Avoiding the existence of Charles Dickens is like trying to escape the Big-Issue salesmen outside train stations, just as you think you’ve lost them both, they prove persistent in the pursuit of your attention. Even if you have never picked up a book, you’ll have certainly encountered Dickens’ work, and its influences within popular media, film, music and television. In one of my earliest recollections of youth, I can see a more easily pleased me repeatedly watching Mickey’s Christmas Carol, fixated by Ebenezer Scrooge’s renunciation of greediness under the bizarre moral authority of The Ghost of Christmas Past. With the passing of the bicentennial anniversary of his birth on the 7th February, the life of the English canonical author has been celebrated by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh through enactment of some of his best works. Yet while the celebration of Dickens deservedly revolves around the greatness of his literature, it also centres on his inspirational success. Rising from the poverty he found himself in as a teenager, who had to leave school to label blacking in a factory for a measly wage of six shillings a week, his life is the classic and admirable ‘rags to riches’ story; an ascension from the bottom of the social barrow to the enduring forefront of British talent.
Recently adapted into a three-part series by the BBC, Great Expectations fell foul under the eyes of critics who claimed that it took on the tedious form of period-based soap-opera. Starring Douglas Booth (the ‘too-good-looking’ Burberry Model) as Pip and the former FHM rated, X-Files star, Gillian Anderson, as Miss Havisham, Sarah Phelps’ adaptation rested on the standards of glamorous Hollywood rather than attempting to explore any deeper meaning. Yet the elements of ‘trash TV’ employed in this rendition were not wholly dissimilar from those maintaining Dickens’ own, contemporary fan base. Released serially, episodes of his now-novels would end dramatically with the purpose of hooking his readers to the bait of upcoming additions. The people he depicts too are timeless and irresistible caricatures; Fagin, the stereotypical paradox of father-figure and thief, Scrooge, the lonely and greedy capitalist, and Miss Havisham the resentful victim of heart-break are dramatized stereotypes that the pop culture demographic consistently seeks to witness. Criticised even in original form by writers such as Oscar Wilde and G. K. Chesterton, Dickens’ melodramatic plots and ideas will draw concern in any of their manifestations. Yet, to imply a lack of ability is to undermine Dickens’ overwhelming popularity. In numerous ways Dickens’ life is reflected in the themes recurring throughout his novels. The two orphaned boys Pip and Oliver of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, start their journey in much the same position as their author. Not long after his move to Camden Town in 1822, twelve year old Dickens was left to be brought up by the hand of a surrogate parent. Struggling against the huge class disparity that defined the Victorian period, Dickens, almost autobiographically, comments in David Copperfield that he “had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone”. It is through David’s struggle in impoverished London that Dickens’ novel becomes a historical testimony, speaking out against the hard sufferings of the Victorian proletariat. It is partly due to this sense of first-hand authenticity that Dickens’ works have gained iconic status.
“Dickens’ characters fight against the inequality of social structure with which he found himself burningly dissatisfied.”
Within their precisely detailed, historical frameworks, Dickens’ characters fight against the inequality of social structure with which he himself found burningly dissatisfied. Pip Pirrup’s rise from poverty to wealth serves to highlight the immorality and greed associated with the rich, whilst Scrooge’s transformation serves to attribute a higher strength of emotion to the poor.
It is through this textual challenging of societal order that readers find vicarious pleasure, transcending their own confinement within social spheres through the progression of Dickens’ characters.
With the charismatic Helena Bonham Carter set to play Miss Havisham in Mike Newell’s film adaptation of Great Expectations this year, Dickens’ legacy is by no means preparing for a decline. As with any upcoming adaptation of his work, the excitement lies in the anticipation of what angle will be taken and how the fascinatingly strange characters will be portrayed. Though questioned for artistic merit, Dickens’ literature has endured because it explores the timeless issues of class and wealth. While Britain’s political, social and economic arena is seen to be vastly dissimilar to what it was nearly 200 years ago, the undying relevance calls us to question whether the transformation is as drastic as we assume. Escaping his own position of deprivation, Charles Dickens has left behind passionate words and powerful stories that have and will continue to inspire his readers to do the same.