Charles Dickens Bicentenary 2012

In snatched moments (between blog post preparations and some big Life Happenings to deal with) – I’ve been mentally running around trying to catch up with the current BBC Radio Dickens fest in honour of his bicentenary (thank goodness for iPlayer!). So many programmes to listen to! Every time I check the Radio Times or the BBC website, there seems to be a fresh crop.

I particularly enjoyed Frances Fyfield’s programmes on Radio 4 examining Dickens’s original manuscripts. I managed to catch the ones on The Mystery of Edwin Drood and A Tale of Two Cities – and was so moved by actor David Timson’s reading (direct from the original manuscript) of Sydney Carton’s supreme sacrificial moment, written, of course, to such superb emotional effect by Dickens (‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…’ Gets me every time…).

Those programmes led me to the V&A website to look at Dickens’s original manuscripts there. Spellbinding stuff!

Last page of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (illustration from The Life of Charles Dickens, by John Forster, published by Sterling)

Seeing what a tangle of words and crossings out Dickens’s final MS were (his compositors must have been superheroes!) I feel much better about the scrawls, scratchings out, and crazy trails of thought doing a merry dance around the page, that pass for my own creative writing endeavours! (Apparently, there were suspicions that Dickens used to deliberately leave all the muddle and crossings out, to make sure he got the best compositors assigned to his novels!) On the programmes, it was pointed out how amazing the sections are where there are virtually no crossings out (very often the dialogue) – so confidently placed on the page, fully formed. Dickens’s daughter Mamie reported that he used to act out his dialogue in front of the mirror first, and then write it all down. He must have had a remarkable ability to hold great chunks of his novels in his head before transferring them to paper.

Using the V&A website, it’s an entrancing experience to see the familiar words of Dickens’s novels in his own writing, to witness his mind at work – to spot the arresting little details that bring a sense of immediate human contact across the intervening years. On the Edwin Drood programme, Frances Fyfield and her guests were totally captivated by a coffee cup stain on the MS – a snapshot of a writer’s creative moment grounded in a small daily life detail.

Hearing Penelope Wilton read from Claire Tomalin’s recent biography of The Great Inimitable on Radio Four’s Book of the Week (still available on the archive) was also a real pleasure. I was so moved when Penelope Wilton reached the account of how that fiercely burning creative light went out. I was left feeling its loss in a very immediate way.

And yet, of course, that light still burns ever brightly in the brilliant works Dickens left us – without which my own life, for one, would have lost so many rich enhancements. I cannot overstate how much I love Dickens’s work and how much it means to me, how woven into my life his novels are.

It was wonderful to hear, on another recent Radio Four Book of the Week, Michael Rosen’s beautiful and moving account of the profound way in which Dickens’s novels have been interwoven in his own life, family and experience. As I began to listen to it, I quickly realised that I’d read the essay (from Stop What You’re Doing and Read This, published by Vintage Books) in The Guardian over the New Year – but it now seems to have disappeared from the Guardian’s web pages, due to its copyright for the piece having expired.

On TV, I gleefully enjoyed Armando Iannucci’s tribute to Dickens, Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens (an exploration of Dickens’s craft, revolving around the chosen text of David Copperfield). Apart from the other treats of the programme, it was fabulous to see someone do some detailed practical criticism of the text on screen – actually pointing to the words on the page, savouring how they work, the artistry and magic of their combination and construction. I remember from Iannucci’s previous programme on the BBC about Milton, he did the same thing. Joy of joys! Real, direct, in-the-moment practical criticism! A focus on the text! A rare thing on television, but Armando Iannucci demonstrated that, with the right, impassioned approach – it works on screen! I think I’m correct in thinking that, at one point in his life, Iannucci spent time researching for an intended PhD on Milton. Obviously, the passionate, insightful and enthusiastic literary scholar still burns in his spirit. Unleash it further please, BBC!

Dickens on Film explored the episodic nature of Dickens’s writing and its influence on the emerging art form of film. I hadn’t really thought before just how soon after the novels were written that the first film adaptations of Dickens’s work appeared (I think one dated from 1902). I discovered, alas too late, via the BBC Dickens page  and Radio 4 blog that there had been a series of radio programmes (Dickens on Location) about places Dickens mentions in his novels. The Radio 4 Extra blog post about St James’ Church, Cooling on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent – scene of the opening of Great Expectations – makes for interesting reading.

I did manage to catch the first episode of The Mumbai Chuzzlewits and have downloaded the next two, as I knew I wouldn’t catch up with them before they dropped off iPlayer. There are some interesting behind the scenes ‘raw clips of the recording of The Mumbai Chuzzlewits in India’ on the production company’s website, as well as details of an upcoming documentary (7th – 11th February) on the BBC World Service, Dickens and India – Mutual Friends, in which writer Ayeesha Menon ‘explores India’s love affair with Dickens.’

I highly recommend a recent series of Radio 3’s The Essay (available to listen again on the December 2011 archive) The Writers’ Dickens in which authors talk about various aspects of Dickens’s craft and how he has influenced their own work. I particularly loved Tessa Hadley’s exploration of Dickens’s use of material objects; his rendering them alive with metaphor and meaning (it was a treat to wander around the House of Clennam in her company, and to relive the imagery, symbolism and sheer harmony of language, detail and meaning crafted by the masterful hand of Dickens, as he unfolds for us Arthur’s return to that precariously shifting family edifice). Oh, and watch out for Tessa Hadley’s comparison of Dickens’s 19th century, and her own 21st century, use of metaphorically charged mirrors! She makes an intriguing point. Alexander McCall Smith’s appraisal of Dickens’s skilled use of the serial form (also looked at in the light of his own experience of serialising the 44 Scotland Street stories) was equally enjoyable. A. L Kennedy was brilliant – and spot on – in her sensitive and deeply insightful analysis of that passionate, troubled, dark sense of ‘something is wrong,’ combined always with a faith in the possibility of human goodness and redemption, in Dickens’s work. She got right to the heart of Dickens, I thought. Justin Cartwright’s essay on Dickens and Christmas and Romesh Gunesekera’s essay on Dickens and ‘The Orphan Eye’ were also both gems.

Still to catch up on for me is The BBC World Service World Book Club discussion of Great Expectations, with biographer Claire Tomalin and actor Simon Callow – and, today, the Woman’s Hour drama, Dickens in London  began its unfolding….

Begging to be read are the two fabulous Dickens biographies now gracing my shelves since Christmas day – the first Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens, A Life (published by Penguin) and the second by John Forster, Dickens’s close friend. Both are beautiful volumes to behold.

John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens, The Illustrated Edition (published by Sterling) is a truly hefty tome, but is a thing of such utter gorgeousness that it’s more than worth the extra muscle power involved in lifting it down from the shelf!

Full of sumptuous illustrations – all visual gifts to gladden any Dickensian’s heart – it also unwraps like a tantalising pass-the-parcel, revealing hidden treats beneath each layer:

For a bevy of more Dickensian treats, the Dickens 2012 website is a hub of all the bicentenary activity – and Warwick University’s Celebrating Dickens website looks like a fascinating destination for further exploration…

And then, of course, most importantly of all – there are the novels! Once I’ve finished my re-read of Edwin Drood – my top favourite, Our Mutual Friend, calls…

After all that…and in anticipation of more to come…do I feel Dickensed-out? Not in the least! Bring it on! I’m like a kid in a sweet shop!

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4 thoughts on “Charles Dickens Bicentenary 2012

  1. It is indeed exhilarating for any Dickens fan to see the extent to which Dickens is being celebrated. Not surprisingly, there are some party poopers (and I was sorry to see John Sutherland amongst them: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/06/charles-dickens-hero-worship-bicentenary), but they were well answered by Norman Geras (http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2012/02/its-his-party-you-can-cry-if-you-want-to.html).

    You won’t be surprised to know that, as far as I’m concerned, Dickens deserves all the praise he gets, and more. I think of all novelists, it is Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky who has loomed largest for me. Sadly, I have been far too tied up at work lately to enjoy the various celebrations. I haven’t even got round to writing blog posts on the 3rd and 4th parts of Our Mutual Friend.

    I don’t think we celebrated the Austen bicentenery to such an extent back in 1975, and that’s a shame, as, although literature should not be reduced to a competitive sort, I wouldn’t argue with the contention that she & Dickens were the greatest of British novelists. i have had problems with austen before, but a few years ago, I re-read all her novels, and, while they did not convert me, I find them resonating in my mind far more than I had expected. I thinking I’ll make another assault on her (Please note: double entendre alert!) and this time, I think I might get her! 🙂

    But Austen & Dickens were diametrically opposite in their literary aethetics, don’t you think? I have long had a pet theory that readers lean either towards one or the other, and that no-one can love them both equally. Some, admittedly, claim to do so, but I’ve never allowed mere facts to get in the way of a good theory!

    Now – back to writing my blog posts on Our Mutual Friend…

    • Himadri – I’m so sorry for the long delay in replying; time and headspace have been in very short supply over this past half term week… Well, what can I say? Oh dear, I’m afraid I’m going to have to be the party pooper 🙂 (or the exception that proves the rule?) concerning your theory about Jane Austen and Dickens. I’ve thought and thought about this – and I really do find it hard to say which of these two wonderful novelists I love the best. In fact, it’s an agonising task, verging on the impossible, for me to even contemplate choosing one over the other! If I choose one, I feel intensely disloyal to something so dear and central to my heart. Yes, their literary aesthetics are different in many ways – but, what I come back to again and again in my literary loves is just the central humanity of their works and their unique visions of the things we all share. For me, moving through the works of Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Angela Carter, William Faulkner, Alan Garner, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen etc… is like exploring life through the different facets of a diamond – all those very different perspectives and views and aesthetics, all glittering with something unique. Each gloriously different and diverse – but also sharing a commonality and a building upon foundations from which many rich fruits grow.

      It is a mystery, I think, what makes us gravitate to the books we really love and why certain others leave us cold. Maybe I’m an odd mixture – but there’s definitely something in me that is an intense Janeite… but I’m equally intensely a diehard Dickensian too! I just need them both… The world would be wrong, lop-sided, all lit askew without both of them to engage with the different facets of myself.

      Charlotte Bronte famously didn’t care for Jane Austen’s writing at all – Charlotte came from a very different aesthetic (and, of course, Jane Austen wrote a whole novel satirising the gothic form) – but I find myself in sympathy with both (though I do think Charlotte misunderstood Jane; missed her depths). Sometimes I want to run off across a Yorkshire moor in gothic disarray, sometimes I want to wander through a Regency park with Lizzy Bennet, glorying with her in nature in that steady, enduring Austenish way…

      None of this proves anything, of course… We’re all so different in our responses. I’m really just rambling about, ruminating on my particular perspective on this. I’d love to hear how you get on, if you do decide to give Jane Austen another go, Himadri… It’s intriguing to hear how she resonated a little more in your mind last time you read her… But, the plain fact may be, she just isn’t your cup of tea. Nothing wrong with that. Nobody could say you haven’t given her a fair go!

      On the subject of bicentenary celebrations – Jane Austen wasn’t on my radar much back in 1975 (more likely reading Jill’s Gymkhana) but I think it’s likely the case that Jane Austen wasn’t so stellar in the general public consciousness and national heart like she is today. Dickens was our ‘sparkler’ right from the off, and has always remained so. Jane even went through a period of almost being forgotten (I’m shuddering at the thought of how her works slipped so dangerously off the radar…)

      On Dickens the man… I can understand your sense of risk, but I do love to read stuff about Dickens and his life. Everything about him so much larger than life – and yet so identifiable in a one-of-us kind of way. It’s like he sparked so much fire on our behalf – and the shadowy side of such uncommon brilliance extracted its price. For that I feel indebted. The way I see it, the feet of clay is all part of that sense of common humanity – both in the man, and in the reader (and between him and the reader) – and bound up in it all is the transcendence part too. He made some humongous mistakes in his life – but I see in that the passionate, ultra-imaginative mind flailing around in very human confusion; with the ingredients added by rare genius to make it all the more difficult for the people around him (and for himself) to take. Ultimately, I think the heart of the man is in his novels – and the compassion there just strikes so central and true.

      Thanks for the links, Himadri – and I’m looking forward to your further Our Mutual Friend posts. It’s my very favourite Dickens novel… or is that Bleak House??? There I go again – that too, too painful decision! 🙂 I’m very bogged down with stuff at the moment, but I’m hoping to get stuck into Our Mutual Friend again before too long. I’ll do my best to contribute to the discussion eventually…on your blog, here, wherever we end up talking about it!

      (Sorry for the overlong, garbled, rambling answer – I’m typing against the clock!)

  2. PS I have Peter Ackroyd’s biography still unread on the shelves. And I have heard some fine things about Michael Slater’s biography also. The problem is that I don’t think i’d like Dickens the Man as well as I do Dickens the Writer, and I’m worried that, reading his biography, I may come even to feel a distaste for him. And I really don’t want to risk that!

    • Oh dear, my reply was meant to include your PS, but I hit the wrong reply button and ended up splitting your two replies with mine and putting things in a bit of disorder – sorry about that!

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