This is a cross-post of a piece I wrote for the University of Warwick's Celebrating Dickens site: you can read the original here.
In the last few months building up to the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth, there has been an unprecedented level of interest in Dickens’s life and works. Dickens’s popularity is, of course, not just a trend of recent years but stems right from his earliest publications, when Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers grabbed the attention of readers and established Dickens as a household name. But many popular writers of the nineteenth century haven't remained so prominent in our literary culture, so what is it about Dickens's work that continues to appeal to readers?
There is much to be said about the prominence of Dickens in our national cultural heritage, or the literary politics that determine why some writers’ legacies perpetuate whilst others become lost; not to mention the ways in which “Dickens” has become somewhat synonymous with our idea of the “Victorian novel”, and even the Victorian era more widely. But at the heart of Dickens’s legacy lies his writing: vivid and richly detailed language, the ability to succinctly capture human character, and to evocatively depict a wide spectrum of emotions, from humour to sympathy, across characters from all levels of society.
Whether of places, things, or character, Dickens's observation is acute. Our idea of "Dickens's London" comes from his sharply perceived descriptions of the city streets: the opening of Bleak House, for example, depicting foot passengers jostling through the city enveloped in dense layers of fog, remains one of the most memorable literary descriptions of London. A detailed knowledge of the city streets recurs throughout his novels, from characters like Pip or David Copperfield entering the city for the first time and becoming overawed “by the immensity of London” (Great Expectations), to those who see only the monotony of the claustrophobic city, with “nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up” in the “streets, streets, streets” (Little Dorrit, chapter 3).
These city movements frequently take us into the spaces of the poor, placing narrators as urban observers revealing the squalor of urban life: one account in Sketches by Boz traverses “streets of dirty, straggling houses, with now and then an unexpected court composed of buildings as ill-proportioned and deformed as the half-naked children that wallow in the kennels”. In this emerges Dickens’s sympathetic portrayal for those at the lowest end of the social spectrum: from individuals like Jo, the poor crossing-sweeper in Bleak House who “don’t know nothink,” to the multitudes of “stragglers who come wandering into London” only to provide “food for the hospitals, the churchyards, the prisons, the river, fever, madness, vice and death” as they are swallowed up by the monstrous city (Dombey and Son).
As this makes clear, Dickens’s narration always situates individual experience within wider social structures. His satire comes into full force when attacking social institutions, demonstrating varying degrees of inadequacy, inefficiency, and downright injustice. The Circumlocution Office of Little Dorrit is a memorable example: “the most important Department under government” has “its finger in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart”; nothing can be done “without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office” and yet it is “beforehand in all public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT”.
Dickens’s characterisation of individuals is also always attentive to detail and his novels are populated by a host of memorable characters – all the more so for their names: Pumblechook, Pancks, Micawber, Peggotty, Bagstock, Mr. F’s Aunt, Chuzzlewit, Turveydrop, and M'Choakumchild are just a few of the vividly inventive names. Dickens’s descriptions of character are often ironic or humorous, and typically succinct in capturing the essence of character: in Bleak House, for example, his introduction to Sir Leicester Dedlock tells us "his family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks." Those two short sentences encompass Sir Leicester’s mode of feeling, raising a smile with something of a humoured sympathy towards the blinkered vision of the aristocracy.
Finally, what has often interested me in Dickens’s works is his approach to new technologies such as the railway, met with an ambivalence that produces a fearful fascination: who can forget the railway journey of Dombey and Son in which the train moves “away, with a shriek and a roar and a rattle, plunging down into the earth again, and working on in such a storm of energy and perseverance, that amidst the darkness and whirlwind the motion seems reversed.” The insistent urgency of the passage is expressive of the railway’s capability for destruction, but is all the more effective for the way it renders human experience within this landscape: the railway serves to represent Dombey’s tormented psychological state at this point in the narrative, his distress at the death of his son clearly conveyed as he “hurries headlong, not through a rich and varied country, but a wilderness of blighted plans and gnawing jealousies.”
200 years after his birth, Dickens’s writing remains as evocative as ever and the range of responses to the bicentenary stands as testament to the variety within his writing.