Historical Heroes: Charles Dickens

It would be hard to better this Historical Hero, the great Charles Dickens.
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Historical Heroes: Charles Dickens

From pasting labels onto pots at the blacking factory, from taking supper with his family in the Marshalsea Prison, to the top of the Victorian literary tree, Charles Dickens’s story is a remarkable one.

The blacking factory by Hungerford Stairs, ‘a crazy, tumble-down old house… overrun with rats’ haunted Dickens, who remembered his servitude there as his soul’s agony. It was twenty-five years before he visited the site again, and the experience no doubt accounts for the ferocious energy and ambition which drove him on to write first his Sketches by Boz, then his fifteen novels, his short stories, and the hundreds of articles for his journals, Household Words and All the Year Round. He found time to travel, to act with his amateur players, to make speeches, chair committees, and to write thousands of letters – there are fourteen thousand letters in the Pilgrim edition, and more keep turning up.

Everyone knows the name Charles Dickens as well as they know William Shakespeare. Everybody knows Pickwick, Fagin, Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Little Nell, Quilp, Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Mr Micawber, David Copperfield, Uriah Heep, Miss Havisham – these are just a handful of the characters spun from his magician’s pen. He was an amateur conjuror, too – he could magic a Christmas pudding from a top hat. It is his invention which I admire. The names alone give insight into his genius. He must be the greatest namer in all literature and many of them have entered the dictionary. We all know what it means to be a ‘scrooge’; the word ‘Pickwickian’ was in the dictionary by 1840. Mrs Gamp’s umbrella sprang from the page into common usage. Mr Gradgrind, the schoolmaster is perfectly named as is his fellow pedagogue, Squeers – he of the one eye when ‘the popular prejudice runs in favour of two.’ There are humorous villains like Chevy Slyme, and monstrous ones like Murdstone and Headstone, Murdstone, in his way the murderer of his wife; Headstone, consumed with jealousy and planning murder. Neither is a caricature, all surface, an accusation made frequently against Dickens. Murdstone is a psychologically acute study of cruelty as an exercise of power, and Bradley Headstone a psychologically true portrait of a man possessed to the point of madness, goaded by a sense of class inferiority to his rival and sexual jealousy. One has only to think of Iago. Dolge Orlick, too – what a name – is entirely convincing in his rage against the favoured boy, Pip.

Dickens is a maker of words and there are some gems in his works. ‘Comfoozled’ is used by Sam Weller in Pickwick Papers to describe Mr Winkle’s lovelorn state – bamboozled and confused. He is probably flummoxed, too, a word which Mr Tony Weller maintains is Italian. Dickens is probably the first novelist to use it in 1837, the year of the publication of Pickwick Papers. It became more common by the end of the century. Not Italian, of course, but from ‘flummock’, a dialect word meaning a clumsy person. The word first appeared in an 1834 book called Delicious Chatter where it appears as ‘flummix’d’.

In Nicholas Nickleby, a Mr Pyke threatens to ‘smifligate’ an old man who is in his way. Dickens seems to have appropriated the word ‘spifflicate’ which means to annihilate, perhaps adding the implication of smothering and stifling – a ‘fanciful formation’, says the OED. It would be on Dickens’s part. No other use of ‘smifligate’ has been found. The singular ‘Connubialities’ appears in Nicholas Nickleby – meaning marital tiffs.

In Sketches by Boz, Mr Malderton is a little ‘spoffish’ man, as is Mr Percy Noakes. These are the only two uses of the word in Dickens. It’s another dialect word, meaning bustling, fussy, officious. Another source tells me that ‘spoffish’ is derived from ‘spoffle’ – to look busily engaged over matters of little importance. Stephen Fry maintained that he invented the word, and it was appropriated to mean a cover or guard for microphones, but Dickens was there first. Whether Dickens made it up or heard it, we don’t know, but it’s absolutely the right word for Messrs Malderton and Noakes, busying themselves about other people’s business.

‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…’ Who can forget the opening of A Tale of Two Cities? The ‘season of Light… the season of Darkness… the spring of hope… the winter of despair’, and later all England and France unrolling in a series of images of poverty, corruption, and cruelty as if in the camera’s eye. Dickens is a poet, too. The magic I wrote of earlier is in his language. Dickens casts spells in the repetitions, the antitheses, the sentences without verbs, the images dissolving on the page, light and shadow alternating, the fog in Bleak House rolling among the shipping, ‘creeping’, ‘hovering’, ‘drooping’, the gas ‘looming through the fog’ with ‘a haggard and unwilling look.’ Inanimate things leap into being in Dickens. The world is full of realities which take on a dream-like aspect. Nothing is what it ought to be.

Finlay Currie and Anthony Wager in Great Expectations (1946)

In the fog-misted Court of Chancery, ‘dusty warrants have grimly writhed’ under ‘the unwholesome hand’ of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The Court is a nightmare place, which ‘has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard.’ Elsewhere, a pulpit sweats, fires shrink in fear, or spring up as if to speak, a grim clock tells grim time. A clock might tell Lawyer Tulkinghorn, ‘Don’t go home’, but it doesn’t. In Great Expectations, Pip receives that warning and spends a restless night in a hotel room in which ‘the closet whispered, the fireplace sighed’ and the very walls have eyes. ‘Mouldy sighs’ breathe out in ancient rooms, leaves are ‘tearful and shivering’ in a storm. The teeth of church bells ‘chatter’ in the frozen air. Houses skulk in yards, an oyster might speak to the Emperor of China, and floorboards cry out, ‘Stop thief!’ to the trembling Pip.

From Dickens’s inexhaustible imagination unlike things fly together to reveal the very essence of a character. Rapacious Mr Vholes removes his gloves ‘like a man skinning his own hands’; the deceitful bridegroom, Lammles, wrings the neck of a bottle to drink its blood; David Copperfield is ‘a tender young cork’ between the corkscrewing Heep and his mother. Heep’s clammy hand leaves tracks ‘like a snail.’ Mrs Waterbrook in black velvet is like ‘Hamlet’s aunt’ at a party where the guests are ‘ices for the occasion like wine’, though Traddles finds himself seated in ‘the glare of a red velvet lady.’ Mr Merdle, a man significant only for his wealth is ‘put out in his hall like a rushlight’ – the weakest and cheapest of lights, and his hand is as cold as a ‘fish slice.’ Secretive Mr Tulkinghorn is ‘an oyster of the old school, whom nobody can open.’ Sir Leicester Deadlock is ‘a coin of the conjuror’s trick.’ A black ox ‘with a clerical air’ stares accusingly at guilty Pip with stolen food in his pocket. Dickens is a great humorist, too.

And London, for which Walter Bagehot says Dickens is ‘a special correspondent for posterity’, is the real and unreal city in Dickens’s imagination. London Bridge, the Tower, the river, the wharves, the shipping, the warehouses, the dusty churches, and the great mansions are all present. The mud in the streets is ankle-deep, no doubt thickened by horse manure and a million tramping feet, but surely only Dickens could have imagined the Megalosaurus waddling up the street, the first dinosaur in English Literature. The slums are all too real. ‘On Duty with Inspector Field’, an essay in Household Words, takes the reader from the criminal haunts of the rookery of St Giles’s to the greasy dens of Whitechapel, packed close with men ‘in various conditions of dirt and raggedness.’ Men, women, and children ‘for the most part naked, heaped on the floor.’ There’s a terrible comedy in the image which compares this heap of humanity to ‘maggots in a cheese.’ There’s horror on the steps which ‘shine with eyes’ and in the ‘spectral figure rising, unshrouded, from a grave of rags.’ And nightmare in the river, ‘creeping, black and silent’ where the dead lie, ‘a million fathoms deep’. Or, above, a dream of ‘stars in unimaginable millions, glittering… from eternal space.’

Tom All Alone’s in Bleak House is ‘a villainous street, undrained, unventilated, deep in black mud and corrupt water… and reeking with such smells and sights…’ It is surrounded by a warren of equally squalid streets and alleys. There is a nightmare quality in Tom All Alone’s, too. A crowd watches a half dead form carried by, hovering about Inspector Bucket and Mr Snagsby ‘like a dream of horrible faces.’ Dickens packs in more. It is not just that he wants to show us the horror of the slums. There is social commentary for such ruin, poverty and disease have consequences:

‘… there is not one obscenity or degradation about him (the unknown Tom), not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his committing, but shall work its retribution, through every order of society, up to the proudest of the proud…’

His journalism, his speeches, his letters to the newspapers, his charity work all testify to his concern for the poor and dispossessed, the marginalised and the forgotten. What was needed first, he argued was sanitation. Children brought up in filth and poverty would be ‘stunted and perverted’. He championed education for the thousands of ‘ignorant and neglected children’. The lack of schools, he said, was ‘a mighty crime and disgrace’. Westminster was a ‘dust heap’; in Little Dorrit, Dickens invents ‘the Circumlocution Office’ to illustrate the delays, the confusions, the labyrinthine hopelessness of government to do anything to alleviate the misery of the poor.

It was estimated that thirty thousand children were abandoned in London in the mid nineteenth century. Dickens distils them all into one boy in whom a faint light of hope glimmers. Jo, the ragged crossing sweeper, knows nothing, only that ‘He wos very good to me.’ And there he is, sweeping the steps of the foul graveyard where Nemo is buried.

Dickens has lasted. He is always about. Tiny Tim and Scrooge appear at Christmas. He’s on television; letters turn up and cheques; objects he owned appear at auctions – dog collars inkwells, walking sticks. He’s in the newspapers. The fact that he didn’t go to Australia apparently led to the first England cricket tour of Australia; a headline in the Sunday Times declared that reading Dickens is better for mental health than a self-help book. New biographies emerge. Films are made. Critical studies come out; talks are given on and off-line. The Dickens Fellowship endures. Authors appropriate him – guilty. Too many to count, but Barbara Kingsolver’s, Demon Copperfield springs to mind as a wholly convincing David Copperfield for modern times.

Dickens is a genius, flawed of course, containing dark matter.  Carlyle perceived ‘the dark, fateful silent elements, tragical to look upon.’ Sociable yet solitary, compassionate yet capable of cruelty, sensitive and hard, genial and inflexible, quarrelsome and kind. His friends loved him, though he fell out with Mark Lemon, one of his closest companions, and with Thackeray, both rows over his separation from his wife – the darkest blot on his reputation. There are others, no doubt, but when he died, John Forster, his lifelong friend, wrote that ‘nothing in the future can, to me, ever again be as it was.’

Tolstoy said, ‘All his characters are my personal friends.’ He thought Dickens the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century. Dostoyevsky admired his works; as did Van Gogh who wrote, ‘By Jove, what an artist. There’s no one to match him.’

Open any of his books and in you go to Dickens’s world, full of things rich and strange, tragic and comic, magic turns of phrase and startling images. Sometimes mocked for his sentimentality or for creaking plots, yet unsurpassed as a novelist in his invention and unforgettable characters.

JC Briggs is author of The Charles Dickens Investigations series. The latest is The Waxwork Man.