Print Edition: February 8, 2012
Two centuries ago this Tuesday, February 7, Charles John Huffam Dickens was born to an English working class family. His difficult youth inspired the stories that endeared Dickens to so many. In his 58 years he wrote 20 novels and many short stories, as well as plays, poetry and non-fiction.
I will be celebrating his bicentennial, if only by checking another one of his novels off my reading list and putting a “happy birthday” message into the social network universe. But not many people enjoy such enduring recognition as to have their birthday recognized centuries later. What makes Dickens so special, then?
Dickens did not become a celebrated novelist by inventing elaborate fictions about faraway places and fanciful people. He wrote about a very real place, London, honestly and without restraint. He described it in all its inglorious stench and filth. He wrote about the very real plights that he witnessed and experienced daily – the injustice, the suffering, the poverty. He created the characters that have become iconic—so thoroughly and intricately designed, commanding our love, hate, or indifference—and placed them into the very real place with the very real problems. With this formula Dickens showed us the best and the worst that humans are capable of.
He wrote about London as it existed during a deplorable time in its history. The city has changed immensely since then, yet his stories are no less relevant today than they were then. Maybe it’s because the follies and ambitions of people haven’t changed at all, no matter the improvement in the setting; or maybe it’s because we see something familiar in the injustice, suffering, and poverty of 19th century London.
The state of the working poor was a recurrent focus for Dickens. At the time Britain was amongst the leaders of the world economically and politically and the quality of life for the aristocratic class had never been better. Conversely, Dickens drew attention to the near-slave conditions of the working class on whose back these riches were enabled. Most notably in Hard Times, Dickens censured the exploitation and oppression of the labouring poor. The conditions in the workhouses and the state of sanitation were inhumane. While the wealthy enjoyed the increased luxuries delivered by the industrial revolution, the poor suffered the burden of providing the labour that made it possible.
Dickens’ relevance has not been lost because this imbalance has not disappeared; it has just taken on a new scale. Rather than the picture being wholly represented in a single city, London, with its poor constrained to their own districts, conveniently out of sight of the wealthy by whom they were exploited, the picture now encompasses the globe. Now the impoverished labourers are hidden further away, taking up a large portion of entire countries. The borders of separation are different, but the circumstances are not.
This is why Charles Dickens is still revered today, 200 years after his birth. The injustice he points out is recognizable in the plights of our own time. The question, then, is who is the author of our era, ready to step forward with as much authority, pointedness, admonishment and yet simultaneous popularity as Dickens?