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Dickens’ Bicentenary

dickens bicentenary -

It’s the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, people. He was born at midnight on February 7, 1812.

In a recent Time article, Radhika Jones says when Dickens, “began writing his first novel—in 1836, the year before Victoria took the throne—the literacy rate in England was less than 50 percent. By the end of her reign, in 1901, it was 97 percent. … Dickens helped close that gap. He did it by publishing stories that people desperately wanted to read and creating a market for thousands of other writers to do the same.”

Jones continues: “Part of what makes his prose style so singular and so enduring is that he was writing, quite consciously, to bridge the gap between illiterate and literate audiences. … [His novels] were often read aloud among families and communities, and eventually Dickens performed scenes himself, in his series of wildly popular theatrical reading tours. … It was a way to expose his work to the many people who, at the beginning of his career, weren’t actually capable of reading it. … This strategy broadened his audience … [and] shaped his style. All those characters with funny names and verbal tics and signature accents—their words beg to be spoken. Even his most complex sentences have a natural rhythm to them.”

We might call Dickens one the world’s first literary PR experts (along with, say, Mark Twain). Most of his novels were written in monthly or weekly installments and reprinted in book form, and each installment was widely anticipated. The guy knew how to write a cliffhanger.

Let’s take The Old Curiosity Shop for example. When the novel was approaching its emotional climax—the death of Little Nell—Dickens was flooded with letters begging him to spare her. Through what he called “anguish unspeakable,” he did what he had to do, artistically speaking.

Readers were crushed. Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish member of Parliament, read about Nell’s death while he was riding on a train, burst into tears, cried, “He should not have killed her,” and tossed the book out the window. American fans waited at the docks in New York, and as an incoming vessel from England approached, they called out, “Is little Nell dead?”

It was perhaps not unlike how the entire population pig-piles into Barnes & Noble to await the midnight release of the next Harry Potter or Twilight book.

For what it’s worth, here’s my Dickens’ top ten list:

1. Bleak House
2. Dombey and Son
3. Little Dorrit
4. Our Mutual Friend
5. Great Expectations
6. Oliver Twist
7. David Copperfield
8. The Mystery of Edwin Drood
9. A Tale of Two Cities
10. The Old Curiosity Shop

Please, Sir, I want some more. Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done. We forge the chains we wear in life. God bless us, every one.

Happy birthday, CD.

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