Dickens at 200: a Birthday Tribute
If Charles Dickens had lived until 1888, he might have been among the select group of British eminentoes who recorded their voices for Thomas Edison’s newfangled phonograph. Robert Browning did it, though the aged poet forgot his own verses in mid-recitation. Alfred Lord Tennyson, even older at the time, recorded “The Charge of the Light Brigade” for posterity in a wrinkled sing-song voice. Florence Nightingale blessed her old Crimean War comrades, Prime Minister William Gladstone sheepishly confessed that his voice wasn’t what it used to be, and Sir Arthur Sullivan saluted Edison’s genius while lamenting (with some prescience) that “so much hideous and bad music might be put on record forever.”
But alas, Dickens died of a stroke nearly two decades earlier, at the less-than-ripe age of 58, so the sound of his voice is lost to history.
Maybe we would have been disappointed by the recorded evidence. Even the many photographs of Dickens seem unsatisfactory: more often than not, they depict a starchy midde-aged Englishman with strange hair and an inscrutable countenance, his eyes fixed and expressionless. Was this the face of the genius who gave us Ebenezer Scrooge, Wilkins Micawber, Fagin, Uriah Heep, Aunt Betsey Trotwood, Wackford Squeers, Miss Havisham, Mr. Pickwick and dozens of other wonderfully named characters who leaped to life in his pages? Well, yes and no.
Apparently you had to see Dickens in the flesh to appreciate his riotous vitality. His contemporaries have left us some vivid depictions of the living, breathing dynamo that was Dickens…
“The most delightful of companions”… “ever buoyant, full of spirits and imagination”… “the very soul of enjoyment”… “From top to toe every fibre of his body was unrestrained and alert. What vigor, what keenness, what freshness of spirit possessed him! He laughed all over, and did not care who heard him!”
They spoke about his mesmerizing deep-blue eyes: “like exclamation points” that “mingled kindness and sharpness” with “a look of keen intelligence about the strong brow and eye — the look of a man who has seen much and is wide awake to see more”… eyes “unlike anything before in our experience; there are no living eyes like them.”
And yes, they gave us some sketchy descriptions of his voice and speech: “Deep, rich, cheery”… “genial-voiced”… “natural and unaffected” — though Mark Twain complained that he didn’t enunciate clearly enough to be understood in the balcony, at least by a man from Missouri.
That now-unknowable voice once entertained multitudes. Dickens was the literary equivalent of a rock star, something almost unimaginable in today’s postliterate culture. His dramatic recitations of famous passages from his works drove his audiences to frenzies of laughter, tears and terror. Those innocent Victorians would literally scream and swoon as he re-enacted the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist with a wild homicidal ferocity. In fact, the heart-pounding intensity of those recitations may have driven him to his premature death. Dickens never did anything halfway. You might say he was a maximalist, in life as in his writing.
When he wasn’t funneling his furious energy into his novels, Dickens would find relief from his mental labors by walking 10, 15, even 20 miles at a clip. Sometimes he’d spend the entire night roaming the streets of London — always observing his surroundings, always absorbing fresh material for his next masterpiece.
He was a less-than-ideal husband and father. His wife, Catherine Hogarth, served primarily as a brood mare for their ten children. Dickens fell in love, chastely but feverishly, with her younger sister, who died in his arms and left him inconsolable. Eventually he abandoned Catherine and took up with the actress Ellen Ternan. Obviously Dickens’ reptuation as the patron saint of domestic felicity was overstated. But his reputation for kindness wasn’t.
Dickens never forgot the stings of his epically tumultuous boyhood: of watching his lovable but improvident father being carted off to debtor’s prison… of being yanked out of school and forced to labor in a rat-infested blacking factory… of being sent back to his labors by his mother even after Dickens the Elder won his freedom as the result of a timely inheritance.
A battle must have raged in the young man’s soul… a battle between cynical disillusionment and a warm, all-encompassing sympathy for the downtrodden victims of industrial-age Britain: the orphans, the urchins, the browbeaten and the unloved. Ultimately he managed to have it both ways, and his sympathies stopped where cruelty began: he channeled his latent cynicism into devastatingly memorable satirical portraits of tyrant schoolmasters, bosses, lawyers and step-parents.
Dickens was no communist; he identified with the bourgeoisie and enjoyed his wealth. He populated his novels with good and wicked specimens from all social classes, though he seemed to reserve a special contempt for those who rise in society through stealth and avarice. Dickens probably wouldn’t have loved Wall Street investment bankers or dissembling American politicians.
We don’t read Dickens for his politics, but he seems more relevant than ever today. When I was in college, it was fashionable for professors of English to deride Dickens for his sentimentality and praise him for his “radicalism.” Where they saw sentimentality, I saw a warm heart. Where they saw radicalism, I saw a simple but unflagging insistence on fairness and decency in human affairs.
Was Dickens a radical? Only in the sense that anyone with an active social conscience is a radical. When you think about it, the mere presence of such a conscience shouldn’t automatically relegate us to the leftward fringes of the political spectrum. Charity should be mainstream.
In the end, I’d label Dickens (if I were forced to label such a human whirlwind) as a radical moderate. He was one of us. He believed in serious reform, but he wasn’t about to set up a new guillotine to lop off the heads of the money-changers. Remember that he gave old Scrooge a reprieve: he had the heart to understand the miser’s heart, and simply led him to rediscover the kind soul that was trapped and withering inside him for so many years.
It’s a sad commentary on contemporary American society that so many self-professed Christians and traditionalists scorn the charitable virtues exemplified by Dickens. It’s an ominous sign that so many Americans, Christian or not, seem to take wanton pleasure in the “epic fails” of their peers. What are our televised reality shows but social traffic accidents engineered for our amusement?
I feel the need for Dickens now more than ever. I enjoy and admire him for his wit, his incomparable imagination, and his ability to breathe life into the most implausible characters. I love him for the greatness of his heart, and I salute him on the anniversary of his birth two centuries ago today.