Writers & Company

The enduring appeal of Charles Dickens: still entertaining us, 150 years later

British biographer and author Claire Tomalin spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2011 about why Dickens's fiction is still as popular as ever.
Claire Tomalin is an English biographer and journalist. (Angus Muir, Viking)

June 9, 2020, marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens, the creator of some of world's best-known fictional characters.

From Great Expectations to David Copperfield to A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens's works are universally popular. Recent screen adaptations include the television miniseries A Christmas Carol, starring Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge; the feature film The Personal History of David Copperfield, starring Dev Patel; and the BBC miniseries Dickensian, which brought together iconic characters from across Dickens's fiction, intertwining their lives in 19th-century London.   

Dickens was a superstar in his day, with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky among his legion fans. He was remarkably prolific — as British biographer Claire Tomalin says, "Dickens kept going by taking on too much." 

In 2011, Tomalin published a prize-winning definitive biography called Charles Dickens: A Life. To mark the 150th anniversary of Dickens's death, Writers & Company is revisiting her conversation with Eleanor Wachtel from December 2011.

A Dickensian life

"I was about seven when I first read David Copperfield. That great, great book. Once you read it, it gets into your bloodstream. It is the most marvellous account of childhood — of loss and detachment and cruelty and triumph. It is the most wonderful story.

"I was a bit [precocious] and my mother was a great reader of Dickens, so she probably read it with me. But I think those accounts of that childhood are immediately comprehensible. It's about such fundamental things. It's about the love you feel for your mother, but also understanding your mother is not perfect and that she's fallible. 

It's about such fundamental things. It's about the love you feel for your mother, but also understanding your mother is not perfect and that she's fallible.

"It's about the love you have for a mother substitute — between David and Peggotty — and it's about how your mother can actually betray you by bringing cruel people into your life. 

"These are experiences that speak to a great many people — people read David Copperfield all over the world. Tolstoy was very affected by David Copperfield and by Dickens altogether. It is a universal text, I think."

Charles Dickens was an English writer and social critic. (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Dickens's right-hand man

"I wanted to write an accessible and brief book. I feel that [biographer and close friend] John Forster was the most important person in Dickens's life. I don't think anyone's really documented that. They were two young men with literary ambitions. Forster saw that Dickens was a genius and Dickens saw Forster could do so much to help him as a critic, as a proofreader or with dealing with his publishers. 

I feel that John Forster was the most important person in Dickens's life.

"But they loved one another. They became inseparable companions and Forster gave Dickens invaluable advice. It was he who suggested that he should kill off Little Nell. It was he who suggested that David Copperfield should be a first-person narrative. 

"Dickens invited Forster to become his biographer, rather cheekily when he was still quite young himself. Dickens trusted Forster with all his secrets. Foster was entirely in his confidence both about his childhood pains and his problems later in life."

"Forster, who was happily married to an intelligent and educated woman, said when Dickens died, 'There is no joy in my life anymore.'" 

Why A Christmas Carol endures

"A Christmas Carol is a wonderful, wonderful, vigorous story. It's a story of Christian redemption. Scrooge is a wicked man; by repenting, he is saved. But it also has a very strong political element in it. 

"At the beginning, Scrooge the rich man is refusing to give any charitable donation at Christmas time to some fellow businessmen who talk about unemployment, poverty and so on. And he says to the people who are collecting the money, 'I already make my contribution to society. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?'

A Christmas Carol is a wonderful, wonderful, vigorous story. It's a story of Christian redemption.

"Later on in the story, when Scrooge has been softened by the spirits, he is with the Spirit of Christmas Present. At the end of his time with him, out of the Spirit's cloak come two wolfish looking children. Scrooge, now thoroughly abashed, says, 'Have they no refuge or resource? And then the spirit, in a marvellous bit of Dickens rhetoric, turns to Scrooge with his own words and says, 'Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?' And that's the end of his time with the Spirit of Christmas Present, who, previous to this, had been a very jolly cheerful spirit.

"It's an electrical moment in Dickens's writing."

The London of Charles Dickens

"Everyone says, 'Dickens's London.' And it's true: London was his canvas. In his own day, people said if you want to know in the future what London was like, they only have to read Dickens. But I think he hated it, actually.

"He was always trying to get out of London. Kent remained his paradise. He's spent his honeymoon there. He bought Gad's Hill and he wanted to be buried there. 

In his own day, people said if people want to know in the future what London was like, they only have to read Dickens.

"London, during his lifetime, got dirtier and dirtier and bigger and bigger. He talks about how the air is always full of grit and the river is an open, stinking sewer instead of a beautiful river running through the city.

"He was very restless, even when he owned beautiful houses in London. He was always wanting to get out of London and get to the seaside."

For the love of Dickens

"Dickens cared about the poor. He cared about their life. When he went to America for the first time, one of the things he said was that he wrote in order to show people that those at the very edges of society were just as interesting to write about as the middle classes or the rich. 

"They mattered just as much. They were just as much human beings. I suppose, with all the emotional problems in his life, it was wonderfully reassuring to know he was loved by so many people.

He wanted to make people laugh. He wanted to make people cry. He wanted to give them thrilling stories.

"He wanted to make people laugh. He wanted to make people cry. He wanted to give them thrilling stories. To feel that he was succeeding in doing this was tremendously important to him.

"People sometimes mock Dickens for his sentimentality. But I think modern people forget how many Victorian parents lost children and saw their children die. 

"Dickens very consciously was writing to offer some comfort — some way of letting people think about these things and be comforted."

Claire Tomalin's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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