The legacy of Charles Dickens

Faculty: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
School: School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Category: Staff

9 June 2020

On the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens's death, Professor Valerie Purton discusses his influence on Victorian literature, 20th-century classics and present-day writers.

When Dickens died suddenly in 1870 at the age of 58, one of the many stories told was of a little market girl in Drury Lane, distraught at the news, asking tearfully, ‘Then will Father Christmas die too?’

This story, apocryphal or not, sums up the ‘cosy’ view of Dickens: the novelist of A Christmas Carol, of Hearth and Home, of warm hearts and sentimental tears, of loveable Cockneys and an undemanding Englishness. He was of course, so much more. He could equally well be read as a political radical, the goad of the Establishment, angry reformer of workhouses, scourge of corrupt schools, campaigner for sanitation for the hovels of the poor, despiser of Jingoism and petty nationalism, someone who refused all public honours and demanded in his Will the simplest of funerals, insisting that there should be no public marking of his passing.

What is so fascinating about Dickens is that both readings are ‘true’. He was a man of genius who created an imaginative world which millions of people across the globe have come to explore and inhabit since his death. He was also a man of deep contradictions, the celebrator of Family Life who yet dismissed his loyal wife Catherine from their home and from her children; the creator of the loveable Mr Pickwick who was fascinated by the mind of the murderer, who created a series of villains with terrifying plausible hellish thoughts; the celebrator of free and innocent childhood whose own children feared his wrath. It was from those very contradictions, I believe, that his imaginative energy came.

Dickens’s legacy has been equally contradictory, as he has been appropriated by vastly different constituencies for vastly different purposes. The Dickens Fellowship, founded in 1901, has members who come for the Dickensian Rambles through London, for the sense of warm fellowship generated. It also has its share of top-class academics applying critical theory to the works, which open up to Marxist, feminist, post-structuralist, post-colonial and many other readings. There is also, increasingly in evidence, a Global Dickens: in the British colonies Dickens’s fourteen novels may have been seen as on the side of colonial authority, but in the countries colonised by the French, German, Dutch or Belgians he was read by the colonised people as someone who was ‘on their side’, a voice for the down-trodden, an enemy of authority, a fellow-freedom-fighter. This is particularly true of places like Algeria, where Dickens has been for decades a firm fixture on the educational syllabus.

The story of Dickens’s life is well-known: the son of a navy clerk in Chatham who witnessed his father’s gradual sink into insolvency which meant that he had to be taken out of school at eleven to work in a blacking factory to support the family. A ‘poor little drudge’, he had to find his own way in the streets of London at a dangerously tender age, returning each night to the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison which had become the family ‘home’. When his father‘s circumstances changed and the boy was finally able to return to school, his mother resisted and ‘was warm for my being sent back’ to the blacking factory. The iron entered his soul and he never forgave her. The emotional pain of those years reappears again and again, heavily transmuted and disguised, in the novels – in Oliver Twist’s peril in Fagin’s den;  in David Copperfield’s bullying by his step-father, Mr Murdstone; in Little Dorrit’s nightly wanderings through the city; even, in the final, unfinished murder story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in the stark contrast between John Jasper’s official life as choir master in Cloisterham Cathedral and his nocturnal visits to the opium dens of London.

Dickens jokingly called himself ‘the Inimitable’. Since his death, most major writers have had to encounter him and as far as they can, attempt to refute that claim. The history of world literature in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would be unimaginably different without his huge and unmissable presence.

Influenced himself by his predecessors Smollett, Fielding and Goldsmith, he in turn became a formative influence on subsequent writers, from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Stendhal to Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. In Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934) the protagonist, imprisoned in the Amazon rainforest, is forced to read Dickens to his captor for the rest of his days. Dickens thus entered the cultural consciousness of the twentieth century as both dream and nightmare, his voice increasing in volume as the century progressed. There he is, unmistakably, in Tom Wolfe and John Irving, in Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat (1967). In the twenty-first century he is a palpable presence in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2003) and in the exuberant Indian blockbuster, Slumdog Millionaire, based on Vikas Swarup’s 2005 novel, Q&A. Most recently there has been Armando Iannucci’s colour-blind reworking of David Copperfield (2019) with Dev Patel in the title role, and the 2020 Martin Owen film Twist, which sets Oliver Twist in the streets of twenty-first century London.

In the impossible task of summing up his legacy, one can only, finally, turn back to Dickens himself: in the words of the immortal Mr Squeers (in quite another context), ‘There’s richness!’

Valerie Purton, Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature

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