Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens


My favorite Dickens? Oliver Twist was my gateway drug. I read it when I was 11. Because I was obsessed with the movie. Tale of Two Cities came next. Read when I was 15 in 10th grade, under the tutelage Mr. Crothers, my great great English teacher. I’m sure I read Christmas Carol when I was a kid: going to see Trinity Repertory’s annual production of it, it was part of the air I breathed as a child. But then came all of the others. Great Expectations. Dombey & Son, Pickwick Papers. David Copperfield. And, for me, the Grand Pooh-Bah: Bleak House.

Charles Dickens, “Hunted Down”:

I have known a vast quantity of nonsense talked about bad men not looking you in the face. Don’t trust that conventional idea. Dishonesty will stare honesty out of countenance, any day in the week, if there is anything to be got by it.

William Thackeray, after finishing the fifth installment of “Dombey and Son”:

“There’s no writing against such power as this – one has no chance! Read that chapter describing young Paul’s death: It is unsurpassed – it is stupendous!”

Letterhead for Charles Dickens’ literary magazine, ‘All the Year Round’, founded in 1859

Queen Victoria wrote in her journal two days after Charles Dickens died in 1870:

It is a very great loss. He had a large loving mind and the strongest sympathy with the poorer classes.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

[William Cullen] Bryant became a big noise in American journalism, a champion of liberal causes, and a catalyst. When [Charles] Dickens arrived in New York, he is reported to have asked on coming down the gangplank, “Where’s Bryant?”

Charles Dickens kept up a voluminous correspondence. He responded to fan mail, to reader questions, to any letter that came across his desk. In 1866, a woman wrote him about her desire to be a writer and if Dickens had any advice. Here is Dickens’ reply, dated December 27, 1866:

Dear Madame, you make an absurd, though common mistake in supposing that any human creature can help you to be an authoress, if you cannot become one in virtue of your own powers.

Charles Dickens:

I don’t go upstairs to bed 2 nights out of 7 without taking Washington Irving under my arm.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, November 30, 1954:

I’ve been reading Dickens, too, volume by volume by volume, and having a wonderful time. That abundance and playfulness and slopping allover the place is sowonderful.

Charles Dickens, after reading the manuscript of Robert Browning’s “A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon’ in 1842:

“I swear it is a tragedy that MUST be played; and must be played, moreover, by Macready. There are some things I would have changed if I could (they are very slight, mostly broken lines); and I assuredly would have the old servant [Gerard] begin his tale upon the scene [II, i]; and be taken by the throat, or drawn upon, by his master, in its commencement. But the tragedy I never shall forget, or less vividly remember than I do now. And if you tell Browning that I have seen it [ms.], tell him that I believe from my soul there is no man living (and not many dead) who could produce such a work.”

Charles Dickens
By Dorothy Parker

Who call him spurious and shoddy
Shall do it o’er my lifeless body.
I heartily invite such birds
To come outside and say those words!

L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, wrote in her journal:

I first read [Pickwick Papers] when a child — there was an old coverless copy lying around the house and I reveled in it. I remember that it was a book that always made me hungry.”

William Styron:

E.M. Forster refers to “flat” and “round” characters. I try to make all of mine round. It takes an extrovert like Dickens to make flat characters come alive.

Ralph Ellison:

If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain?

Saul Bellow:

“Dickens’s London is gloomy, but also cozy. And yet realism has always offered to annihilate precisely such qualities. That is to say, if you want to be ultimately realistic you bring artistic space itself in danger. In Dickens, there is no void beyond the fog. The environment is human, at all times.

Jeanette Winterson:

Dickens is to me the most interesting example of a great Victorian writer, who by sleight of hand convinces his audience that he is what he is not; a realist. I admit that there are tracts of Dickens that walk where they should fly but no writer can escape the spirit of the age and his was an age suspicious of the more elevated forms of transport. What is remarkable is how much of his work is winged; winged as poems are through the aerial power of words.

Evelyn Waugh:

[Dickens] liked adulation and he liked showing off. But he was still deeply antagonistic to Victorianism.

Peter Carey:

[Edward] Said was writing about Magwitch, the convict from Great Expectations, who is a classic Australian figure. There he is, trasnported to Australia, a free man after serving his seven-year sentence. He is an Englishman, but only as long as he doesn’t go to England. But he is so fucked by it all that he’d rather risk his life to go back to England and sit at the feet of his invented gentleman child and have cakes and ale. I thought, Oh, that’s so good. Up until that stage in my life I hadn’t read much Dickens. I’d always had trouble with the saccharine little girls – in Bleak House, for instance. Much easier to watch on television for me. But after reading Said I thought, I better read Dickens. I was astonished that I enjoyed The Pickwick Papers. I found in Great Expectations a perfect book, and not a lot of saccharine little girls either. Then I started to read about Dickens. That’s how I got to Jack Maggs.

James Baldwin:

I was always struck by the minor characters in Dostoevsky and Dickens. The minor characters have a certain freedom that the major ones don’t. They can make comments, they can move, yet they haven’t got the same weight or intensity.

William Faulkner:

“My favorite characters are Sarah Gamp – a cruel, ruthless woman, a drunkard, opportunist, unreliable, most of her character was bad, but at least it was character; Mrs. Harris, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Don Quixote, and Sancho of course. Lady Macbeth I always admired. And Bottom, Ophelia, and Mercutio – both he and Mrs. Gamp coped with life, didn’t ask any favors, never whined. Huck Finn, of course, and Jim. Tom Sawyer I never liked much – an awful prig.”

Robert Stone:

Many writers of my generation, which was spared television in its youth, grew up with their sense of narrative influenced by the structure of film. And you can go back much further to see that. Joyce, for example. Interestingly, Dickens seems to have anticipated the shape of the movies – look at the first few pages of Great Expectations.

George Orwell wrote an essay on Dickens, a fascinating vigorous and scoldypants analysis. Orwell was not noted for his sense of humor, and Dickens, above all else, is FUN. He should be FUN, George, remember? Still, it’s a must-read. Here are two excerpts:

The fact that Dickens is always thought of as a caricaturist, although he was constantly trying to be something else, is perhaps the surest mark of his genius. The monstrosities that he created are still remembered as monstrosities, in spite of getting mixed up in would-be probable melodramas. Their first impact is so vivid that nothing that comes afterwards effaces it. As with the people one knew in childhood, one seems always to remember them in one particular attitude, doing one particular thing. Mrs. Squeers is always ladling out brimstone and treacle, Mrs. Gummidge is always weeping, Mrs. Gargery is always banging her husband’s head against the wall, Mrs. Jellyby is always scribbling tracta while her children fall into the area — and there they all are, fixed for ever like little twinkling miniatures painted on snuffbox lids, completely fantastic and incredible, and yet somehow more solid and infinitely more memorable than the efforts of serious novelists. Even by the standards of his time Dickens was an exceptionally artificial writer. As Ruskin said, he “chose to work in a circle of stage fire”. His characters are even more distorted and simplified than Smolett’s. But there are no rules in novel-writing, and for any work of art there is only one test worth bothering about — survival. By this test Dickens’s characters have succeeded, even if the people who remember them hardly think of them as human beings. They are monsters, but at any rate they exist.

And here Orwell writes about Dickens’ gift for writing about childhood:

No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens. In spite of all the knowledge that has accumulated since, in spite of the fact that children are now comparatively sanely treated, no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child’s point of view. I must have been about nine years old when I first read David Copperfield. The mental atmosphere of the opening chapters was so immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been written by a child. And yet when one re-reads the book as an adult and sees the Murdstones, for instance, dwindle from gigantic figures of doom into semi-comic monsters, these passages lose nothing. Dickens has been able to stand both inside and outside the child’s mind, in such a way that the same scene can be wild burlesque or sinister reality, according to the age at which one reads it.

Christopher Hitchens wrote, in a book review of Peter Aykroyd’s biography of Dickens:

So I find the plan of my original enterprise falling away from me; I must give it up; there is something formidable about Dickens that may not be gainsaid.

Martin Amis:

When I am stuck with a sentence that isn’t fully born, it isn’t yet there, I sometimes think, How would Dickens go at this sentence, how would Bellow or Nabokov go at this sentence? What you have to emerge with is how you would go at that sentence, but you get a little shove in the back by thinking about writers you admire. I was once winding up a telephone conversation with Saul Bellow and he said, Well you go back to work now, and I said, All right, and he said, Give ’em hell. And it’s Dickens saying, Give ’em hell. Give the reader hell. Stretch the reader.

Editor Robert Gottlieb:

The most famous case of editorial intervention in English literature has always bothered me – you know, that Dickens’s friend Bulwer-Lytton advised him to change the end of Great Expectations. I don’t want to know that!”

Jeanette Winterson, in her essay “Writer, Reader, Words”:

Dickens is to me the most interesting example of a great Victorian writer, who by sleight of hand convinces his audience that he is what he is not; a realist. I admit that there are tracts of Dickens that walk where they should fly but no writer can escape the spirit of the age and his was an age suspicious of the more elevated forms of transport. What is remarkable is how much of his work is winged; winged as poems are through the aerial power of words.

David O. Selznick, independent movie producer, was a huge fan of Charles Dickens. He said later on in life that he could point out punctuation errors in new editions of Dickens’ novels, so well did he know all of those books. Here are two memos from Selznick in re: film adaptations of various books by Dickens:

To: Mrs Kate Corbaley
June 3, 1935

It is amazing that Dickens had so many brilliant characters in David Copperfield and practically none in A Tale of Two Cities, and herein lies the difficulty. The book is sheer melodrama and when the scenes are put on the screen, minus Dickens’s brilliant narrative passages, the mechanics of melodramtic construction are inclined to be more than apparent, and, in fact, to creak. Don’t think that I am for a minute trying to run down one of the greatest books in the English language. I am simply trying to point out to you the difficulties of getting the Dickens feeling, within our limitations of being able to put on the screen only action and dialogue scenes, without Dickens’s comments as narrator. I am still trying my hardest and think that when I get all through, the picture will be a job of which I will be proud – but it is and will be entirely different from David Copperfield.

My study of the book led me to what may seem strange choices for the writing and direction, but these strange choices were deliberate. Since the picture is melodrama, it must have pace and it must “pack a wallop”. These, I think, Conway can give us as well as almost anyone I knew – as witnessed by his work on Viva Villa! Furthermore, I think he has a knack of bringing people to life on the screen, while the dialogue is on the stilted side. (I fought for many months to get the actual phrases out of David Copperfield into the picture, and I have been fighting similarly on Two Cities, but the difference is that the dialogue of the latter, if you will read it aloud, is not filled with nearly the humanity, or nearly the naturalness.

As to Sam Behrman, I think he is one of the best of American dialogue writers. Futhermore, he is an extremely literate and cultured man, with an appreciation of fine things and a respect for the integrity of a classic – more than ninety per cent more than all the writers I know. He can be counted upon to give me literacy that wiol match. On top of this, he is especially equipped, in my opinion, to give us the rather sardonic note in [Sidney] Carton.

Here is another memo from David O. Selznick:

To: Mr. Nicholas M. Schenck
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
October 3, 1935

I should like also to call to your attention the danger of treating this picture [Tale of Two Cities] as just another [Ronald] Colman starring vehicle. Granted that Colman is a big star; that any picture with him achieves a good gross; A Tale of Two Cities, even badly produced, would completely dwarf the importance of any star … The picture is beautifully produced. If I do not say this, no one else in the organization will. It has been splendidly directed by Jack Conway; and Colman is at his very top. Further, bear in mind that the book of A Tale of Two Cities would without Colman have a potential drawing power equaled only by David Copperfield, Little Women, and The Count of Monte Cristo among the films of recent years because only these books have an even comparable place in the affections of the reading public. This is no modern best seller of which one hundred thousand copies have been published, but a book that is revered by millions – yes, and tens of millions of people here and abroad.

Tens of millions. And counting.


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9 Responses to Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens

  1. So, along with everything else, Selznick was a first-rate literary critic. Why am I not surprised!

  2. You might be interested in taking a look at my novel Death and Mr Pickwick which was published last year by Random House (in the UK) and by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (in the USA). It tells the story behind the creation of The Pickwick Papers – and, in my view, Pickwick has the most fascinating backstory of any novel. You can find out more at http://www.deathandmrpickwick.com

    If someone says to you “Take a look at my novel”, some reluctance and disbelief on your part would be justified – so let me just say that Death and Mr Pickwick made the 2015 UK Sunday Times Book of the Year list and the Oprah Magazine Novels of Summer List in the USA. BBC History Magazine called it “The most remarkable historical fiction debut of 2015”.

    But I am not saying that to boast. My great mission to revive interest in The Pickwick Papers – which sadly is so neglected these days. And no previous knowledge of Pickwick or Dickens is required to read my novel.

    Best wishes

    Stephen Jarvis

  3. Dg says:

    I’m about half way to being a Dickens compleatist but I made the mistake of reading Bleak House and now I don’t know how any of the ones I haven’t read yet can top that one. I was completely mesmerized by that book.

  4. One of my favorite little historical facts – Sam Clemens took Olivia Langdon to a reading by Dickens in New York on their first date.

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