His many detractors have often accused him of being theatrical, ponderous and shallow and blamed him for his melodramatic style and stereotypical characterisations. But nearly 200 years after his birth, Charles Dickens remains the celebrity British writer he was during the Victorian era. Much to the consternation of his critics, his books are still widely translated, read and adapted into plays and cinemas, and most significantly, his novels remain rich texts to dip into if you are looking for illuminating historical parallels of our times.
It is perhaps because of this very quality that Dickens remains relevant in a century ostensibly vastly different from his own. Even his staunch admirers admit to Dickens writing bad prose every now and then. They do not deny that he was full of dramatic flourishes and his style came most alive when his characters’ emotions were in the high octave. The kinder of his critics compared his writing to a Wagnerian opera, with its ability to sustain both the grotesque and the grand in the same note. But even they couldn’t fathom his immense popularity; their puzzlement was akin to a conservative classical musician fretting about the adulation a less-gifted pop star inspires.
Dickens was indeed the Victorian rockstar, his unrockstar-like looks notwithstanding. One of the few writers who enjoyed great fame during his own lifetime, he not only captured people’s imaginations, but also, astonishingly, made money out of his writings. In a fascinating biography, Jane Smiley describes him as the first ‘name brand’; a great citizen and public figure who became sour and cranky in his private life simply because he couldn’t handle his celebrity status.
Scratch the surface and it is not difficult to understand why Dickens enjoyed such fame.
Dig deeper and you will comprehend why Dickens’ stature is even better than it has ever been; why cheap pirated versions of most of his novels are still available with every decent roadside book-seller; and why his readers still regard him as a warm friend able to articulate their blatant emotions and secret desires much more tellingly than they themselves ever could.
Dickens’ appeal is easily explainable. He wrote about people from the humblest of backgrounds struggling (and often winning); he invested a rare empathy in the troubles of everyday living and brought forth both its intense difficulties and simple joys in all its operatic sentimentality. To read about your own doubts and misgivings, fears and joys in the exalted writing style of a Bleak House or a David Copperfield was emotional catharsis for many. Dickens’ greatest characters were the unknown. He never cared much for the kings and queens leading sparkling lives. Instead, he wrote about the clerks and the travellers; about unsuccessful doctors and impoverished young boys. His heroes were foolish and brave; his villains were fate and circumstance.
Much more complex is to comprehend why a Victorian writer makes such profound sense in the 21st century. In novel after novel, Dickens talks hauntingly about the psychological and spiritual impacts of urban life. Witness how he makes teeming, seething, dirty, ugly, Victorian London a living, breathing character by itself. Scholar Peter Ackroyd famously called Dickens the best biographer London could ever get. In his personification of Victorian London, he provides us with a great parallel to our own messy 21st century cities; in creating characters such as Arthur Clennam of Little Dorrit, he lays bare what crass materialism does to unsuspecting souls. Through a prescient novel such as Bleak House, he bemoans how greed and degrading morality affects fortunes and dictates love. His writing resonates with us today precisely because of these insights he wittingly or unwittingly provided. Whatever he was not, he was a brilliant social commentator who could see through the damaging effects of unhindered capitalism and criticise unsparingly the collapse of friendships and relations in the quest for more riches and more everything.
Which is why, despite its theatrics and its stereotypes, his writing transcends centuries, languages and cultures. Not surprising then that there are great expectations from the celebrations that have already begun to mark the bicentenary of his birth in February next year. Co-ordinated by the Charles Dickens Museum, a series of events across the world have been planned under the banner of ‘Dickens 2012’. A retrospective of Dickens’ films and plays will premiere at Southbank in London before being taken on a world tour while several exhibitions, conferences and reading groups have been charted out, including a major audio-visual exhibition of the author’s works at the Museum of London.
Brought to life will be not just the chair and desk that Dickens wrote most of his works on, but also rarely seen manuscripts of his novels, handwritten by the author himself.
The commemoration promises to be grand and hyperbolic. Indeed, it is apt that it should be so for such a celebrated figure; for a man who was no stranger to grandeur, both in his life and his work.
Dickens would certainly have approved.
This was published in Deccan Herald on 04.09.2011. Find it here http://www.deccanherald.com/content/188152/as-popular-ever.html