Who the Dickens?

Totally unaware that it was happening, my dairy farmer grandfather introduced me to Charles Dickens as a child. An eavesdropper on adult conversations, I’d hear him say, “Well, he’s a lot like Mr. Micawber.” That usually ended a discussion drifting toward gossip. I assumed Mr. Micawber was someone they knew in Sturgis, Mississippi since the adults would murmur sympathetically and move to another topic. Imagine my surprise when I read David Copperfield as a high school senior and discovered Mr. Micawber in the book! Now I understood Papaw’s reminder that the party in question was a likeable ne’er-do-well with good intentions and a weak work ethic.

Dickens began his semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield with the words, “I was born.” That would be 200 years ago on February 7, 1812. Mr. Micawber’s character was based on his father, a likeable man who never managed the work ethic that would keep him out of debtor’s prison. Other Dickens characters have also become iconic. We know Scrooge, Miss Havisham, Fagan, Tiny Tim, and Sydney Carton. This week’s Word-A-Day from Wordsmith.org has gone so far as to do their vocabulary from words we use that are based on Dickens characters.

The current Smithsonian Magazine [February 2012] features tributes to him in England and the new biography that I just read by Claire Tomalin – Charles Dickens: A Life. I recommend reading the biography only if you are willing to have an idealized vision of Dickens tarnished. A telling quote rests on his love of acting and the theater as well as his writing, “…being himself was more exhausting than impersonating a stage character, who would run on predictable tracks, whereas Dickens did not always know where he was going next.”

The biography pictures a man with an obsession for work and making money. Perhaps this came from his early years of embarrassment by his father's stay in debtor’s prison and the deprivations of poverty. He made a lot of money from his writing as it was serialized, again when the work was bound into books, and added large fees for his popular public readings. That money supported his father and brother, his children – only one of whom managed to support himself, a number of widows and orphans of friends, and others he felt responsible for.

The book pictures a man with a social conscience in real life as well as in this writings. Underfed and unhappy children touched him. He said, “We should be devilishly sharp in what we do to children.” He engaged in a lifelong crusade against all forms of human trafficking from deprived children to women forced into prostitution. Claire Tomalin writes a well-researched book giving a balanced picture of a workaholic philanthropist who was a poor father and a worse husband.

Dickens was compulsively working on yet another novel when he died – perhaps having worn himself out at age 58. He left more words behind than many writers who lived much longer with a legacy that continues unabated. Coincidentally as I write this blog, my local paper has an account of second grade students at Petal Primary School who used a production of A Christmas Carol to raise $770 for a local children’s home. I think this would please Dickens more than with his burial at Westminster Abbey!

I found the biography almost as entertaining as his books and came away sympathetic toward this flawed man with high ideals. His imperfection has not changed my enjoyment of his work. If you read this blog often or know me well, you already know my penchant for reading A Christmas Carol every Christmas – preferably aloud with listeners. And should I be marooned on a desert island with but one book to read for pleasure, please make it A Tale of Two Cities.