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What the Dickens?

CGS Dickens expert on being a rock star for 200 years

| From BU Today | By John O’Rourke

The great British novelist Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago today. To mark the occasion, bicentennial celebrations are being held across the globe this year.

When Charles Dickens died at the age of 58, a headline in the New York Times blared: “Death of the Great Novelist…Mourned by the People of Two Continents.”

In today’s celebrity-laden culture, with people like Paris Hilton and the Kardashian sisters famous for simply being famous, it’s hard to overestimate the cultural impact Dickens had on 19th-century audiences. Born when mass media was in its infancy, he became the world’s first literary celebrity.

At the time of his death, Dickens had made a name for himself not merely as the author of more than 14 novels (The Mystery of Edwin Drood was half done when he was felled by a stroke), but as a magazine editor, playwright, actor, speaker, philanthropist, and social reformer.

In iconic novels like Oliver Twist, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Little Dorrit, Dickens created some of English literature’s most unforgettable characters: Oliver Twist, Fagin, Little Nell, Scrooge and Tiny Tim, Mr. Micawber, and Pickwick. His novels gave voice to the poor and his depiction of workhouses, orphanages, and slums led to many reforms. Since 1897, there have been more than 300 film and television adaptations of his work, including nearly 50 of A Christmas Carol alone.

A Tale of Two Cities has sold 200 million copies and counting, the most of any of his novels. London booksellers reported a surge in sales of Great Expectations this past December after a new three-part BBC adaptation aired. And booksellers here in the United States note an increase in the number of iBook downloads of Dickens’ work. Not one of his novels has ever gone out of print.

Dickens is currently the subject of numerous retrospectives across the globe. In England, a show at the Museum of London titled Dickens and London is the first major display of the novelist in the United Kingdom in more than four decades. A traveling retrospective of adaptations of his work for screen and television, titled From Page to Staged, will be at New York’s Museum of Modern Art later this year. Closer to home, an exhibition at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, that explores the writer’s celebrated trips to America in 1842 and 1867 and 1868 is set to open next month.

Why all the fuss about Dickens now? Well, 2012 marks the bicentennial of the author’s birth. Bostonia sat down with Dickens scholar Natalie McKnight (below), College of General Studies associate dean for faculty research and development and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning, to talk about the extraordinary endurance of Dickens’ popularity. McKnight, a CGS professor of humanities, is the author of Idiots, Madmen and Other Prisoners in Dickens, Suffering Mothers in Mid-Victorian Novels, and Fathers in Victorian Literature and is coeditor of Dickens Study Annual. She recently wrote about the Dickens bicentennial on BU’s Professor Voices blog.

Dickens scholar Natalie McKnight. Photo by Kelly Davidson

Bostonia: How would you describe Dickens’ influence as a novelist?

McKnight: Dickens has certainly influenced other novelists (John Irving and Tom Wolfe [Hon.’00] often get mentioned in this category). But perhaps his greatest influence was in making novels a wildly popular form of entertainment. Dickens’ novels were the first publishing “blockbusters,” and in many ways, he can be credited for the dizzying proliferation of novels being published today.

What makes him stand apart from his contemporaries?

Dickens strove to make his novels entertaining and evocative. He tried hard, sometimes too hard, to maintain an engaging balance of humor, pathos, social commentary, and mystery. Many other 19th-century novelists wrote engaging and thought-provoking fiction, of course, but few worked as hard as Dickens at producing emotional effects in his audience. Dickens was also intensely visual: he captured scenes and characters with lively and imaginative visual details, which is why Sergei Eisenstein saw Dickens as a major influence on the early film industry. Dickens’ visual details not only capture the look of things, but they are also often richly symbolic: the external details reflect internal realities. Those who dismiss Dickens as superficial are missing the rich symbolism of his landscapes and characters. Dickens also had a fantastic ear for speech patterns—no other author in the 19th century captured dialects and idiosyncratic verbal tics as well as Dickens did.

It isn’t every novelist who gets star treatment on turning 200. What about Dickens’ work continues to resonate with readers today?

Because Dickens worked hard to make his novels entertaining, they remain so today. People still enjoy works that make them laugh out loud and cry and think, as Dickens’ novels do. Those characteristics will never go out of style.

He was one of the first novelists to champion the working class and criticize institutions that allowed poverty and corruption to flourish. Is that part of why his work remains so popular?

Yes. That he could use art to fight issues of social injustice and corruption without sounding too preachy (at least most of the time) testifies both to his personal passion for the subjects and his skills as a writer. Readers still enjoy seeing the underdog championed—and we don’t see enough of that in today’s fiction. We could use another Dickens to highlight the growing gap between rich and poor in this country—that the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class just disappearing. He’d work himself into a lather about that, and entertain us all the while.

Is the characterization of Dickens by many scholars as the world’s first literary superstar fair?

He was without a doubt the first pop culture hero. When he toured America in 1842, fans grabbed fistfuls of fur from his coat, swarmed his hotel rooms, stalked him, and feted him with celebrity balls. When he conducted a reading tour in America in 1867 and 1868, people stood in long lines for hours to get tickets, the events sold out quickly, and women reportedly fainted during some of the most intense moments, such as Dickens’ dramatization of Bill’s murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist. When he died just two years after the tour, the shock and mourning were universal, and Queen Victoria insisted that he be buried among England’s greatest authors in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Given his concern with social causes, what do you think he would have made of the Occupy movement?

I think he would fully support the cause, and would share the movement’s anger at Wall Street and banking practices that have left the culprits rich and the rest of us bailing them out. But I think he’d poke a little good-humored fun at the antics of some of the Occupiers. There is good comic material there, and he would mine it for all it was worth, while still upholding the cause.

Dickens was a famously verbose novelist. How do you think he would have fared in the age of Twitter?

While the length of his novels is, without a doubt, an obstacle to some contemporary readers, the fact that 10-year-olds read and love the hefty Harry Potter books (which are very influenced by Dickens, by the way) gives me hope that Dickens will continue to find new readers. And excellent stage and film adaptations of his novels keep emerging, with a new major film version of Great Expectations due out this year, directed by Mike Newell (who directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and starring Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter. The film and stage versions will continue and will extend Dickens’ popularity even with those who don’t have the patience to read 900-page novels.

A recent article in Lapham’s Quarterly suggests that contemporary inhabitants of congested Third World cities like Lagos and Rangoon can relate to Dickens better than European or American readers, since his depictions of urban squalor and characters trying to scratch out a living through odd jobs resonate with them. Perhaps this will be Dickens’ next big audience?

What impact have globalization and digital technology had on his reputation?

Both have enhanced it. Digital technology has been an enormous boon to Dickens studies. Last spring I downloaded all of Great Expectations on my iPad while speeding to New York on the Acela to speak at an event, Dickens on Broadway. I was able to refer to a passage that afternoon in the panel session, and it still amazes me that I can do that. Then in the summer, I attended a conference in Normandy and was able to use the same digitized text on my iPad to search for a particular word in that novel that had caused a bit of a dispute. Being able to quickly download and search Dickens’ novels has made access to his works easier and less expensive for everyone, and has increased scholars’ ability to conduct detailed textual analysis.

Unfair question: as a Dickens scholar, do you have a favorite novel?

Yes, and it happens to be one of the least favorite for most: Barnaby Rudge. But I love it—a roaming idiot as the eponymous hero, a talking raven, wild riots where people drink boiling wine. What’s not to love?

How will BU mark the Dickens bicentennial?

This fall (October 17) British actress Miriam Margolyes will arrive to perform her one-woman show, Dickens’s Women, in the Jacob Sleeper Auditorium at CGS. Margolyes won a BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television Arts] for her performance in Age of Innocence, and portrays Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films. She wrote the show herself and is marvelous in it. She is doing a world tour of it now, and after this year will retire the show. Margolyes’ performance is being paid for by a lecture series fund endowed by Stan Stone (CGS’64, SMG’66).

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