Today is the birthday (1812) of Charles John Huffam Dickens, English writer and social critic. He created some of the world’s best-known fictional characters and is regarded as one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century critics and scholars had recognized him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories enjoy lasting popularity. Images from Dickens’ work pervade the modern world almost as much as those from the Bible or Shakespeare – such is his enduring legacy.
Dickens was born in Portsmouth and left school at the age of 12 to work in a boot blacking factory to help provide for the family when his father was incarcerated in Marshalsea debtors’ prison.This stint, though short, left an indelible impression on Dickens and colored his sensibilities about social justice for life. He wrote,“no words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into the companionship of common men and boys.The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in…was passing away from me, never to be brought back, cannot be written”
Despite his lack of formal education, he edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote 15 novels, five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed extensively, was an indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms.
Dickens’s literary success began with the 1836 serial publication of The Pickwick Papers. Within a few years he had become an international literary celebrity, famous for his humor, satire, and keen observation of character and society. His novels, most published in monthly or weekly installments, pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which became the dominant Victorian mode for novel publishing. The installment format allowed Dickens to evaluate his audience’s reaction, and he often modified his plot and character development based on such feedback. For example, when his wife’s chiropodist expressed distress at the way Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield seemed to reflect her disabilities, Dickens improved the character with positive features. He also moderated some of his language in writing about Fagin in Oliver Twist after accusations of anti-Semitism. His plots were carefully constructed, and he often wove elements from topical events into his narratives. Masses of the illiterate poor chipped in ha’pennies to have each new monthly episode read to them, opening up and inspiring a new class of readers.
Here is a typical assessment of Dickens culled from Wikipedia:
Dickens was regarded as the literary colossus of his age. His 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, remains popular and continues to inspire adaptations in every artistic genre. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are also frequently adapted, and, like many of his novels, evoke images of early Victorian London. His 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, set in London and Paris, is his best-known work of historical fiction. Dickens’s creative genius has been praised by fellow writers—from Leo Tolstoy to George Orwell and G. K. Chesterton—for its realism, comedy, prose style, unique characterisations, and social criticism. On the other hand, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf complained of a lack of psychological depth, loose writing, and a vein of saccharine sentimentalism. The term Dickensian is used to describe something that is reminiscent of Dickens and his writings, such as poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters.
What can I say? Let me start with the critique. Wilde’s characterization, summarized in the remark, “You would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell,” is nothing more than his own pompous and self-congratulatory cynicism. It can be dismissed without further comment. Woolf’s assessment is, by and large, unfairly anachronistic. She may have been overly taken with Freudian analysis, for example, but cannot fault Dickens for being unaware of psychoanalytic theory that was decades in the future. In fact, I would argue that he was the forerunner of a great deal of Freudian theory in that he posits with full vigor Wordsworth’s claim that “The Child is the father of the Man” in Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Christmas Carol, and other works. What could be more both Freudian and Dickensian than the notion that childhood experience engenders adult personality?
Despite Dickens’ vehement opposition to child labor, slavery, and other social ills, I will accept that he often adopted views that now can be seen as racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic. But I am willing to cut him some slack here. First, he clearly moderated his anti-Semitism in the character of Fagin by later introducing the much more sympathetic Jew, Riah. Second, Dickens was a product of his age, and I don’t believe he can be entirely faulted for this. It is true that he was blind to the inherent ethnocentrism of Victorian imperialism, and was enamored of the “virtues” of the British middle class. This is to be expected. He lived in an era well before the advent of modern anthropology. How many Victorians would we have to consign to the dustbin of outmoded prejudice and narrow mindedness if we judged them solely by our current values? How will the world judge our oh-so-lofty morality 200 years hence?
Obviously in a short post of this nature I cannot cover the entire life and works of Dickens with any satisfaction. Let me simply turn to my favorite: A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas, commonly known simply as A Christmas Carol. I’ve loved this book since I first discovered it as a young teen, in the days when people still read for pleasure, and, in my world, television and assorted mass media were way in the future, so that back then I was not bombarded with an endless slew of schlock images and references. To me it was, and is, an enchanting and compelling tale. I have read it every Christmas since, and at one time I amassed a large collection of editions including a facsimile of the original manuscript, replete with Dickens’ own corrections and annotations.
Very few people now know two salient facts. First, telling ghost stories at Christmas was a common practice in Victorian times, so the book fits a genre of the times. Second, the book represents a novel (for the time) humanitarian vision of Christmas, rife with its condemnation of the ills of industrialism, social injustice, and class warfare, and hopes for a more “Christian” celebration. It is sadly ironic that Dickens’ desire for Christmas to become a joyous season of goodwill should have been corrupted into what we have today – a pathetic materialist frenzy, with Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit et. al., degenerating into hopelessly stereotyped and hackneyed caricatures of their former selves
I wonder how many people nowadays understand that the Cratchits’ goose was not intended as a symbol of largesse, but as an indication of their poverty? Goose was cheap food in those days, not the high-priced, high-class luxury it now is. If you’ve ever cooked one you’ll know that there is very little meat on even an ample goose (and Cratchit’s was far from large). After his reformation Scrooge sends Cratchit a turkey to make amends: the right bird in those days for a lavish, festive meal. I’ve always cooked a goose for Christmas, but at $40 a pop, or more, its status has changed completely. Now it’s turkey that is poor food (in the U.S. at least). That is to say, it is common, everyday poultry in comparison with goose, which is generally rare.
Perhaps surprisingly the phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized following the appearance of the story, and the name “Scrooge” and exclamation “Bah! Humbug!” have entered the English language. But historians have argued that the book’s singular achievement is the powerful influence it has exerted upon its readers over the years. In the spring of 1844, The Gentleman’s Magazine attributed a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain to Dickens’ novella; in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson waxed enthusiastic after reading Dickens’s Christmas books and vowed to give generously; and Thomas Carlyle expressed a generous hospitality by staging two Christmas dinners after reading the book. In the United States, a Mr. Fairbanks attended a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1867, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey. In the early years of the 20th century, the Queen of Norway sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love”; Squire Bancroft raised £20,000 for the poor by reading the tale aloud publicly; and Captain Corbett-Smith read the tale to the troops in the trenches of World War I.
According to my sometime colleague, historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol. He writes that Dickens “linked worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation”. In advocating a humanitarian focus for the holiday, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit. With the appearance of the Oxford Movement and the growth of Anglo-Catholicism, a revival in the traditional rituals and religious observances associated with Christmastide also occurred.
This simple morality tale with its pathos and theme of redemption significantly redefined the “spirit” and importance of Christmas, since, as Margaret Oliphant recalled, it “moved us all those days ago as if it had been a new gospel.” The tale helped resurrect a form of seasonal merriment that had been suppressed by the Puritan quelling of Yuletide pageantry in 17th-century England.
A Christmas Carol has been adapted numerous times for stage and screen, almost since its first appearance as a book, with varying degrees of success and fidelity to the original tale. Here’s a gallery of images of a few of my favorites adaptations, some straight re-tellings, some indirect homages. Carol Kane’s ditzy portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Bill Murray’s Scrooged (1988) tickles me senseless.
One of Dickens’ favorite dishes was baked apples. Among other things he swore by their ability to prevent seasickness. He became a baked apple convert while sailing to Boston in 1867. They were served at every meal during the Atlantic crossing, and he always helped himself to plenty. “I am confident that they did wonders, not only at the time, but in stopping the imaginary pitching and rolling after the voyage is over,” he wrote to his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth.
Here’s the stalwart Victorian Isabella Beeton’s recipe for baked apples in a suet crust that is both simple and delightful, along with her usual inimitable comments.
BAKED APPLE DUMPLINGS (a Plain Family Dish).
- INGREDIENTS.—6 apples, 3/4 lb.. of suet-crust No. 1215, sugar to taste.
Mode.—Pare and take out the cores of the apples without dividing them, and make 1/2 lb. of suet-crust by recipe No. 1215; roll the apples in the crust, previously sweetening them with moist sugar, and taking care to join the paste nicely. When they are formed into round balls, put them on a tin, and bake them for about 1/2 hour, or longer should the apples be very large; arrange them pyramidically on a dish, and sift over them some pounded white sugar. These may be made richer by using one of the puff-pastes instead of suet.
Time.—From 1/2 to 3/4 hour, or longer. Average cost, 1-1/2d. each.
Sufficient for 4 persons.
Seasonable from August to March, but flavourless after the end of January.
USES OF THE APPLE.—It is well known that this fruit forms a very important article of food, in the form of pies and puddings, and furnishes several delicacies, such as sauces, marmalades, and jellies, and is much esteemed as a dessert fruit. When flattened in the form of round cakes, and baked in ovens, they are called beefings; and large quantities are annually dried in the sun in America, as well as in Normandy, and stored for use during winter, when they may be stewed or made into pies. In a roasted state they are remarkably wholesome, and, it is said, strengthening to a weak stomach. In putrid and malignant fevers, when used with the juice of lemons and currants, they are considered highly efficacious.
SUET CRUST, for Pies or Puddings.
- INGREDIENTS.—To every lb. of flour allow 5 or 6 oz. of beef suet, 1/2 pint of water.
Mode.—Free the suet from skin and shreds; chop it extremely fine, and rub it well into the flour; work the whole to a smooth paste with the above proportion of water; roll it out, and it is ready for use. This crust is quite rich enough for ordinary purposes, but when a better one is desired, use from 1/2 to 3/4 lb. of suet to every lb. of flour. Some cooks, for rich crusts, pound the suet in a mortar, with a small quantity of butter. It should then be laid on the paste in small pieces, the same as for puff-crust, and will be found exceedingly nice for hot tarts. 5 oz. of suet to every lb. of flour will make a very good crust; and even 1/4 lb. will answer very well for children, or where the crust is wanted very plain.