It’s Christmastime and I’ve got Dickens on the brain. This time of year in London every twinkling light and puffing chimney pot brings to mind the writer whose seasonal stories, in particular the wildly popular A Christmas Carol, rekindled the English-speaking world’s love affair with the most paradoxical holiday of all time. You know: A time for joy, love, charity – and buying lots of crap you don’t need and no one else wants so the economy doesn’t grind to a halt, or so theory goes.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born 200 years ago this coming Feb. 7, the second of eight children in a family helmed by a spendthrift Navy pay-office clerk and his wife. Dickens’ childhood was both idyllic (years spent reading novels in the English countryside) and traumatic (a miserable period labouring in a shoe-polish factory when his father was in debtors’ prison).
Somewhere along the way, he learned how to work. Writing – the tireless construction of elaborate and sprawling fictional worlds – became both his profession and defining passion.Sure, the man was talented, but he also toiled like a coal miner, rarely sleeping for more than a couple of hours at a time and spewing out thousand-page manuscripts the way Stephen Fry tweets.
When Dickens wasn’t writing, tripping over his ten children or arguing with his wife (they eventually separated), he was walking the streets of London, taking elaborate mental pictures with a brain he once described, somewhat immodestly, as “a sort of capitally prepared and highly sensitive [photographic]plate.”
All these biographical facts are brought to life at the just opened Dickens and London exhibit at the Museum of London – the largest of several shows planned around Britain to celebrate the novelist’s bicentennial.
It’s a handy moment to be feting the man some scholars consider the most important modern urban novelist of all time. Dickens’ singular thematic obsession was social inequality; he lived at a time when distance between people seemed to be rapidly shrinking (by way of industry and telecommunications), as well as growing (through the widening gulf between rich and poor).
The exhibit begins with a quote in which Dickens extols the “wealth and beggary, vice and virtue, guilt and innocence” that co-exist in modern London. “Draw but a little circle above the clustering house-tops, and you shall have within its space, everything with its opposite extreme and contradiction, close beside.”
So what would good old Chuck have thought of London today? What with all the rioting, media scandalsand financial crises, it’s likely that he would have felt right at home.
If Dickens were alive, he’d probably be living in Notting Hill with his wife, a collagen-plumped trustafarian, and their two kids, Declan and Willa. He’d listen to Radiohead, compost religiously and ride his bike to publishing lunches where he’d order the free-range chicken.
In short, he’d be a high-functioning member of the liberal haute-bourgeoisie, also known as Richard Florida’s “creative class” – an echelon of society that was just beginning to come into its own back in his day, a time that coincided with the invention of the telegraph and, with it, the modern media as we know it.
In many ways, Dickens’ contemporary life would be very similar to the way it was 200 ago, minus the typhoid, tuberculosis, scabies and open sewers.
Gawking at Dickens’ quill pen and ink pot, the corrected proof of Bleak House and the original scrawled manuscript of Great Expectations, I’m struck by his tight, spidery scrawl, which creeps at a perilous slant to the razor’s edge of the page – barely a millimetre of space going to waste. That he was a man of great economy seems clear.
It seems simultaneously odd and yet also fitting that Dickens’ name should be synonymous with Christmas – a holiday that evokes notions of greed and charity by turns. But above all Dickens was a populist, a writer who became rich and famous by reminding people to think of the poor and the obscure. If that’s not in the true Christmas spirit, I’m not sure what is.