On this day 200 years ago a boy was born who would divine the age of Victorian England in such detail that his name would forever be enshrined in descriptions of the trivially convivial with the squalid and destitute of society.
‘Dickensian’ is a two-tone fiction, made flesh in caricatures which jump from the page in one-dimensional portraits of devilish delight and downright wickedness. In the Victorian melting pot of human mores, the characters muddle and huddle together in a criss-cross of tales for long evenings and cliff-hanger serialisation.
“Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.” 1
The arrival of son Dombey into hearth and home is for little Oliver, an illegitimacy and Parish workhouse away:
“…And for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.” 2
My first dip into Dickens was probably a child’s abridged ‘A Christmas Carol’. It was not however Tiny Tim who conjured an interest but the magic that David Lean’s lens brought to the childhoods of Oliver and Pip. 3 Delving into the books soon followed and whilst the saccharine Little Nell scarcely held my curiostity the boys’ stories were mesmeric. Under my Grandmother’s staircase I discovered and delighted in dusty hardbacks with David Copperfied and Nicholas Nickleby read so closely upon the heels of the other that the two are irrevocably entwined, requiring a re-read for dissection.
Though written for adults, the growing child discovered in Charles Dickens a sympatico for the inconsolable hard knocks, night frights and desolations, where only the particulars differed in accentuation and detail:
“In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high, according to scale, as a big-boned Irish hunter.” 4
Dickens fed his protagonists on moral morsels and just deserts, at a high cost to themselves and often with an accompanying sacrifice of innocents. Thus the toasted muffin Dombey fades and dies in young boyhood whilst Oliver threads his way back through the twists of fate to a grandfather’s love and creature comforts.
Yet tragedy is really only half of the stories and in the quirky nomenclatures, clownish characters and droll quips, Dickens is master of humour, even at the gallows. Over this bicentenary, he will indubitably be done to death as it were, with his bones picked over for every scrap of angst (whilst the author turns in his grave in high dudgeon too with the BBCs dramatised bowdlerisation!). Whilst I do not wish to scavenge per se, it will be refreshing to give an airing to the artful narrative of a quirky wit who brought levity even into the dark and grimy corners of our London streets. It is for this that perhaps Charles Dickens should be resurrected in 2012.
I’d be interested to know what delights others may have had when digging Dickens and don’t forget to delve into the deluge of D posts with the discerning team of ABC Wednesday