Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens!

Dickens is one of the accidental giants of literature: Only William Shakespeare has commanded anything like the same level of both extraordinary popularity and critical esteem. Dickens was the first mainstream nineteenth century writer to reach out to hundreds of thousands of lower-class semiliterate readers, for whom he retained a conscientious concern that was only partly paternalistic: When one reads in Our Mutual Friend that the urchin Sloppy, who turns the washer-woman’s mangle, is “a beautiful reader of a newspaper,” because “He do the police in different voices,” one can laugh yet be respectful. Dickens himself did much to bring his works within the reach of ordinary people: Monthly serial parts at a shilling (one twentieth of a pound), in an age when a standard novel cost more than thirty times as much, put fiction within the reach of the lower middle classes; the twopence (a sixth of a shilling) weekly cost of Household Words made quality entertainment and useful information available to a mass audience.

One secret of Dickens’s success, as the detective novelist and critic G. K. Chesterton wrote in 1906, was that Dickens was both genius and Everyman: He wanted what the people wanted. That helps explain why about a dozen pirated adaptations of Oliver Twist were playing popular theaters across London before Dickens had even finished writing the novel and why early cinema invested so heavily in his novels — the second British feature film, in 1912, was an adaptation of the very same novel. It partly accounts, too, for the wild fluctuations in his critical reputation during his lifetime and after. Other sources for this are probably his period sentimentality and his resounding anti-intellectualism — he was, above all, an instinctive performer and semieducated improviser, the master of the carnival, a self-made man who thought he had a few hard-won truths to tell but who, unconsciously, revealed considerably more. He was not really, Chesterton argues, a novelist at all, but “the last of the mythologists,” whose godlike characters, from Pickwick and Sam Weller on, exist “in a perpetual summer of being themselves.” A Dickens novel is theater, even circus. Not until Dombey and Son in 1846 did he (regretfully) move on from the episodic and freewheeling “life and adventures” structure of his early novels.


Principal Works - Charles Dickens

children’s literature
A Child’s History of England, 1851-1853 (serial) (1852-1854 (book); pb. with Jane Austen’s The History of England as Two Histories of England, 2006)
The Life of Our Lord, 1934

drama
The Strange Gentleman, pr. 1836
The Village Coquettes, pr., pb. 1836
Mr. Nightingale’s Diary, pr., pb. 1851 (with Mark Lemon)
No Thoroughfare, pr., pb. 1867 (with Wilkie Collins)

edited text(s)
Master Humphrey’s Clock, 1840-1841 (periodical)
Household Words, 1850-1859 (periodical)
All the Year Round, 1859-1870 (periodical)

long fiction
Pickwick Papers, 1836-1837 (serial), 1837 (book) (originally pb. as The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club)
Oliver Twist: Or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, 1837-1839 (serial), 1838 (book) (originally pb. as The Adventures of Oliver Twist)
Nicholas Nickleby, 1838-1839 (serial), 1839 (book) (originally pb. as The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby)
The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840-1841 (serial), 1841 (book)
Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’80, 1841
Martin Chuzzlewit, 1843-1844 (serial), 1844 (book) (originally pb. as The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit)
Dombey and Son, 1846-1848 (serial), 1848 (book) (originally pb. as Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation)
David Copperfield, 1849-1850 (serial), 1850 (book) (originally pb. as The Personal History of David Copperfield)
Bleak House, 1852-1853 (serial), 1853 (book)
Hard Times, 1854 (originally pb. as Hard Times for These Times)
Little Dorrit, 1855-1857 (serial), 1857 (book)
A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
Great Expectations, 1860-1861 (serial), 1861 (book)
Our Mutual Friend, 1864-1865 (serial), 1865 (book)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870 (unfinished)

nonfiction
American Notes, 1842
Pictures from Italy, 1846
Charles on Travel, 2009 (Pete Orford, editor)

short fiction
Sketches by Boz, 1836
A Christmas Carol, 1843
The Chimes, 1844
The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845
The Battle of Life, 1846
The Haunted Man, 1848
Reprinted Pieces, 1858
The Uncommercial Traveller, 1860
George Silverman’s Explanation, 1868
Christmas Stories, 1871

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