There’s a reason that readers return to Dickens over 140 years since his death. The man who was a reporter, essayist, playwright, novelist, social commentator and, yes, poet created a series of humorous, well-observed characters whose fictional lives continue to entertain and inform us such as Artful Dodger, Mr Wopsle, Luke Honeythunder, Polly Toodle, Uriah Heep, Pumblechook, Miss Havisham, and the iconic Ebeneezer Scrooge.
Behind much of his writing, there was a serious comment on the poverty and hardship which he observed first hand, as a twelve year old child whose father was sent to debtor’s prison and later as a news reporter who saw the punishments doled out to the poor while the rich appeared untouchable. In one of his early sketches penned under the name Boz, Gin-Shops, he wrote about the foolishness of attacking the poor for their over-indulgence in gin: “Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but wretchedness and dirt are greater; and until you improve the homes of the poor, or persuade a half-famished wretch not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery, with the pittance which, divided among his family, would furnish a morsel of bread for each, gin-shops will increase in number and splendor.” His ability to paint a vivid picture of the miserable conditions of the poor was important in bringing attention to their plight and helping change attitudes.
Dickens’ liberal/reformist attitude is seen in his well-known novels; Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and Great Expectations which touch on the subjects of crime, class and poverty. The same attitude is explicit in his poem, The Fine Old English Gentleman which bemoans the election of the new Tory prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, by looking back on the results of the previous Tory government:
The good old laws were garnished well with gibbets, whips, and chains,
With fine old English penalties, and fine old English pains,
With rebel heads, and seas of blood once hot in rebel veins;
For all these things were requisite to guard the rich old gains
Of the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!
Politics aside, much of Dickens’ prose is filled with highly poetic passages, with some of his passages being instantly recognizable:
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…
(A Tale of Two Cities)
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick-and-mortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency. In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round. Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world–all TABOO with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again. Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do, but to compare the monotony of his seventh day with the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it–or the worst, according to the probabilities.
Whether Charles Dickens directly changed Victoria England is a subject which is up for debate. He did, however, undoubtedly create works of fiction which continue to resonate with readers. His characters are iconic, his locations depicted with a realist’s attention to detail and his plots have the truth of mythology about them. As they are all out of copyright, you can read his work for free online. Alternatively, Dickens’ books have been recorded by the generous folks at Librivox so you can listen to the master’s conjurings for free any time you like.
This Friday, 6 December, the Lancashire Dead Good Poets are meeting at the Number Five Cafe for an evening of poetry and performance. The theme this month is Dickens. As usual, there will be three minute open mic spots for those who would like to perform (the theme is not obligatory and short prose or musical performance is also welcome), a spot of poetry bingo and a delicious selection of food and drink in a welcoming atmosphere. The evening’s entertainment is free and runs between 6pm and 8pm. Whether you’ve penned something you’d like to share or have a favourite passage from Dickens you would like to perform, you will be most welcome.
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