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Charles Dickens: The booklover's novelist

30th January 2012 - Gary Perry

With the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens approaching, Gary Perry looks at why the most popular novelist of the Victorian era retains his appeal for readers everywhere.

Charles DickensThere is something primordial about Dickens. I like to imagine that in a lab somewhere (let's say Utah) there is a scientist studying the human genome. This scientist, believing the genome to have been fully mapped, is surprised to come across a peculiar looking protein. It has a beard, a ravaged expression and wild eyes. Our scientist need not be of a particularly literary bent to recognise that this protein bears a remarkable resemblance to Charles Dickens. This man and his imaginary world are proved to be an essential part of our structure. Now, this is clearly never going to happen. I'm a fantasist with a poor grasp of science.

Yet, it underlines something that we all know to be true. That we are born with Dickens. Like it or not, the man is there. He's on television, on the radio, on the internet. He is the companion of your childhood. I count the Artful Dodger and Tiny Tim amongst my earliest friends. As children, we respond to Dickens' theatricality. Life is that loud, that exuberant. Every Christmas Eve, the Perry family festivities would include a visit from our Brighton cousins and our two houses would unite for a seasonal play. These were always original compositions and my parents, aunt and uncle, deserve much praise for sitting through them. They never featured Dickens but certainly mirrored the exuberance of the family Christmas as envisioned by him.

Dickens was one of the imagination's most passionate defenders. His books appeal to children, adolescents and adults alike, combining the finest attributes of the oral storyteller with the forensic eye of the novelist. One can imagine him coming to the defence of today's beleaguered libraries, standing alongside Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo. He is the booklover's novelist.

Bleak HouseAs we grow older, we increasingly recognise that they are books with dirt on their hands. They take us into prisons and slums, place us in the company of house breakers and opium-eaters. Sentimentality aside, Dickens is no polite author. Take Great Expectations as a case in point. As an account of sado-masochistic sexuality, it outdoes Venus in Furs. Bleak House and Little Dorrit ferociously attack the financial and political institutions of the period. The corruption they tackle remains all too familiar today. It was fitting for the Occupy movement to stage a production of A Christmas Carol on the steps of St. Paul's in December. Dickens' call to recognise our common humanity is a rousing one. It is also the raison d'etre of both the novel and journalism.

To a modern reader, the Dickensian dirt evokes a number of twentieth century writers. David Copperfield contends with time in a way familiar to readers of Freud and Proust. It is difficult not to link the tags 'Orwellian' and 'Kafkaesque' to Hard Times. Bureaucracy breeds stagnation, national institutions persecute the innocent and the language of industrialisation estranges individuals, not only from each other, but from themselves. All to chilling effect. Dickens travels with us from childhood innocence to adult wisdom. The world of his first novel is very different from that of his last, although similarities remain. Yet, his greatest power is to remind us that fiction has its birth in our childhood love of playacting. Playacting breaks down the barriers between individuals. It teaches us to empathise, to ask questions, to be curious, to be daring. It is for this reminder that we owe Dickens much gratitude.


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