Why Read Dickens?

On 7 February Charles Dickens turns 200. This anniversary has already spawned a deluge of television and radio adaptations of his books, exhibitions, numerous articles in the media, reissues and rethinkings of his work as a whole, and stunning new biographies from Claire Tomalin and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Yet for all that we are reading about Dickens, how much are we still actually reading him, and why?

It isn’t that impossible now, in our celebrity-driven age, to imagine the level of national mourning at Dickens’s relatively early death in 1870, aged 58. The self-styled ‘Inimitable’ had put himself and his social concerns into almost every aspect of his writing: the bright boy removed from school and sent to a factory to support his father’s life in the debtors’ prison became a man constantly in dread of poverty who drove himself punishingly onwards and upwards. From the first, wildly popular novel in serialisation, Pickwick Papers, to the last, hauntingly unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’s love of theatre, of character, his relish at life itself shine out. Indeed, the fact that he embarked on long sell-out tours where he recreated his most famous characters onstage contributed to his worsening health, as did the mystery at the heart of Dickens’s existence – the generous family man, holding his household in thrall to his image, who nevertheless banished his long-suffering wife when he fell in love with a young actress.

I read recently that every Dickens novel has been adapted for the screen at least twice. But watching some of these superb realisations of the novels always sends me back to the books. We are currently living through a supposed new age of austerity and political unrest – exactly what Dickens was writing about in Bleak House following the so-called ‘Hungry Forties’; and, in an era when we are as consumed by money – or the lack of it – as ever, there can be no more powerful novel of a young man’s aspiration and obsession than Great Expectations, or the looming horror of bankruptcy prevalent in Little Dorrit. Dickens has his detractors. Multiple projects meant that his novels can seem rushed, overloaded with caricature and with weakly developed female roles. Yet his indefatigability and energy, his sense of plot and atmosphere remain intact. ‘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,’ is the opening line of Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield. It could be Dickens’s own personal credo.