Charles Dickens—had he found Methuselah’s magic draft of longevity or Rip Van Winkle’s liquor—would have turned two hundred years old today. Though I am ill qualified for the task, I would like to give a little tribute to the great English novelist to whom we owe so much.
He was the master of caricature and created the most perfectly round square characters I have ever read. He gave us shining optimists like the munificent brothers Cheeryble of Nicholas Nickleby and pure pessimists like the perpetual victim Miss. Wade of Little Dorrit. He gave us openly evil villians like Quilp of The Old Curiosity Shop and more sinister maiden-spoiling knaves like James Steerforth of David Copperfield. There were the government paper pushers, the Barnacles, explaining endless ways of “How not to do it!” and proclaiming to Mr. Clennam, “Look here. Upon my soul you mustn’t come into the place saying you want to know, you know." Dickens wrote divinely good characters such as the gracious Rose Maylie of Oliver Twist and the patient and delightful Agnes of David Copperfield.
He placed before the readers a living-breathing personification of their vices, and begged them to turn from them. Who can forget the bitter rejected bride, Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, refusing to remove her yellow, rotting wedding dress or leave the dusty room that was to be the place of her marriage? Every trapping of joy in that room had turned to a terrible symbol of bitterness and the results of clinging to it. But he returned again and again to the vice of avarice and the various effects of money on individuals. The love of it nearly ruined Bella Wilfer’s chances of marital bliss in Our Mutual Friend and did make Fanny Dorrit very miserable in her married family connections—though Mr. Sparkler was her continually steadfast admirer. But the most striking and sickeningly evil character Dickens connected to the sin of greed was the only one who claimed to have no desire for money or understanding of it: Mr. Skimpole. But the keen inspector Mr. Bucket summed up his duplicity perfectly,
“Whenever a person says to you that they are innocent as can be in all concerning money, look well after your own money, for they are dead certain to collar it if they can. Whenever a person proclaims to you ‘In worldly matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One.”
The most important thing to remember about Dickens, in my estimation, is his humor; he was truly funny. This can be missed easily, because his jokes didn’t come out in one line or even one paragraph. If you search for Charles Dickens quotes and read down the usually short lists, you will be amazed at how bland the sentences or phrases seem compared to a similar list of quips by G.K. Chesterton or a G.B. Shaw. You cannot fit the Circumlocution office into a witticism. You cannot pin Dick Swiveller in a joke book, and you cannot summarize Mr. Smallweed. Dickens’ humor ran deep and was inextricably linked to his characters.
Of course, the very type-cast characters I have been writing about were the subject of so much criticism against Dickens. “Too flat!” they say, “Impossible in real life, grotesquely vulgar,” they scoff. But the best defense for his sentimentalism and square characters is the horrendous writing done by his critics. The modernist novel meant to show ‘realism’ ended up being a depressing rant against morality and optimism. I have struggled my way through the passionless stories of Mr. H.G. Wells and have come up dry. I honestly cannot name one character from those books, and even if I could I would rather not for the bad associations it would conjure up in my mind. Thankfully, it is not his Birthday.
Finally, on the faults of the man, Charles Dickens I can only quote the noble words of Pip, echoing the immortal words of scripture:
“Mindful, then, of what we had read together, I thought of the two men who went up to the Temple to pray, and I know no better words that I could say beside his bed, than 'O Lord, be merciful to him a sinner.'”
Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens.
At Tipppin Dental Group Newton, Kansas
February 7, 2012