heroines Dickens usually creates women that aren't particularly intriguing to a twenty-first-century audience. Does that make sense?

Miss Dashwood said...

I had a very similar experience with Great Expectations when I read it in seventh grade--it seemed dry and tasteless and I couldn't identify with the characters. Then I read it again in tenth grade for a British Literature course and adored it... so maybe it's one of those books where you have to read it twice to "get" it. :)

If you find some of Dickens' heroines annoyingly angelic, I'd suggest watching/reading Our Mutual Friend. Bella Wilfer is the absolute opposite of "the perfect woman"--she starts out as this spoiled, mercenary brat and matures into a woman of strong character and all-around likability. :)

Diana said...

Miss Dashwood: I've heard many have a similar reaction to Great Expectations: they love it the second time around. I'm hoping it will be the same with me.

Thanks for the info on Our Mutual Friend. Bella Wilfer sounds like a complex and intriguing heroine. That makes me want to read it even more now!

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