The Library at Brooke Weston has mounted a special display to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, one of Britain’s best-loved novelists.
He was born on 7th February 1812 at Landport, Portsmouth and, although the first few years of his childhood were idyllic, after moving to London the family descended into poverty and his father John, was sent to the Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison. The young Charles worked in a ‘blacking’ warehouse for two years, sealing pots of boot polish for a paltry six shillings a week. After an inheritance meant that his father’s debts could be cleared, Charles continued his studies then worked, first as an office clerk at a law firm and later as a court, parliamentary and newspaper reporter.
His early experience of poverty never left him and he drew widely on the situations and people he encountered during his harsh formative years, adapting their traits, characteristics and even names for his stories. One of his child co-workers at the blacking warehouse was called Bob Fagin, whose surname later immortalised the villain who recruited and trained child pickpockets in Oliver Twist. Later Dickens stayed at Rockingham Castle several times as guests of the Watson family and he often performed his own plays in the Long Gallery. The building provided the inspiration for Chesney Wold in Bleak House, written between 1852 and 1853.
Twenty years earlier he had begun to write short stories for periodicals such as Monthly Magazine, Daily News, Household Words and All the Year Round, adopting the pseudonym of Boz. These were often published monthly meaning that Dickens structured his chapters with a cliffhanger so audiences would buy the next edition just to find out what had happened. ‘The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club’ was published in instalments in 1836 and 1837 and proved so popular that Dickens then became a full-time author, producing such classics as Tale of Two Cities, Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield in instalments until his death in June 1870 meant that The Mystery of Edwin Drood was destined to remain unfinished halfway through its 12-part telling.
In addition to his novels Dickens also wrote copious short stories, plays and non-fiction. He is credited with breathing a new sentimentality into Victorian Christmas traditions with A Christmas Carol published in 1843, which was the first, and arguably the best loved, of many of his seasonal inspired stories.
Dickens’s vivid characters, settings and grim but comic portrayal of the underbelly of Victorian England remain a great inspiration, having been adapted into countless radio, television and theatre productions as well as musicals and box office successes such as the film Oliver! that scooped six Academy Awards in 1969 including Best Director and Best Picture categories.
To mark today’s auspicious anniversary there is a wide selection of Dickens-inspired books, tapes and resources in the library. Librarian Mrs Adams said: ‘We just wanted to do something to mark the bicentenary. There are some serious titles but also some quite light-hearted and well illustrated books if students just want to take a dip into the subject. We have all of Dickens’s works.
‘Dickens is the master of description. Bleak House begins deep in the murk of London. It is one of my favourite passages. By the end you are practically in the fog it is so detailed. I find the books very painful, particularly the child poverty aspect because Dickens portrayed the children and people on the streets as he saw them.The recent television adaptations of Great Expectations and Edwin Drood have been very good because they have introduced his work to a new and younger audience.’
LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.