Let us take a moment to remember Charles Dickens today, his 203rd Birthday.
When you read novels by Charles Dickens, and then read true accounts of mid-1800s London and look at photographs of the period, you’ll find his descriptions match reality very closely. That is surprising to some who think Dickens’ descriptions are exaggeration and caricature to achieve a quaint and humorous effect. Real people are quirky, real London shops were haphazard, colorful, and odd. But few writers could capture quirks and oddities like Dickens could. No one before or since has had such a perceptive eye for detail, and a grasp of human qualities, combined with the artistic skill to express it.
His settings were often real places, the Old Curiosity Shop, for example. Dickens didn’t use the actual shop’s name. But when he let the real shop’s owner know he had used it as his model for the shop in the story, the owner promptly renamed his establishment “The Old Curiosity Shop.” It is an endearing example of the healthy interplay of art imitating life and life imitating art.
Beyond the parade of man’s quirks and oddities, Dickens targeted injustice in almost everything he wrote. For example, amid Old Curiosity Shop’s enchanting interiors and vivid characters, he targets scheming misers and greedy landlords who leave death or ruined lives in their wake. He weaves together life’s powerful joys and despicable evils in picturesque settings with a focused, poignant moral.
In one novel, Hard Times, Dickens dispensed with the endearing and picturesque to focus on the boundless miseries of nineteenth-century industrial towns. He probes inhumane factory conditions with pitiless detail. It is a hard-edged indictment of conditions, with less comedic relief than Dickens’ usual approach. Hard Times does not contain colorful characters and settings, but rather, settles on a hardcore reality that lets nothing distract from the central point of the dreadful state of life. It is a lean, stripped bare, relentless cataloging of life-draining difficulties and sadness.
Back to Dickens’ normal M.O.—in Bleak House, for example, Dickens attacks and condemns the courts and legal system, but does it through 700 pages of sparkling character development, quirky fun, typical Dickensian oddities and colorful settings. He masterfully weaves multiple disparate threads of plotline that eventually magically converge to make a whole coherent, brilliant story. The overall Bleak House experience includes the harsh indictments expressed through quaint, gritty-but-compelling London scenes, through the life (and death) of vivid Dickensian characters. The characters and situations are real and clearly convey the injustices in the legal system. But they are captured and delivered to us with all the quirks and oddities that only Dickens’ perceptive eye and detailed artistic expression can deliver.
This delivery comes to us in thousands of pages from Charles Dickens’ unparalleled lifetime of writing. It’s his gift that keeps on giving, which lives through the ages, and which we remember today on his 203rd.