What Dickens Tells Us at 200

By Matt Windsor

0312_dickens1It has been exactly 200 years since the birth of Charles Dickens, the Victorian novelist who wrote a bookshelf of classics, including Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol. For the past 100 years, Dickens has been terrifying schoolchildren across the United States—at least as much for the sheer girth of his books as for the hair-raising adventures of Pip and his other hardscrabble characters.

Few Americans graduate from high school without some exposure to Dickens. Count Danny Siegel, Ph.D., UAB associate professor of English, among them, however. “I never read Dickens in high school,” he says. After he graduated, however, Siegel picked up a copy of Great Expectations, and he hasn’t been able to put Dickens down since.

“What sets Dickens apart for me is his love for idiosyncrasy, for oddness,” Siegel says. “A lot of writers try to create some kind of universal story with characters and incidents everyone can relate to. With Dickens, it’s often the opposite; he loves quirks, gestures, voices—the things that make people different from one another.

“When you’re reading a Dickens novel, the world starts to seem much less predictable and more interesting than it did before. Everything is very strange in a Dickens novel: People are strange, families are strange, cities are strange, evil is strange, even goodness is strange, which is hard to pull off. Ebenezer Scrooge is a weird guy, but Bob Cratchit is much weirder.”

0312_dickens2Danny SiegelSiegel, a specialist in Victorian literature who has written several academic studies of Dickens’s works, shares his love of Dickens in a graduate seminar at UAB. (The course will be held again in fall 2012.) He says that people shouldn’t be daunted by the epic length of Dickens’s novels. “If you’ve never read one, you’ve got to start with David Copperfield or Great Expectations; these are incredibly, viscerally fun.”

Siegel shares more thoughts on Dickens’s enduring popularity and clears up a lingering myth below.

UAB Magazine: Why do we still read Dickens today when so many of his contemporaries have been forgotten?

Siegel: Dickens is a great storyteller, maybe the best. People love his stories, his oddball characters, his vivid settings, and the sense of immediacy in his writing. I think we also respond instinctually to the anarchic energy of his sentences and paragraphs; you never know where a Dickens sentence is going to end up.

But it’s hard to put your finger on the appeal of Dickens. [English journalist and essayist] G. K. Chesterton may have done it when he said, “In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight—that thing enjoys Dickens.” (Chesterton also praised Dickens for being “so plain that even scholars can understand him.”)

UAB Magazine: In many ways, Dickens seems to have set the prototype for series-based blockbusters like Harry Potter and Twilight. Do you find this to be true?

Siegel: Yes, in a way. Dickens did set a pattern for the kind of mega-popularity that you see with some blockbuster novels, and the serial release of the Twilight or Harry Potter sagas may resemble the release of weekly or monthly installments of a Dickens novel. But I think Dickens’s novels may have more in common with soap operas and other TV dramas than they do with Harry Potter or Twilight. When Dickens’s novels were coming out in serial, his readers were living with them as part of their daily lives, waiting for the next week (or month) when another installment would appear like clockwork. This is how television works. HBO’s The Wire, for instance, has a very Dickensian feel to me.

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UAB Magazine: Everyone knows about Dickens’s Scrooge character from A Christmas Carol. What are some other contributions of Dickens to the wider collective consciousness?

Siegel: Tiny Tim is part of the collective consciousness, of course. I’d add Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger (the overwise street urchin), Nancy (the prostitute with the heart of gold), and Fagin (the criminal ringleader and miserly Jew). Fagin plays right into the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes, and though Dickens eventually regretted this portrayal, the character certainly remains in our consciousness. I’d add Madame Defarge and Miss Havisham as well, both injured women who strike back.

Dickens shows up everywhere. This week a show on NPR was doing a story on the late British pop singer Davy Jones, and I was waiting to hear “Daydream Believer,” but instead they played “I’d Do Anything,” a song he had performed in the Broadway production of Oliver! Apparently Davy Jones was the Artful Dodger; I’d had no idea.

UAB Magazine: What are some of your favorite Dickens works?

Siegel: David Copperfield will always be first, then probably Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend.

UAB Magazine: Can you recommend other less-read authors from Dickens’s era that readers may enjoy?

Siegel: I’m not sure whom to recommend to Dickens lovers, because even in the Victorian period, nobody wrote much like Dickens. That’s why he was called “The Inimitable.”

The two writers most often compared to Dickens are Wilkie Collins and William Makepeace Thackeray. Dickens fans will likely enjoy Collins’s The Woman in White, which captures the melodrama and the narrative urgency you find in Dickens. Thackeray rivaled Dickens at satire, though when the fifth installment of Dickens’s Dombey and Son came out, Thackeray famously complained, “There's no writing against such power as this—no one has a chance!”

Elizabeth Gaskell was another good Victorian protest writer, and Charlotte Brontë, like Dickens, dealt with gothic aspects of childhood and family life. A lot of Dickens’s disciples were American: Louisa May Alcott, Horatio Alger, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mark Twain were all in different ways telling Dickensian stories.

UAB Magazine: Some people say that Dickens’s novels are so long because he was paid by the word. Is this true?

Siegel: He was not—or at least not in the way most people mean it. Usually when people say Dickens was paid by the word they mean that he got paid more for writing long-winded sentences and overstuffed paragraphs; that’s completely false. His rhetorical flourishes and use of extensive detail are simply his style, a style that won him lots of readers.

Dickens was commissioned, like many Victorian novelists, to write a certain number of pages per week or per month. When he wrote too much or too little, he would have to cut or add material, much like a modern television writer who has to fill 42 minutes of programming every week. Most often, Dickens would write too much and have to cut back.

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UAB Department of English