On the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, we take a moment to celebrate the great author’s life and legacy.Even if you’ve never walked the cobbled streets of London or drunk a pint in one of its darkened taverns, chances are they’re familiar to you. For many, the sights, smells and sounds of the city as it was in the 19th century are as vivid in our minds as those of Chicago or New York, thanks to Charles Dickens, the most prolific and celebrated British author from the Victorian era. A master of character development — Dickens created nearly 1,000 characters during his lifetime — and a social critic and commentator with the innate ability to re-create his surroundings through words, Dickens painted a written picture of his country unlike any author before or since. Now, two centuries after his birth, the author and his legacy — which includes The Adventures of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Hard Times, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities; novellas such as A Christmas Carol; and a variety of poetry, plays and nonfiction — are not only pertinent but also remain as cherished today as they were during his own lifetime. In fact, not one of his novels has ever gone out of print.
Want to join in on Dickens bicentenary celebration?Here are a few options:
• Now though June 10, the Museum of London is hosting the U.K.’s first major exhibition on Dickens in 40 years, with the author’s own handwritten manuscripts, a film comparing London after dark then and now, and an audiovisual experience that brings to life the famous painting Dickens’ Dream at the desk where Dickens once worked.www.museumoflondon.org.uk
• The Free Library of Philadelphia is celebrating Dickens birth with events throughout 2012, including Dickens-themed literary salons, a walking tour of Dickens’ 1842 city visit, and two exhibitions centered on the author and his works. www.freelibrary.org
• Eight days of events, tours, a Dickensian birthday lunch and a similarly themed costume ball take place in Teesdale, England, Feb. 1–8. For further details on the celebration, as well as information about other festivities worldwide,visit www.dickens2012.org.
The second of eight children, Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on Feb. 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, Hampshire, an island city and naval port located 74 miles southwest of London, along England’s southern coast. He lived here for the first five years of his life, and his father worked as a clerk in the pay office of the local Royal Dockyard. In 1817, his father was transferred and the family moved northeast to Chatham in Kent (now home to a Dickens theme park). Here, Dickens spent a happy and carefree childhood exploring the outdoors, enjoying private schooling and reading everything he could get his hands on. When Dickens turned 12, though, the family fell on hard times and had to relocate to London’s Camden Town. Shortly thereafter, his father landed in a debtor’s prison, taking most of the family with him. As the eldest son, Dickens was sent to work in a shoe-blacking factory, where he clocked 10-hour days and endured horrid conditions, including rats and rotting floors. The experience, coupled with the fact that his parents failed to retrieve him after their release, heavily influenced the author’s outlook on life and his future writings. Dickens became a crusader for the poor and the working class, and the vast discrepancies between his country’s rich and poor became a common theme in his work.
Despite the setback, Dickens eventually returned to school and found employment as a court reporter, a job that opened the door to a successful writing career. He published his first short story, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” (later renamed “Mr. Minns and His Cousin”), in 1833, but it was his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, that made Dickens a household name. Released in 20 monthly installments between 1836 and 1837, The Pickwick Papers is a fun and loosely knit string of stories centering on the explorations of club members, such as Mr. Pickwick’s attendant Sam Weller, a lower-class, boozing and brawling philosopher who’s one of the author’s most memorable early creations.
These days, many of Dickens’ characters are as well known as the author himself. Names like Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger represent figures so lifelike it wouldn’t seem strange to pass them in the streets. Perhaps this is because Dickens based many of his characters on people and experiences he encountered in his own world. The untimely death of his 17-year-old sister-in-law Mary, for instance, inspired him to create Nell, the tragic young heroine of Dickens’ 1840–1841 novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, and the author admitted that the namesake character of his 1849–1850 novel, David Copperfield, was largely autobiographical. Dickens was also keen on personifying themes like good versus evil in his works, using sentimentality to influence the hearts of readers. While these methods earned him criticism, they also brought on change, such as the clearing of London’s Jacob’s Island, a notorious slum that appeared in Oliver Twist. By incorporating actual places and events into his writings, Dickens gave readers much of the Great Britain we recognize today.