Celebrating the legacy of Victorian writer Charles Dickens

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THIS month marks the bicentenary of Charles John Huffam Dickens who was born on 7 February 1812.

He was one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time and his novels, which depict life in Victorian Britain, remain as popular today as they were during the Victorian era.

His early life was influenced by the bankruptcy and imprisonment of his father.

Forced to leave school to help the family he worked in a warehouse sticking labels on pots.

The experience of the harsh working conditions and poverty influenced his life and his writing.

When a family legacy allowed his father to pay off his debts, the family were able to move home and the young Dickens found a job as a junior clerk in a law firm in Holborn where he learned shorthand.

This led to a career as a freelance reporter covering court proceedings, where he gained knowledge of the procedures, complexity and flaws of the legal system.

After four years he switched to political reporting travelling around the country to cover election campaigns. He began to write stories which were serialised and in 1836 one was adapted into his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.

On 2 April 1936 Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth.

His book and articles had made Dickens famous and well off financially enabling the family to set up home in Bloomsbury and in 1837, he began writing Oliver Twist.

In 1842, despite his opposition to slavery, Dickens travelled to the U S. He had the opportunity to give lectures, meet dignitaries and writers and was invited to the White House to meet the tenth US President, John Tyler.

After a successful four week visit, Dickens returned to London and in 1843 wrote A Christmas Carol, which became an immediate hit.

David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times and Little Dorrit followed, all with the same measure of success.

Dickens was now both wealthy and a well known philanthropist, his concern over the plight of the poor plainly evident from his books and articles.

While turning his hand to playwriting he met an actress Ellen Ternan with whom he started a relationship.

Despite having ten children he separated from his wife Catherine and lived with Helen until his death.

A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859 and Great Expectations in 1861.

He returned to the US in 1867 where he gave readings, conferences and meetings.

However his health was deteriorating. On his return to London he continued to give public readings when his health permitted until on 8 June 1870 he suffered a stroke at his home and died.

Although he had wished for a simple burial in Rochester Cathedral he was buried in Poets corner in Westminster Abbey.

His last words were supposed to have been. “Be natural my children. For the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.”

Dickens was an unsurpassed master of the English language with a remarkable vocabulary and classic poetic style.

His stories, thanks to their origin as serials, keep the reader in suspense chapter after chapter. Some of the books are undoubtedly autobiographical based on Dickens’ own experiences.

Their one common thread is the issues of social injustice and poverty during the Victorian age. His vivid descriptions of the harsh working conditions, slums, treatment of women, class division, legal system and economic injustice had such an impact that they often forced the Government to act.

His story of Oliver Twist led to the demolition of Jacob’s Island slum described in the book. He brought to life so many characters whose names remain undiminished by the passage of time: Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley, Pip, Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger, Fagin, Bill Sikes, Mr Micawber, Miss Haversham, David Copperfield, Charles Darney, Sydney Carton, to name but a few.

His biggest success was A Tale of Two Cities, which actually dealt with another country’s affairs, France, rather than social injustice in Britain.

It was his only novel with an international theme. It also has arguably the best first and last chapters of any novel ever written.

Although the Victorian age was the height of Britain’s economic and political power, the country was deeply divided between the wealthy landed gentry and industrial entrepreneurs and the majority of the people living in extreme poverty.

While the conditions of the poor today cannot be compared to Dickens’ time, we seem to be turning the clock back.

Governments are run by a privileged elite with vested interests, we are faced with a widening gap in class and economic divisions with a minority who have managed to extract untold wealth, while the middle and poorer classes are seeing a decline in their living standards and an increase in poverty.

The workshops may have gone to be replaced by call centres and globalisation has shifted the factories to Asia, where children are still being exploited, or to Africa and South America where miners work in slave conditions.

Back home, people are deeply in debt, high streets are falling into disrepair and the homeless are living in the streets.

What would Dickens have written about life in the 21st century?

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