February 7, 2012

The genius of Dickens

It's the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. To celebrate, treat yourself to a bit of perceptive, poignant prose from one of my favorites, Dombey and Son, which begins with the birth of a child:

Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance, to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect, as yet. On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time - remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go - while the countenance of Son was crossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations. 
Ain't it the truth.

The Telegraph has been running a series in which writers choose their favorite favourite Dickens characters. Here's the one on Great Expectation's Aged P. (At the foot of the article is a list of the other pieces but, unfortunately, not all are linked, nor are they easy to find by searching.)

Theodore Dalrymple sees Dickens as an author for our hard times:
The February bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, then, could hardly come at a more appropriate moment in economic history, for Dickens was the revealer, the scourge, the prose poet, of urban destitution—a destitution that, in our waking nightmares, we fear may yet return.
Dalrymple concedes the imperfections. The novels are flawed by "their sometimes grotesque sentimentality, their sprawling lack of construction, their frequent implausibility." And they can be really, really long. I think Dickens was still introducing new characters into Dombey five hundred pages in. No matter.

I love Dickens for lots of reasons, but most of all for his embrace of humanity in its ever-varied but ever-constant weakness and absurdity. His best characters possess great human dignity in spite of their foolishness.

Dalrymple, and Dickens, on one of Dickens's greatest assets:
Dickens knew whereof he wrote. It was his habit to walk miles through the streets of London, and no man—except perhaps Henry Mayhew—was more observant than he. Often accused by his detractors of exaggerating reality, he claimed in the preface to Martin Chuzzlewit that he merely saw what others did not see, or chose not to see, and put it into plain words. What was caricature to some was to him no more than the unvarnished truth. He held up a mirror to his age.
On the humor:
When Dickens called himself “the Inimitable,” he was speaking no more than the truth; he was the greatest comic writer in his, or perhaps in any other, language. And the comedy runs deep: it is not trivial, for while it depicts absurdity, pomposity, and even cruelty, it has the curious effect of reconciling us to life even as it lays human weaknesses out for our inspection.
In addition to his prodigious powers of observation, or augmented by them (or vice versa), Dickens possessed an empathy that allowed him to see straight into the human heart. From his 1867 preface to Dombey and Son:
I make so bold as to believe that the faculty (or the habit) of correctly observing the characters of men, is a rare one. I have not even found, within my experience, that the faculty (or the habit) of correctly observing so much as the faces of men, is a general one by any means. The two commonest mistakes in judgement that I suppose to arise from the former default, are, the confounding of shyness with arrogance - a very common mistake indeed - and the not understanding that an obstinate nature exists in a perpetual struggle with itself.
There it is. He was an expert on human nature, not one to be fooled by appearances, however persuasive, and his books, though, as one friend who can't abide him told me, are "too wordy," have a lot to teach us still.


The Dumb Old Housewives heart Dickens, too.


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  1. It's also the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder!

  2. Another favorite. I had no idea. Thanks!


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