All of Dickens’s major works (except The Christmas Carol) were originally published in weekly or monthly installments – like waiting breathlessly for the next episode of Downton Abbey. Most of us have read or seen one of Dickens’s stories, but if his birthday inspires you to revisit his classics, his biographer Claire Tomalin suggests starting with David Copperfield, Dickens’s own “favorite child.” Oprah’s pick was A Tale of Two Cities, and Ralph Fiennes with Helena Bonham Carter will soon be in a remake of Great Expectations.
With over 90 biographies of the prolific author, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst just added to the list; Becoming Dickens focuses on Dickens’s early life and has the flavor of a good dissertation. A better story might be Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1991) – about 45 year-old married Dickens’s affair with an 18-year-old actress.
To commemorate the day, I’m reading The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford. Although Standiford includes the requisite background of Dickens as a poor boy in a boot blacking factory, he quickly fast forwards to how Dickens became a writer. The focus has The Christmas Carol saving his writing career; the “judicious edits” and concern over small details – like the end papers – will endear him to any writer. The not so well-known aftermath of the piracy of his story, and the unsatisfactory court litigation is balanced by Dickens’s delight that it was so well received by readers. Noting that “if every copy were destroyed today, it could be rewritten tomorrow, so many know the story by heart,” Standiford journies through what may have been Dickens’s inspiration in the writing, and then follows through with a short reflection on the rest of Dickens’s life and subsequent writing.
Charles Dickens wrote 4 more Christmas stories after the success of A Christmas Carol, but none as well known, or as effective at relaying “the enduring themes: the deleterious effects of ignorance and want, the necessity for charity, the benefits of goodwill, family, unity, and the need for celebration of the life force, including the pleasures of good food and drink, and good company.
…It is a mark of Dickens’s genius that we return eagerly to his hopeful vision – millions of us now – year and year. And vow to do the best we can.”
So – Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens, and thanks.