“The Inimitable”, Dickens called himself. He was, and is. Born in 1812, as a boy he was put to work by his feckless father in a blacking factory on the banks of the Thames—a shaming experience, crucial to his formation both as novelist and workaholic. When he died aged 58, he left behind 20 novels, five short-story collections and a child’s history of England, all bursting with characters so vivid and vital it’s hard to believe they are entirely fictional.
Bill Sikes, Mr Micawber, Wackford Squeers, Betsy Trotwood, Pumblechook, Bumble, Quilp—whether you meet them in school set books, or watching weekend television, they are unforgettable. In each, caricature is counterpoised by startling vivacity; they warble, lisp, shamble and dance with an energy that speaks of almost too much life. Now, as Dickens turns 200, they are taking up residence in the imaginations of a new generation, through the film of “Great Expectations” directed by Mike Newell, and the BBC’s version with Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham; through touring theatrical productions; and through his own, inimitable, words.
Never to use one adjective when two or more would do. Fagin in “Oliver Twist” has “bright dark eyes”; Jesse Hexam in “Our Mutual Friend” has “ragged grizzled hair”. Nicholas Nickleby is “patient, unwearying, considerate, kind-hearted”, while Smike is “anxious, humble, docile”. Dickens’s forensic eye for detail led George Orwell to admire his “embroidery”. “The last thing anyone ever remembers about the books is their central story. On the other hand, I suppose no one has ever read them without carrying the memory of individual pages to the day of his death.”
Scarcely sleeping. He produced nearly a novel a year, often working on two at once. His sleeplessness accounts for the more fantastical side to his work. Battling insomnia, he tramped the backstreets of London at night, meeting the “houseless” people—the vagrants, petty thieves and street-sweepers—who lurk on the edges of his novels. He loved “the restlessness of a great city, and the way in which it tumbles and tosses before it goes to sleep”.
Openings. Whether with a single word, “London”, in “Bleak House”, or with a near-biblical knell—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—in “A Tale of Two Cities”, Dickens plunges his readers into a scene with the genius of a film-maker. But no film could match the stunning inversion with which “A Christmas Carol” opens: “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Favourite Trick
“To do the police in different voices.” Early works, such as “The Pickwick Papers”, are largely taken up by reported speech. But even in later novels such as “Bleak House” Dickens is attuned to the patter of everyday conversation, particularly if it’s ridiculous: “I was gravelled—an expression which your Ladyship, moving in the higher circles, will be so good as to consider tantamount to knocked over.” Every writer of fiction, he declared in 1858, “writes in effect for the stage.”
Swift, Defoe and Hogarth were his 18th-century satirical precedents, but it was Shakespeare who influenced him most. The ghost in “Hamlet”, the madness of Lear, and the jealousy of Othello haunt both Dickens and his creations. “I’m always ill after Shakespeare,” quavers Mrs Wititterly in “Nicholas Nickleby”. Dickens was no less affected.
Few forget this icy moment in “Great Expectations”, just verging on melodrama: “‘You must know,’ said Estella, condescending to me as a brilliant and beautiful woman might, ‘that I have no heart.’” Emma Hogan contributes to The Economist Books and Arts pages, and is one of the judges for this year's Forward Prize for Poetry. She wrote the Notes on a Voice for T.S. Eliot and tweets as @erahogan