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Sketches (etc.) of Boz: happy 200th birthday, Charles Dickens

February 7, 2012

What dreams may come: Dickens, aged 49, photographed by George Herbert Watkins in 1861

By a quirk of sheer Dickensian fate, if any day could be chosen for the bicentenary of arguably the world’s – certainly Blighty’s – master storyteller, then surely it should be today. Here, in the south-east of England (including, of course, that city forever and rightly associated with him, London), all is covered in snow. It’s also bitterly cold and the night doubtless will be misty and dark as a black blanket too. In short, it’s a dramatic and rather melancholic winter’s day, and yet what with the snow, very atmospheric and almost wistful. It’s a Dickensian day all right.

Yes, that’s right, chaps, Chuck Dickens is 200 years old – or, at least, he would be if (admittedly bizarrely) he were still alive. And, not least because he’s my favourite novelist (and, to my mind, the best that ever laid pen to paper) and thus an enormous inspiration to me as a budding novelist, methinks it’s only right on such a whimsically flavoured blog as this to mark the occasion and – through extracts scribbled by him, images featuring him and, yes, video clips of scenes based on his works – celebrate his exceptional efforts.

He may have, according to biographer Claire Tomalin, led a private life that ensured his wife suffered in silence, but he also possessed an extraordinary, unsurpassed talent at creating not just great comic and/ or grotesque characters and at weaving into his writing (sometimes satirically, often starkly) the all too urgent need for social reform in his society, that of Victorian Britain. Not everyone dug him (both Virginia Woolf and Henry James disliked his supposed sentimentality and implausibility), but almost everyone else, both in and beyond his lifetime, rate him quite rightly as one of the greatest writers who ever lived.

So, on the event of your 200th, here’s to you, Boz – indeed, let’s all drink to Dickens, shall we, from a cup of the milk of human kindness; it’s the least the great man deserves…


“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” ~ from David Copperfield


Go west, young man: Dickens, aged 30, by Francis Alexander in 1842, during his first US tour 


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” ~ from A Tale Of Two Cities



“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour” ~ from A Christmas Carol


Victorian vignette: a group captured by an unknown photographer in 1857 including Dickens (front row, sitting sideways) and his great friend and fellow acclaimed author Wilkie Collins (front row, head leaning forward) (National Portrait Gallery, London) 


“You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since – on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to displace with your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil.” ~ from Great Expectations



“She was the most wonderful woman for prowling about the house. How she got from one storey to another was a mystery beyond solution. A lady so decorous in herself, and so highly connected, was not to be suspected of dropping over the banisters or sliding down them, yet her extraordinary facility of locomotion suggested the wild idea.” ~ from Hard Times


Gone but not forgotten: Dickens surrounded by characters from his works and, below, his chair, empty – compiled by an unknown artist and an unknown photographer and commissioned in 1872 following his death two years previously (National Portrait Gallery, London)


“No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot” ~ from Our Mutual Friend



Charles Dickens selected bibliography:

(All are novels – originally published in weekly or monthly serials – unless otherwise stated)

Sketches By Boz (fiction and non-fiction pieces, 1833-36)

The Pickwick Papers (1836-37)

Oliver Twist (1837-39)

Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39)

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41)

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

A Christmas Carol (novella, one of the ‘Christmas Books’, 1843)

Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44)

The Chimes (novella, one of the ‘Christmas Books’, 1844)

The Cricket On The Hearth (novella, one of the ‘Christmas Books’, 1845)

The Battle Of Life (novella, one of the ‘Christmas Books’, 1846)

Dombey And Son (1846-48)

The Haunted Man And The Ghost’s Bargain (novella, one of the ‘Christmas Books’, 1848)

David Copperfield (1849-50)

Bleak House (1852-53)

Hard Times (1854)

Little Dorrit (1855-57)

A Tale Of Two Cities (1859)

Great Expectations (1860-61)

Our Mutual Friend (1864-65)

The Signal-Man (short story, 1866)

The Mystery Of Edwin Drood (unfinished, 1870)


Further reading:

The ‘Dickens And London’ exhibition at The Museum Of London (until June 10)


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