Dickens At 200: A Birthday You Can't 'Bah Humbug'

Feb 7, 2012

Tuesday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens — the great 19th century English novelist who gave us stories of pathos and comedy, and colorful portraits of the people of London, from the poor in the back streets, to the rich in the parks and avenues.

Lots of Dickens' phrases — like "Bah humbug" and "God bless us, every one!" — have slipped into our minds and our memories. And along with the words, the characters, too — from hungry orphan Oliver Twist to Little Dorrit to cruel Mr. Murdstone.

"After Shakespeare, Dickens is the great creator of characters, multiple characters," says Claire Tomalin, author of the new biography Charles Dickens: A Life. "He did these great walks — he would walk every day for miles and miles, and sometimes I think he was sort of stoking up his imagination as he walked, and thinking of his characters. The way he built his novels was through the voices of his characters."

Dickens liked to walk, as he said, "far and fast," gathering his thoughts and his strength to pour into his novels. The books were published as cliff-hanging serials in magazines or pamphlets before they became bound books — so nothing could be rewritten or reorganized.

"He would write these quite rapidly," Tomalin explains. "And very little was changed when they came out in book form, in volume form, afterwards. ... He was writing books that would become classics, and no other writer has done this."

Tomalin notes that there is bad writing to be found in Dickens' speedily produced novels — but the poor writing is eclipsed by the great writing. One of Tomalin's favorites is David Copperfield — which was also Dickens' favorite.

"It was his first sustained piece of first-person writing," Tomalin says. "Those first 14 chapters ... in which David Copperfield describes his childhood, are extraordinary documents about ... attachment and loss and cruelty and the sort of hazards of childhood."

If you were force-fed Dickens in middle school and hated him, it might be time to reconsider, Tomalin says. Novelist Jennifer Egan is a fan who came back to the books and unexpectedly found that Dickens felt modern.

"The way that Dickens structured his books has a form that we most readily recognize now from, say, the great TV series, like The Wire or The Sopranos," says Egan. "There's one central plot line, but then from that spin off all kinds of subplots. And so he would go off in all sorts of directions and create these amazing secondary characters who would go in and out of focus. But then there was also this sort of central spinal column of a plot that he would return to."

Part of her new attraction, Egan says, are the issues Dickens deals with — wealth and poverty, class and corruption, politicians who speak about morality but behave very differently.

"The things he's interested in are still very relevant," Egan says. "For example, [in] Bleak House, one of the major characters is [in] corporate litigation, and the way in which it consumes all kinds of people associated with it ... the way it kind of chews up and spits out people whose lives depend on the outcome of this case."

One of the characters ground down by the long-running lawsuit in Bleak House is one of the heirs — handsome, charismatic Richard Carstone — who starts to realize that the resolution of this litigation might make him rich.

"Dickens beautifully portrays the way this acts on him almost like a drug, like an addiction," Egan says. "He's constantly enthralled by this possibility that maybe he'll just become rich, and eventually the addiction — it kills him. He ends up with less and less and less until finally he just dies."

Dickens' novels often had more than 100 characters — major and minor — each with their portraits vividly painted — each with their own characteristic manner of speaking. Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus wrote a birthday column calling attention to commonly used names and expressions that had their origins in Dickens: We call a miserly person a "Scrooge"; we refer to grouches who say "bah humbug"; and in Bleak House, it's Mr. Snagsby who uses the expression "not to put too fine a point on it."

Zimmer says that Dickens also used terms that were considered slang or vulgar, and brought them into the vernacular — "butter fingers" for a clumsy person, "flummoxed" to mean bewilder, "slaw bones" to refer to a surgeon. "He seemed very keen on bringing a new type of language into English literature," Zimmer says.

Dickens remains one of the most prolific, well-loved storytellers in the English language — and if you surrender to his winding narratives, his detours, his huge cast of characters — you will be rewarded. Perhaps like Jennifer Egan was:

"I was on a very bumpy plane ride, an overnight flight," she recalls. "I was so miserable, and I pulled out David Copperfield, and I forgot how scared and tired I was, and I thought, 'This is what reading should be.' I'm utterly transported out of my current situation."

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