Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Look About Me, and Make A Discovery

This summer, London will make history. The city will be witness to an historic event centuries in the making; a momentous time that will be forever remembered as one of celebration, triumph and nostalgia. That event, as we all know, is Charles Dickens's 200th birthday.

Long after Sketches by Boz, Dickens still haunts the streets of London, or perhaps just London as I see it. Dickensian London in its most literal sense didn't ever exist. It's over-crowded, gritty, fast-paced and often overwhelming. The streets are mean, pungent and disease-ridden. Smoke pervades every public and private space and some underlying sense of gloom hangs in the air. The fictional city is a caricature of what London might have actually been in the 19th century.

[Quick side note: Dickens himself was quite dramatic. He nearly died from conducting dramatic readings of his works long after his health had failed him. He was also paid to write as many words as possible, so although he may have really believed that he needed five pages to convince us that  Thomas Traddles's hair stuck straight up into the air (I've no doubt that it did), he did have another incentive to be verbose].

London is a key component of any Dickens novel - as worthy and important as a main character. But the city serves as a backdrop to a more profound commentary on the strength of the human will. London (as a character) is a foil to the likes of David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Pip. The desperation and hopelessness of the city highlights the goodness and determination of not only Dickens's leading characters, but of any underdog, of any seemingly hopeless case, of anyone at all whom the world has written off. His novels champion those who value kindness and compassion. The modest, loyal, honest protagonist with a moral compass inevitably prevails, due partly to his own actions, but partly to Dickens's faith in mankind - do good by others and you will be rewarded. And not because of a belief in any religion or higher power but due to an ultimate faith in humanity and society, despite their failings.

Dickens's works were published in weekly or monthly installments in magazines to allow anyone to purchase the reading with the little money he had leftover after paying bills and buying food for the family. The pages were meant to be read aloud to family members by candlelight or near the fireplace - perhaps on a Sunday evening. He wrote for the sailors, teachers, farmers, tailors, watch makers and street sweepers of England; for the hard-working (regardless of class); for the mothers and fathers and orphans and friends; for anyone who makes the world beautiful by demonstrating kindness, strength and faith. This is why a Dickens novel is timeless and reads as though it were written yesterday. And this is why I choose to see London, and the rest of the world, as Dickens did.

To my kind friend who encouraged me to write - I've given it my best effort, despite how unworthy and ill-suited I am to the task.

1 comment:

mjr said...

Not that anyone should need convincing, but you create a convincing argument to read Dickens. I must read David Copperfield. Thanks for the motivation!