(For details of the celebrations and how to join in see the website) It is less easy to explain the reasons for his ‘relevance’ today, and a text’s literary value and significance doesn’t, of course, lie purely in its ability to speak to present day concerns.
Having said that, for me, Dickens is an important writer because he continues to evoke powerful feeling, both in individual readers and through collective responses to his work. On the evening that I saw Simon Callow perform two of Dickens’s characters at the Riverside Studios in early 2010, numbers of the audience sobbed. We were affected, and even distressed, by Callow’s portrayal of Doctor Marigold, a travelling salesman who adopts a deaf and dumb circus girl after the early death of his biological daughter, who was beaten throughout her short life by her mother. What might sound like an unpleasantly saccharine narrative of a father’s attempt at reparation had the power to move a 21st-century audience to tears. Dickens held Victorian audiences rapt with his public readings of the same story. While emotional response is shaped by historical context and personal experience, what these audiences certainly had in common was a collective experience of Dickens, beyond the book.
Dickens is one of the few authors we might mention at the water-cooler, whether we’re discussing, say, Gillian Anderson’s electrifying performances as Lady Dedlock in the BBC’s Bleak House, a trip to Oliver! the musical, or a nostalgic re-reading of A Christmas Carol. One of the reasons for this is Dickens’s extraordinary ‘portability’, as Juliet John calls it in her brilliant Dickens and Mass Culture (Oxford University Press, 2010): the ease with which his work can be translated across media. This portability has its roots in Dickens’s own approach to his writing. He regularly adapted his own writings, turning part-published fiction into novels, which he reissued in a number of different editions, and also reworked for public readings.
Moreover, Dickens saw his characters and narratives as part of a shared cultural imagination, so that, for example, when sales for his weekly miscellany, Master Humphrey’s Clock, dwindled, he resurrected some of his most popular characters to date, Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller. His Victorian readers clearly shared his view of a world populated by Dickens characters, as visualised in Robert Buss’s painting ‘The Dickens Dream’, which shows Dickens in a reverie, surrounded by his creations. The large collection of similar images, held at the Charles Dickens Museum , shows that the idea of a Dickens Universe (the name used by a major annual meeting of Dickens scholars and enthusiasts at the University of California is not a new one.
Victorian readers often expressed a sense of a personal friendship with Dickens’s characters, who provided a reference point for their own relationships, or even became a focus for unrequited love (In her classic account of Victorian readers Amy Cruse describes one man’s obsessive search for a real life Agnes Wickfield, The Victorians and Their Books, 1935). While this may be a more intense response than that of most 21st-century readers, many of us will have called someone a ‘Scrooge’; now, since the opening of Dickens World in Kent, we can enjoy a 4D cinema encounter with our favourite characters in the convivial setting of Peggoty’s boathouse. For me, as a particular fan of Peggoty’s expansive understanding of home and community in David Copperfield, this feels just right!
Dr Holly Furneaux, Reader in Victorian Studies, University of Leicester. Furneaux is co-editor, with Professor Sally Ledger, of Dickens in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2011), and author of Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities (Oxford University Press, 2009).