The world ac­cord­ing to Charles Dick­ens

Two hun­dred years af­ter his birth the most fa­mous English novelist of the 19th cen­tury con­tin­ues to ex­ert his spell, on stage, in books and on the screen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

CHARLES Dick­ens was born on Fe­bru­ary 7, 1812, at Portsmouth, Eng­land, the sec­ond of John and El­iz­a­beth Dick­ens’s eight chil­dren. In 1815 they moved to London; when Dick­ens was 12 his fa­ther was sent to Mar­shalsea debtors’ prison and Charles was forced to work in a black­ing fac­tory to sup­port the fam­ily. He was later an of­fice boy at a so­lic­i­tors’ firm and a free­lance re­porter. His first short story was pub­lished in 1833 and his first book, a col­lec­tion of sto­ries ti­tled Sketches by Boz, was pub­lished in 1836, the year Pick­wick Pa­pers started to ap­pear in in­stal­ments. He died on June 9, 1870, and is buried in West­min­ster Abbey.

Ac­cord­ing to Dick­ens ex­pert Jen­nifer Grib­ble, from the Univer­sity of Syd­ney’s English depart­ment, ‘‘ ‘ Dick­en­sian’ has come to sig­nify the poverty, squalor and in­jus­tice of in­dus­trial civil­i­sa­tion. Dick­ens’s de­fence of the ne­glected and so­cially marginalised has lost none of its rel­e­vance. Count­less adap­ta­tions of his nov­els for stage and screen show the ap­peal of his sus­pense­ful plots and vividly cre­ated scenes. He was a great drama­tist who hap­pened to write in prose. His ge­nius for di­a­logue, com­edy and pathos, and his psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight, has given us some of the most mem­o­rable char­ac­ters in our lit­er­a­ture. Not the least of these are rep­re­sen­ta­tions of his own com­plex and in­creas­ingly trou­bled self — David Cop­per­field, Pip, and the un­fin­ished John Jasper [ The Mys­tery of Ed­win Drood].’’

With this in mind, Re­view asked our ex­perts to se­lect their best of Charles Dick­ens (pic­tured be­low): TOP FIVE NOV­ELS Great Ex­pec­ta­tions: It is fair to say that ev­ery novel by Dick­ens is flawed in some small way or large: ex­cept this one, his mas­ter­piece. G. K. Ch­ester­ton wrote that it has a qual­ity of serene irony and even sad­ness, which puts it quite alone among his other works. No one who has read the novel will have for­got­ten its final lines: ‘‘ I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ru­ined place; and, as the morn­ing mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were ris­ing now, and in all the broad ex­panse of tran­quil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of an­other part­ing from her.’’

Bleak House: The best open­ing para­graphs of any English novel. The most sus­tained and fan­tas­tic cri­tique of the law mounted this side of Kafka’s Trial. A rous­ing broad­side aimed at tele­scopic phi­lan­thropy, that is, those who would do good deeds abroad while let­ting their neigh­bours starve at home. Oh, and with In­spec­tor Bucket, Dick­ens has in­vented the mod­ern novel of de­tec­tion.

Our Mu­tual Friend: Dick­ens’s last com­plete work was the au­thor’s most so­phis­ti­cated — and his most damn­ing — in­dict­ment of its era. In a novel that should grace the li­brary of ev­ery Oc­cupy en­camp­ment, Dick­ens takes a cud­gel to the Vic­to­rian one-per­centers. Edgar John­son, Dick­ens’s best Amer­i­can bi­og­ra­pher, wrote of the novel’s vi­sion of London as an enor­mous dust-heap that its filth sym­bol­ises ac­qui­si­tion as the supreme value of a mon­e­tary bar­barism that had made its world into a waste­land.

David Cop­per­field: The in­flu­ence of Dick­ens’s most au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel has been so im­mense over such a long pe­riod that it has be­come a cliche. Which is a shame, since it is also one of his grand­est imag­i­na­tive ef­forts. It was the favourite Dick­ens of Ch­ester­ton and Sig­mund Freud, Joyce wrote it into the fab­ric of Ulysses, and Dos­to­evsky read it in Rus­sian while serv­ing time in a Siberian prison camp.

Ni­cholas Nick­leby:

Dick­ens’s third novel is his first ma­ture work: the hinge on which his ca­reer as a novelist turns. Poor, young, hon­ourable Ni­cholas Nick­leby is Dick­ens’s ur-hero, a young gentleman forced by poverty out into the sor­did world. The evil school­mas­ter Wack­ford Squeers; the sweetly ob­tuse Mrs Nick­leby; and the mag­nif­i­cently tedious Mr Vin­cent Crumm­les are early ver­sions of the au­thor’s great grotesques. The real Dick­ens starts here. — Ge­ordie Wil­liamson, chief lit­er­ary critic

for The Aus­tralian TOP FIVE BI­OGRA­PHIES G.K. Ch­ester­ton, Ap­pre­ci­a­tions and Crit­i­cisms: Sim­ply the best book on Dick­ens. Ch­ester­ton was one of the few writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion with de­monic en­ergy to equal that of Dick­ens. His slen­der book is packed with more in­sights than a hun­dred schol­arly mono­graphs. Dick­ens’s rep­u­ta­tion was wrenched — al­most sin­gle-hand­edly — from its post-vic­to­rian slide and the book set the au­thor on the path to lit­er­ary im­mor­tal­ity. Dick­ens was no Pu­ri­tan, ar­gued Ch­ester­ton, but a sur­vival from the Merry Eng­land of Chaucer and the El­iz­a­bethans.

Fred Ka­plan, Dick­ens: A Bi­og­ra­phy: The most tidy, com­plete, and well-rounded Life. Ka­plan’s book lacks much in the way of fresh news, but its metic­u­lous schol­ar­ship and deep knowl­edge of the Vic­to­rian pe­riod makes it the most re­li­able mod­ern bi­og­ra­phy (it was pub­lished in 1989; those who have read it sug­gest Michael Slater’s cau­tious and ju­di­cious Charles Dick­ens from 2009 does a sim­i­lar job).

John Forster, The Life of Charles Dick­ens: Not only was Forster Dick­ens’s clos­est friend and con­fi­dant over many years, he also served as the au­thor’s ed­i­tor and lit­er­ary agent. His Life, which ap­peared in three vol­umes soon af­ter Dick­ens’s death, is the well­spring to which all sub­se­quent bi­og­ra­phers re­turn. If the work suf­fers from be­ing overly re­spect­ful to its sub­ject, Forster’s love and ad­mi­ra­tion are sin­cerely and hon­ourably expressed.

Claire To­ma­lin, The In­vis­i­ble Woman: This tells the story of Charles Dick­ens and Ellen Ter­nan, the young ac­tress with whom he had a se­cret 12-year re­la­tion­ship af­ter flee­ing his long and un­happy mar­riage. The news about Ellen had been bro­ken long be­fore this book’s pub­li­ca­tion in 1991, in Edgar John­son’s mag­is­te­rial mid-cen­tury bi­og­ra­phy Charles Dick­ens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952; 1977) but by plac­ing the ac­tress at the cen­tre of the book To­ma­lin (pic­tured above) rad­i­cally al­ters our per­spec­tive. A much-needed fem­i­nist re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the Dick­ens myth.

Peter Ack­royd, Dick­ens: A Bi­og­ra­phy: Ack­royd’s 1990 book is no­to­ri­ous for in­ter­po­lated scenes in which Dick­ens holds fic­tional con­ver­sa­tions with the bi­og­ra­pher and Os­car Wilde, among oth­ers. Over­writ­ten and gen­er­ally hec­tic, Ack­royd’s bi­og­ra­phy is nonethe­less the only mod­ern Life that cap­tures some­thing of the vol­canic spirit of its great sub­ject. If the fic­tional chats put you off, don’t worry: they have been re­moved from later edi­tions.

- G.W. BEST STAGE ADAP­TA­TIONS: I AM with E. M. Forster: those who dis­like Dick­ens have an ex­cel­lent case. I have not fin­ished a sin­gle Dick­ens novel by choice. Ever. They have all been ‘‘ hate reads’’ (duress reads at the very least) for work or study. Yet the very el­e­ments that make Dick­ens a (penny)-dread­ful novelist — the mawk­ish­ness, the sen­sa­tion­al­ism, the sen­ti­men­tal­ity — make for good, even ir­re­sistible, melo­drama. Which is why Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is a near-per­fect mu­si­cal. It turns gruel into . . . glo­ri­ous gruel. All it took was an ex­cla­ma­tion mark and a re­volv­ing set. The West End show launched the croon­ing ca­reer of an ap­pren­tice jockey named Davy Jones and took him to Broad­way. Imag­ine: with­out Dick­ens, we might not have the Mon­kees.

Dick­ens wrote two kinds of women: the in­no­cent and the grotesque; bland young an­gels (17, in­dis­tin­guish­able and ut­terly, ut­terly nice) and creepy, painted, psy­chotic, blowzy har­ri­dans. Miriam Mar­golyes, sur­prise sur­prise, opted to play the lat­ter mob. She gave us a freak show and act­ing mas­ter class in her earthy, clever and won­der­fully pol­ished one-han­der Dick­ens’ Women in the lat­ter half of the past decade and is about to do so again.

The cel­e­brated flat­ness, the ze­rodi­men­sion­al­ity, of Dick­ens’s men is seen as an op­por­tu­nity and a great chal­lenge by thes­pi­ans. It takes all the magic of a great cast to in­flate Dick­ens’s uni­verse. David Edgar’s eight-hour adap­ta­tion of Ni­cholas Nick­leby for the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany (which toured the world in the 1980s) was one of the great­est the­atri­cal con­jur­ing jobs of con­tem­po­rary English theatre. One of the great­est con jobs of Aus­tralian theatre was a feisty and touch­ing stage adap­ta­tion of A Christ­mas Carol by Ja­nis Balodis and Peter Mathe­son. The 1990 pro­duc­tion, for Melbourne Theatre Com­pany, fea­tured Frank Gal­lacher as a splen­did Scrooge, in a story re-set in out­back Australia in the 19th cen­tury. The rit­u­als of the old coun­try were faith­fully re-en­acted in a dif­fer­ent cli­mate and dif­fer­ent sea­son. In­stead of a bl­iz­zard, the play be­gan with a howl­ing dust-storm. It worked bril­liantly.

An hon­ourable men­tion goes to Si­mon Cal­low (pic­tured above) who starred in The Mys­tery of Charles Dick­ens, Peter Ack­royd’s warts-and-all bi­og­ra­phy, which I saw at Syd­ney’s Theatre Royal in 2002.

Cal­low an­i­mated Dick­ens’s pan­theon of rogues with awe­some ease and al­chem­i­cal skill. His tim­ing was flex­i­ble, in­tu­itive, sure. — Chris Boyd, Melbourne theatre critic

for The Aus­tralian BEST TELE­VI­SION ADAP­TA­TIONS: Lit­tle Dor­rit (2008): Adapted by An­drew Davies for the BBC, this ver­sion of Dick­ens’s sprawl­ing tale of love, mur­der and re­demp­tion fea­tured Claire Foy (pic­tured above, right), Tom Courte­nay and Matthew Mac­fadyen, and was lauded by crit­ics. Davies is mas­ter of the tricky magic of re­duc­ing a sprawl­ing Vic­to­rian epic to a grip­ping, fast­mov­ing fa­ble for our times.

Bleak House (2005): This 15-part BBC se­rial (Davies again) has been de­scribed by crit­ics as pos­si­bly the best adap­ta­tion of a Dick­ens novel to grace the small screen. Gil­lian An­der­son as the aris­to­crat Lady Ded­lock and Charles Dance as Mr Tulk­inghorn spear­headed a huge en­sem­ble cast, and the lav­ishly dark, dra­matic depic­tion of a grimy London filled with ‘‘ vir­u­lent crip­ples’’, in the words of one critic, earned it a swag of awards. In Davies’s hands, this story of peo­ple im­pris­oned by means and cir­cum­stance and of le­gal bu­reau­cracy gone woe­fully askew be­came a high-pow­ered thriller.

A Christ­mas Carol (1984): The made-fortele­vi­sion spe­cial star­ring Ge­orge C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge is a thought­ful and grounded adap­ta­tion char­ac­terised by Scott’s im­pres­sive per­for­mance. I can still re­mem­ber his de­liv­ery of the line: ‘‘ God for­give me for the time I’ve wasted.’’ Dick­ens would have loved the sense of just how hard it is for any­one to ever find re­demp­tion. — Graeme BEST FILM ADAP­TA­TIONS: David Cop­per­field (1935): This is re­mem­bered for W.C. Fields’s im­mor­tal Mr Mi­caw­ber and was di­rected with im­pec­ca­ble taste by Ge­orge Cukor. It may be the finest of all Dick­ens films, faith­fully cap­tur­ing the melan­choly beauty of Dick­ens’s vi­sion of the world, with all its hard­ship and good hu­mour. Blun­dell, na­tional tele­vi­sion

critic for The Aus­tralian

Miriam Mar­golyes —

Com­piled by Sharon Verghis

A Tale of Two Cities (1935): Of at least seven ver­sions, MGM’S lav­ish pro­duc­tion, with Ron­ald Col­man as the world-weary lawyer who gives his life for love in rev­o­lu­tion­ary France, still ranks as the best.

Great Ex­pec­ta­tions (1946): Brim­ful of un­for­get­table char­ac­ters and scenes, and with mem­o­rable per­for­mances from John Mills, Mar­tita Hunt, Fran­cis L. Sul­li­van and Alec Guin­ness (in his first screen role), this mag­nif­i­cent film may be di­rec­tor David Lean’s finest achieve­ment.

Oliver! (1968): Lionel Bart’s mu­si­cal of Oliver Twist hadn’t a dud num­ber, and was filmed with won­der­ful zest by Carol Reed with some spec­tac­u­lar dance rou­tines and charis­matic per­for­mances by Ron Moody (pic­tured, left) as Fa­gin, Oliver Reed and a young Mark Lester.

Lit­tle Dor­rit (1988): Di­rected by Chris­tine Edzard, and star­ring Sarah Pick­er­ing as its seam­stress heroine, this is the most am­bi­tious of all adap­ta­tions of a Dick­ens novel — six hours long and shown in two parts, with 211 speak­ing roles and never a dull mo­ment. — Evan Wil­liams, film critic for

The Aus­tralian

The BBC’S 2005 pro­duc­tion of Bleak House

For a gallery of pic­tures go to theaus­tralian.com.au/thearts

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