Widely regarded as one of the greatest British writers of the 19th century, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) whose novels, including A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities, portray the often-grim existence of ordinary people in the Victorian era—the depiction he based on his own childhood hardships.
Honorary Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Aberdeen, Paul Schlicke is an expert on Victorian literature and has written extensively about Dickens, including Oxford Readers Companion to Dickens, as well as Dickens and Popular Entertainment.
Simply Charly: Your academic coverage of Charles Dickens’s work began in 1985 with the publication of your book Dickens and Popular Entertainment. While Dickens is primarily remembered as a scathing social critic, this book focuses on his role as a public entertainer. What inspired you to take this approach towards his work? In the years since this book came out, has your perception of Dickens shifted at all?
Paul Schlicke: From my earliest reading of Dickens, as an undergraduate, I was attracted by the energetic, humorous quality of his writing, which is most apparent in his early work, before his increasing concern with social criticism and psychological insight complicated and darkened the tone. Trained in the new critical analysis in an era when Jamesian irony, understatement, and indirection dominated the qualities that readers were taught to admire, I found that such an approach did not answer the kinds of questions about Dickens that interested me—what were the sources of his appeal? Why have his works, steeped in the popular culture of his day, survived, while other writing of the time has not? How does one define an achievement which includes patently melodramatic plotting, psychologically unsubtle (although generally larger than life) characters, and the very opposite of emotional restraint in full-throated pathos—all of which defied the critical approaches of the 1960s? Having embarked on a Ph.D. thesis which sought to explore Dickens’s early comedy stylistically, I found that that approach was not working for me, and that I needed to go behind the style to the sources, conventions, and attitudes of Dickens’s day; above all, I had to extend the investigation beyond the narrow confines of novel writing to journalism, tract literature, popular theatre, and a wide variety of forms of public entertainment. By the time my studies achieved fruition in my 1985 monograph Dickens and Popular Entertainment, the theories of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin had become influential in British and American academia, giving intellectual support to the sort of approach I was taking, but my own work had been—and remains—largely empirical and historical rather than primarily theoretical. My work is an attempt to define the kind of achievement Dickens’s writing represents, by situating it in its cultural context.
Although my study of Dickens started several decades ago, I continue to find this basic approach congenial (it also puts me in close touch with the common reader of Dickens, as well as with the academic specialist), and I stand by the conclusions I reached back in 1985. Important recent work by Juliet John, Valerie Purton, John Drew, and Michael Slater, among others, has provided strong support and wider context for this kind of study of Dickens.
SC: In the introduction to your book, you note that Dickens’s earliest works appeared to imitate some of the popular literature at the time. What was the English literary scene like when Dickens entered it, and which authors influenced him when he was starting as a writer?
PS: By the 1830s, when Dickens began writing, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels had given the novel a respectability it had not hitherto enjoyed, but the dominant tradition of the English (and Scottish) novel was historical, plot-driven, and structured around broadly contrasting episodes centered on a protagonist. Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Scott were key figures here, along with writers in the sentimental tradition of Samuel Richardson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Henry Mackenzie. But it is important, from my perspective, not to confine one’s attention exclusively to the novel: essay writing, journalism, poetry, and drama (especially drama performed in the theatre rather than read in the study) impacted heavily on Dickens, and he acknowledged Shakespeare as his greatest predecessor. The publishing situation was evolving rapidly at the time, due to tax reductions, technological advances, new possibilities of distribution, and a massive increase in literacy. All of this was complicated by the bankruptcy in 1826 of Scott’s publishers, an event that made publishers wary of risking failure with long works of fiction; sketch writing, particularly in periodical promulgation, came to the fore; Dickens’s own career began with sketch writing for periodicals and newspapers, collected in 1836 as Sketches by Boz. His first extended work, The Pickwick Papers, was devised as a serial publication to accompany comic illustrations, and all of Dickens’s novels were published in the first instance serially, almost always with illustrations integral to the conception and presentation.
And, as I have indicated already, Dickens was writing in a cultural context that extended far beyond the written word: among the many traditions which fed into his art were Punch and Judy shows, the circus, ballad-singing, fairground entertainment, street performers, stage theatricals (up until 1843, it was illegal in England to perform spoken drama anywhere except at Covent Garden and Drury Lane).
SC: As one of the world’s foremost Dickens scholars, what makes him worthy of study by a modern audience?
PS: I am far from alone in considering that Dickens stands beside Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the English language. Both writers reworked popular forms; both were fascinated by the boundaries between reality and fantasy; both were linguistically inventive. And both had a fundamentally theatrical conception of their art, even though Dickens, unlike Shakespeare, wrote primarily not for the stage but for reading. It is telling that Dickens was an accomplished amateur actor (early in life he seriously considered a career as an actor) and that for the last decade of his life he devoted much of his creative energy to the public performance of his works.
SC: Of his themes and social critiques, which do you feel are most applicable to the world today?
PS: The risk of focusing narrowly on social themes is to treat Dickens as a museum piece, a critic of Victorian society, rather than as a writer of continuing relevance. Of course, issues like political chicanery, legal obfuscation, and educational malfeasance, all matter as much today as they did 150 years ago. But it seems to me that his overarching concern with New Testament values of selfless concern for others, with Romantic notions of the central importance of imagination, and with Victorian convictions about earnestness, integrity, and hard work, give his work contemporary relevance.
SC: February 7, 2012, was the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth. As a member of the Dickens 2012 committee, what sort of work did you do to celebrate the occasion? What was the international reaction to the anniversary?
PS: A group of members of the Dickens Fellowship (of which I am a past president) and trustees of the Charles Dickens Museum in London (of which I was chairman of the board at the time) set up a steering group to organize and coordinate events, to maintain a calendar of events worldwide, and to undertake a major redevelopment of the Dickens Museum itself, doubling it in size in a £3 million (equivalent of nearly $5 million) facelift. As I surveyed the bicentenary in an article in Dickens Quarterly (December 2012), there were large- and small-scale events worldwide,—educational, culinary, and academic, including various performances, readings, theatricals, competitions, conferences, festivals, and other activities – all of which contributed to the celebration of Dickens’s life and works. The sheer scale of activity is staggering: from Iceland to India, Australia to Zimbabwe, Europe to the Orient—and not only in English-speaking countries—enthusiasts, professionals, schoolchildren, and many others joined in the fun.
SC: When Charles Dickens was 12 years old, his father John was sentenced to the Marshalsea debtor’s prison, and Charles himself spent much of his early childhood doing manual labor in poor conditions. How did this early brush with poverty influence Dickens’ later writing?
PS: The trials of his childhood had, as all of Dickens’s biographers acknowledge, profound effect on him. It made him ready to work hard, and to insist on proper remuneration for his labors. It added to his sensitivity and feelings of insecurity, combined with a willingness to stand up for himself. It gave him profound sympathy for the childhood from which he was himself wrenched—perhaps the most compelling image in his art, revisited repeatedly, is the lonely, frightened, sensitive child. He returned to specific aspects of his childhood experiences many times: Tony Weller’s description of Sam’s education, left in the streets to fend for himself; the squalor of Fagin’s den, with filth and rats as in the blacking factory—and Fagin’s very name derived from that of a workmate there; the prison scenes in Pickwick, Little Dorrit and A Tale of Two Cities; the characters of Wilkins Micawber and William Dorrit, based on his father; the banishment of young David Copperfield to Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse.
SC: Dickens is probably best remembered for A Christmas Carol, one of the most famous English novels ever published. But Carol was only one of five Christmas-themed novels that Dickens wrote. What was the significance of this holiday in Dickens’s life, and to Victorian-era Britain as a whole?
PS: Christmas epitomizes values which Dickens cherished most deeply: the cheerful fellow-feeling of family and friends; the relaxation into games, feasting, and fun; the veneration of Christ as the foremost example of a good man; the simple joys of escape from cares and work; the centrality of childhood to it all. Christmas is the foremost example of Dickens’s disposition to celebrate carefree enjoyment and shared entertainment, relaxation, and imaginative play. It is worth noting that the Carol is the only one of Dickens’s Christmas books, which is actually about Christmas; the others are stories for Christmas. And to realize that once he successfully conducted a weekly paper, the best-selling number each year was the special Christmas issue, usually written in collaboration with other contributors.
Nineteenth-century Britain conceived of itself as a deeply Christian society (it was a great age of church-building, for example), and except for the austere Calvinist fringe, of which Mrs. Clennam is Dickens’ foremost example, Christmas was the primary event of the year in which that commitment was renewed. The Broad Church element, which increasingly dominated British Christianity, emphasized the moral values of Christianity above doctrine, values which were at the heart of the Dickensian Christmas. It is worth noting that Dickens did not, in fact, invent Christmas; rather, he (along with Prince Albert, who introduced the Christmas tree from Germany) popularized it. With its focus on cheerful gregariousness, on childhood enjoyment, and on basic moral values, Christmas was at the heart of Dickens’s outlook on life, an outlook that (by and large) the country shared.
SC: Dickens was a journalist before he was a novelist; he was 21 when he wrote his first sketch, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” while working as a reporter for the Morning Chronicle. Did Dickens’s early work as a journalist in any way influence the themes of social inequality he later wrote about?
PS: Dickens started his writing career as a journalist, and (as recent criticism, led by John Drew, emphasizes) he continued in that role throughout his life. His fiction was published serially, either in periodicals or in weekly or monthly magazine installments; everything he wrote was a predetermined length, as in a newspaper; he wrote to tight deadlines, often completing a segment only days before publication; he was alert to topical attitudes and events, and even as a book was in progress, to the response of his readers, which profoundly influenced the directions his writing took. He was emphatically a middle-class author targeting a middle-class audience; He vigorously differentiated his writing from the gutter press, which often crudely imitated or plagiarized his work, and from highbrow publications that tended to look down on him as merely a popular entertainer.
The newspapers for which Dickens wrote, and the journals which he later edited, were aimed at a politically progressive audience in an era of Reform, and during the long afterlife of Reform attitudes. That is, they opposed vested interest, privilege, and elitism, and supported the rights of ordinary men and women—social and personal, as well as political. The subtitle of his first published volume, Every-Day Life, and Every-Day People, not only announced the subject of all his fiction but also its political stance of championing the dignity of unexceptional people, insisting that they are basically decent and hard-working, worthy of respect, and entitled to basic comforts and relaxation.
SC: Today Dickens is remembered fondly as one of the greatest writers of the Victorian era. Did he enjoy similar fame throughout his own lifetime? Was there any resistance in upper English society to some of the social criticisms that Dickens espoused?
PS: Dickens was a 19th-century pop star. In an age before the advent of celebrity culture, he was the world’s first celebrity, known and revered everywhere—even though he led a secret life with a young actress, which was not revealed until 50 years after his death. The Pickwick Papers was the publishing phenomenon of the century—and not just for those who could read, or could have it read to them, but also in theatrical adaptations, illustrations, and circus acts based on his characters, spin-offs by other writers, hats, corduroys, pens, and much more. The highbrow press didn’t quite know how to handle Dickens; it was held against him that his subjects were not high-born characters. Also, with the rise of new conceptions of literary realism, his reputation among critics declined during the last 20 years of his life and was not really restored until nearly a century after his death, although there were always outspoken admirers and delight in his works was never extinguished among common readers. In the early days, when Pickwick first appeared serially, Dickens was being compared with Shakespeare, Scott, Fielding, and other great writers.
But there were dissenting voices from the start: readers who saw him as merely a comic entertainer (F. R. Leavis was still saying that in the 1940s); readers who condescended to his lack of classical education (like Shakespeare, he had “small Latin and less Greek”); readers who complained that he got this or that fact wrong. Inevitably, readers of different political persuasions objected to his Reformist views (when Queen Victoria praised his work to Lord Melbourne, then her Prime Minister, he retorted that as Dickens wrote of low subjects, he (Melbourne) had no interest in reading him). And subjected as they were to satire and ridicule throughout his works, evangelical Christians denounced him as of the Devil’s party.
It is perhaps worth noting in this context that Dickens did not simply write in favor of social justice, although he did that, vigorously, throughout his life. He also worked tirelessly for educational reform, for slum clearance, and improvement of sanitation. For years, he advised Angela Burdett-Coutts, the wealthiest woman in England, in her charitable activities, especially Urania Cottage, a home for homeless women. During the scandal of government irresponsibility and incompetence during the Crimean War, he was an active leader in the Administrative Reform Association, and he undertook fund-raising activities for a Literary Guild to provide for impoverished writers.
SC: In your review of Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture, you note how Dickens made his works accessible to readers by presenting them in the form of monthly or weekly installments. How did this approach help to popularize Dickens’s works, and what effect did this format have on the content of his novels?
PS: At a time when novels issued in volume form were prohibitively expensive to all but the very well-to-do, offering them for sale at a few pennies a week, or a single shilling per month, over nearly two-year runs, made them accessible to a far wider readership. It was also a congenial mode of publication for Dickens personally, trained as he was in journalism, writing to deadlines. Some of his works appeared as the sole content of each installment; others were a single item in a miscellany, which included other fiction, poetry, and articles of general interest.
One reason that Dickens’s characters are so memorable is that his first readers would have month-long gaps between each issue of a novel. Catchphrases, distinctive characteristics, and instantly recognizable mannerisms reminded readers of characters from earlier episodes, even as cliff-hanging gaps at the end of each segment would encourage readers to buy the next installment. Later in his career, Dickens spoke of the “crushing” difficulty of cramming all he wanted into any given issue, particularly of weekly serializations, and he felt that readers might miss the complex subtlety of structure of his later works, as a result of reading in bits. But from first to last, all his novels made their first appearance in serial form.
SC: Of Dickens’s novels, do any resonate with you in particular? Which do you believe best encapsulates the themes and messages that Dickens was trying to convey?
PS: The easy answer to that is I invariably think Dickens’s best novel is the one I am re-reading at the time. I wouldn’t want to be without any of them, and I regret that he distracted himself from writing by his demanding schedule of public readings between 1858 and his death in 1870. I think A Christmas Carol is his most perfect work, Nicholas Nickleby is the most fun, Little Dorrit the most somber, David Copperfield the most poignant. For the first 100 years after it was published, The Pickwick Papers was far and away the most popular. A century ago David Copperfield was most admired (it was also Dickens’s own favorite). The one, which has fascinated me most from the first time I read it many decades ago, which has influenced the directions my own studies of Dickens, and the one I have written most about, is The Old Curiosity Shop. The one I have worked on most for the past decade is Sketches by Boz. I tell people who have never read Dickens to start with Great Expectations, both because it is so thrilling a story, so richly observed, and because it is simultaneously full of Dickens’s most characteristic touches, and of qualities which readers are used to finding in other writers. But if I could take only one with me to the desert island, I have to say that Bleak House is probably the best of a superb lot.