February 7th marks the 202nd birthday of Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. He traveled widely, giving readings in both the UK and USA, and was the most famous living novelist up to that time, being a master of both popular media and live appearance; this level of celebrity for a novelist was unprecedented. And so 200+ years on, we consider some of Dickens' most enduring works.
At the top of our list is the classic “Great Expectations,” the story of Pip and his growth and development from orphan to gentleman. The novel includes an array of memorable Dickens characters, including Abel Magwitch, Mr. Jaggers, Miss Havisham, Joe Gargery, Herbert Pocket and Pip himself. Dickens popularized the publication of novels in serial form with his novel “The Pickwick Papers,” and “Great Expectations” was in turn serialized in the magazine All the Year Round over nine months. Unlike many who utilized this format, Dickens wrote while the novel was being serialized, allowing him to create suitable cliffhangers to keep the reading public wanting more. After "Great Expectations" was published, Wilkie Collins said the ending was too sad, so Dickens decided to go for the Hollywood happy ending long before the film pioneers had headed west.
Dickens the social activist shone a very bright light on the squalor and poverty in the newly industrialized London, and particularly on child labor and the recruitment of children as criminals. "Oliver Twist" depicts the social ills and hypocrisies of society with a grim realism, and even if the plot eventually ends on a happy note, the power of Dickens depiction gave rise to the term “Dickensian.” Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger, Fagin and Bill Sikes are some of the most memorable characters in literature, and have moved from novel to stage musical to film and television with a regularity matching the apparently insatiable demand of the audience.
And so to "A Tale of Two Cities." The cities in question are London and Paris, and the story is at once a tale of espionage, social injustice, obsessive shoemaking, assassinations, unrequited love, doppelgangers, ultimate redemption and a whole lot more, including the French Revolution. One of only two historical novels Dickens ever wrote, it has sold over 200 million copies and is perhaps his most satisfying. It also includes, one of the most moving quotes in all of Dickens: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
And what of the rest? There are a couple of other novels you might just have heard of, “David Copperfield,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Nicholas Nickelby,” “Little Dorrit,” and the list goes on. Dickens was prolific and his writing is extraordinary, and as we approach his 202nd birthday I heartily recommend that you revisit your favorite Dickens.
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