Monday, October 03, 2011

The Sparkler of Albion: The Many Faces of Charles Dickens

Despite all we know about him, Dickens remains a mystery. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst explores our fascination with the great novelist

By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst - The Telegraph - 26 Sep 2011

The same is true of Dickens’s life, which has often been treated as the pivot around which the Victorian age revolved. From the spelling mistake on his birth certificate, to the neatly folded notes he left for his children if they used bad language, every document has been filleted for facts, every stray anecdote transformed into a revealing flash of personality.
As with Shakespeare, his only serious rival for the title of the nation’s favourite author, the books, articles and blogs about him have multiplied to the extent that nobody can possibly read them all. Attempting then to write about him is like trying to cut up a blue whale with a penknife.
That doesn’t stop us trying. Next week sees the publication of my new biography Becoming Dickens, in which I investigate how in the space of five years an unknown reporter became the most famous novelist in the world. Within a few days it will be joined by Claire Tomalin’s cradle-to-grave Charles Dickens: a Life and Lucinda Hawksley’s more compact Charles Dickens, and later by Simon Callow’s book on Dickens’s love of the theatre. They will be followed by several documentaries, glossy BBC adaptations of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and a film about his lengthy secret affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. In 2012, his bicentenary year, Dickens’s face will be everywhere, his presence inescapable.
Yet Dickens’s tentacular cultural reach is hardly a new phenomenon. As early as 1836, when he was just 24, the huge success of The Pickwick Papers meant it had to compete with commercial spin-offs that included Pickwick pastries, Fat Boy sweets, and dozens of literary imitators keen to cash in on the lucrative market “Boz” had discovered.
Within a few years, in a curious reversal of cause and effect, even the streets that fed Dickens’s imagination had started to resemble scenes from his fiction. “When I got to London,” Francis Parkman wrote in 1843, “I thought I had been there before… The hackney coachmen… the walking advertisements… and a hundred others seemed so many incarnations of Dickens’s characters.” With every comic tweak or pathetic wrench, his writing made the world seem more “Dickensian”.
Even the illiterate couldn’t avoid a writer whose photographs stared out from shop windows, and who could often be spotted on one of his energetic walks across London, appearing “in the oddest places, and in the most inclement weather”, as if pursuing his characters, or possibly trying to shake them off.
Given how large Dickens looms in the popular imagination, swollen by fame and barnacled by rumour, there has always been a particular fascination with the man behind the stories. Yet even here Dickens has shown a remarkable resistance to being explained away.
Full piece at The Telegraph.

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