Today is the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth (lived 1812-1870), so I thought I’d offer my opinion of the man synonymous with Victorian literature. But first, some random facts I learned about him via his Wikipedia page:
- He was the second of eight children, and then had ten children with his wife Catherine.
- He had a near photographic memory.
- He was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865, in which the first seven train carriages fell off a broken bridge. Dickens was in the last first-class carriage, and his experiences helping the wounded left him traumatized.
- Five years to the day of that accident, Dickens died. His last words were allegedly, “Be natural my children. For the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.”
- He stated in his will to not erect any monuments for him, but a life-size bronze statue can be found in Philadelphia.
Now I have a love/hate relationship with Dickens’ work. I think that A Christmas Carol is so overrated that I refuse to read it. I also loathe Great Expectations with a bloody passion after my freshman “English teacher”/debate coach completely ruined the novel with ridiculous assignments. However, I read Hard Times, and although it was pretty dull, I appreciate it as a honest look into the Industrial Revolution.
And, of course, my favorite novel of his will always be A Tale of Two Cities. It probably has one of the best first lines in literature:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
I’ll write a full review of A Tale of Two Cities for the next Masterpiece Monday, but it’s an exquisite story of love and turmoil during the French Revolution. Yes, due to serially writing his installments, Dickens is known for rambling about very little for a very, very long time, but I would say that the last five chapters of A Tale of Two Cities was one of the most rewarding reading experiences–so worth the struggle to get that far.
The Washington Post put it aptly: “We live in the age of TLDR — “Too long, didn’t read [but] When Victorian readers slummed it and put down their Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and whatever else it was they were expected to be reading, they picked up Charles Dickens in the grocery-store checkout aisle. If only we were so lucky.”
So while I may not love Dickens enough to attend UCSC’s week-long summer event “The Dickens Universe” (which I’ve heard is positively delightful, so click here for more info if it tickles your fancy), I do respect the author for shining a spotlight on the working class and giving us some of literature’s most memorable characters, such as Oliver Twist and Miss Havisham.
As for my own reading update, I just finished Book One of Tender is the Night, and because the book’s taking longer than normal to finish, I’ll probably post a mini-review sometime this week. Stay tuned!