How about “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Great Expectations,” “David Copperfield,” “Oliver Twist” or “Bleak House”? I’m not asking if you have read these books, but only if you have heard of them. Even after almost two centuries, these books written by Charles Dickens have never gone out of print. I have only read a few of these myself. One day I hope to do better.
But perhaps we should all read some of them. After all, Dickens was wildly popular in this country as well as in England, at least during his lifetime. And his legacy continues in the writing of others.
As I write this, it is only a few minutes after two in the morning; I was unable to resist sampling a book I ordered a couple of weeks ago, and somehow couldn’t stop reading.
“Charles Dickens, A Life” is an extraordinarily complete biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin, a contemporary author known for her biographies of famous people. In the 527 pages of the one I browsed last night, there is easily enough material for a master’s thesis.
I read only the first 143 pages, seeking the answer to a question. I wondered how it was that a man with little formal education past the age of 12, whose father was sent to a debtor’s prison, forcing his son to earn money by gluing labels on bottles of boot blacking, could, by the age of 25, have made himself rich and famous, with crowds of people lining up for blocks to read the latest installment of his stories in the newspaper.
The answer is mostly a tribute to who Charles Dickens was, from the age of ten. He had the virtues of planning, persistence, very hard work and of using every opportunity that presented itself. He was persistently curious, spending many hours exploring London and meeting a wide variety of people who later appeared as characters in his books.
Somehow he taught himself shorthand, and got a job transcribing the legal presentation of lawyers. It was there that he met people who could help him with his writing, first with journalism, then with stories that were serialized in local newspapers. His first published book was a collection of sketches of people and life styles based on his own observations, “Sketches by Boz.” Dickens was Boz, a pen name he assumed for the publication.
His strongest asset was that people liked him, were drawn to him, and could help him advance his career. His second asset was an incredible capacity for work, especially writing. In his short life span of only 58 years, he wrote and published an entire library of works still read and imitated today. He accomplished this while conducting tours in which he read his works to large audiences, and if that weren’t enough, he managed to help a lot of poor people, especially the disadvantaged like unmarried mothers and children forced into laboring under dangerous conditions.
I don’t know if I would have liked him. But if he were alive today, I would make an effort to hear him speak and if at all possible, to meet him in person. Just finding out about him was worth losing a night’s sleep.