Monday, 31 December 2012

Essay: Goodbye to Dickens - Four Million Words Later!

That’s four million words from Charles Dickens, not from me! Mind you, as this project of mine picked up steam, my reviews of his novels did seem to stretch significantly longer. The last ten or so, I reckon, averaged 3,000 – 3,500 words. I suppose I was being influenced by Dickens’s discursiveness. That’s my excuse, anyway.
So, why did I embark on this crazy scheme to read and review all 15 Dickens novels (plus Sketches by Boz) within the year? Well, several reasons. First, of course, was the bicentenary tag; Charles Dickens was born on 7 February, 1812 – two hundred years ago. Second, when I visited my good friend Tony Grant in Wimbledon in 2009, we visited three former homes in England where Charles Dickens used to live: in Portsmouth, London and Rochester. That inspired me then to make a plan to read all of Dickens’s books. And I began. I got as far as Dombey and Son (the seventh novel) and stalled. Then came the blog. And the idea to celebrate the Dickens bicentenary in a special way, in my blog. So I started reading again from the beginning, and doing the reviews for my blog.
Third reason: my father died in July, 2011. He was an avid reader of Dickens’s novels. I think when he died he had three complete sets of the fifteen novels. And he would occasionally read the complete set in chronological order. Must have done that several times, that I remember. When he died he also had pretty much all of Anthony Trollope’s novels – about fifty of them. And read them. He told me once that his father, William – who was not an educated or an intellectual man – had read all of Dickens and Trollope. It’s in the blood. My father also loved the Alastair Sim film version of A Christmas Carol. We watched it very year.

The hardest part of this project, of course, was getting through all the reading. Most of the books were about 850 pages. I would be reading about 25 pages per hour. So an 850 page book would take me about 7-10 days to read. And that would be followed by all the research, the writing, and the internet trawling for interesting and attractive illustrations, paintings, and photographs.
What I tried to do in each book review was to show how aspects of Dickens personal life  was reflected in the themes, mood and characters of each novel - to put them in context, in other words.
I started slowly – too slowly. But it took me a while to plow through Sketches by Boz. I persevered. My original hope had been to do at least four novels during the summer holidays, but that didn’t pan out, because of two extended trips. So by the end of the summer, I was looking at this situation: I had six novels done, and there were nine to go. It seemed hopeless to believe I could complete the project as planned – by the end of the year. But I took Dickens as my model, and set out a very disciplined reading programme. If Dickens could work every day for five hours writing, then I could read 100 pages every day, or 150-200 pages each day on the weekends. It worked. By the end of November I had five more blog reviews done and two more of the books read. The task now was to do the research and writing for the backlog of reading completed. December was the crunch month. A couple of books read, and four more reviews written. The review for the last book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was completed on 28 December!

So, what have I learned about Charles Dickens during this year? Here are some randomly organised thoughts about the great man.

·      Dickens had an incredible energy, an amazing capacity for work. During his first four or five years as a novelist he was often writing two novels simultaneously – whilst also writing articles and stories for newspapers and magazines. He also had a very busy calendar of social engagements – at many of which he was obliged to deliver a prepared speech. For most of his career, he was also editing – not to mention contributing regular articles and stories for – his own weekly magazine.

·       Dickens was an avid walker. He used to stroll through London at all hours of the day and night. Or he made extensive hikes through the country. He would walk an average of 12 miles per day. During these walks he would work through ideas, situations, and settings for his books. He would ponder plot, create characters, and declaim dialogue out loud. He could let his imagination run free.

·       Dickens was a very generous man. He helped innumerable charities – often he would be the key-note speaker at dinners designed to raise funds for charitable institutions. Many of his early public readings were done as benefits. He also gave generously to campaigns mounted to support families left in financial difficulties by the death of friends. He was a close friend of the very rich philanthropist Angela Bourdett-Coutts – together they planned and organised campaigns of social relief. For several years, for example, they ran Urania Cottage, a home for former prostitutes – Dickens planned, designed, and organised the place. He met with and advised the staff regularly.

·       Dickens loved the theatre. When he was a young man in London – in his late teens – he attended theatrical performances four or five nights a week. He even toyed with the notion of becoming a professional actor, before his writing career took off. But after he was married, and he could afford homes with sufficient room, he began organising annual amateur theatricals – organised to take place in the family home on Twelfth Night. He would recruit friends and family to make up his cast of actors. And, working as an impresario, Dickens would arrange and organise every aspect of the production – including taking on a leading role. Later on, these amateur productions would be taken on the road and presented publicly – sometimes at places outside London. The proceeds would benefit some charitable cause.

·       The key event in Dickens’s life, the episode that he could never forget and never forgive, was the time he was forced to work as a twelve-year old in Warren’s Blacking Factory in London. The rest of his family had joined his father in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Charles took cheap lodgings in a terraced house nearby in Southwark. Even worse than that humiliation, was the fact that when the family were able to pay up their debts and leave the Marshalsea, Dickens’s mother continued, for a while, to send him to the factory. He kept this deep wound to himself through his whole life – revealing it only to his close friend and confidant John Forster, when he was planning David Copperfield.

·       All of Dickens’s novels were written in weekly or monthly instalments. Writing and publishing the book in monthly issues had several beneficial effects: Dickens could respond almost immediately to the success or failure of individual plot lines, or characters, and adjust the narrative accordingly; he could add incidents and conversation that would hold topical interest; and he could generate future sales by adding elements of suspense to the conclusion of each monthly instalment. The downside, of course, was that he could not change his mind mid-book and do a major review or re-structuring, when a plot-line wasn’t working. This didn’t bother Dickens much in the early novels – he simply used a picaresque, episodic structure. Later in his career, he showed a lot more care and interest in created a unity of structure – so that characters are used not just because they are interesting and amusing in themselves, but also used to advance the plot.

·       Dickens is invariably portrayed as the champion of London, the author who introduced Victorian London – in all its multifarious ways and conditions – to the world. This is undoubtedly true of his earlier period. But it is not often recognised that he grew weary and disgusted with the place. In the last fifteen years of his life, or so, he began to avoid the City: he travelled constantly in France; and he moved to a house near Rochester in Kent called Gad’s Hill Place. The three large epics of his later career – the so-called London trilogy – show a distaste for what the city had become in his eyes, a place of greed and corruption, with a society obsessed with money and social position.

·       Dickens experienced a classic mid-life crisis. He grew more and more dissatisfied with his wife Catherine. He began to see that they had never been truly compatible with each other. This growing alienation from her was exacerbated when he met the young actress Ellen (‘Nelly’) Ternan. Dickens eventually arranged a legal separation from Catherine, and began a clandestine relationship with Ternan. The affair was very discreet: Dickens needed to protect Ellen’s own reputation (she was always chaperoned by her mother – when Dickens bought or rented homes for her to live in, Mrs. Ternan was always there), and he was desperate to maintain his standing with his admiring public. His financial position was at stake – but, more importantly, he relied on the adulation of others to boost his self-esteem. With this in mind, Dickens often reacted defensively when he was criticised by friends and associates over his treatment of Catherine. Some of the things he said about her, in his need to justify himself, were quite deplorable. He severed relationships with many long-term friends.

·       Dickens was a self-made man. He was self-educated – he got some minimal schooling at a young age, but enjoyed none of the educational opportunities that came to middle-class and upper-class boys. It was something he resented – and many of the charitable causes he supported had to do with the proper education of children. He educated himself through work (he had been briefly a newspaper man, a law clerk, and a reporter of proceedings in the House of Commons), but also merely by his unending travels on foot around London. He learned by observing – looking and listening – and seeing how the different social classes interacted with each other.

·       Dickens was always looking for ways to earn more money. As he grew older, his income grew dramatically, but he also incurred more and more expenses. He took on insane amounts of work and obligations in order to increase his revenues. Dickens was always worried about being able to maintain his standard of living, but he also had that chronic fear of losing everything and falling into debt. He didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of his father. The physically punishing series of public reading tours he engaged in during the last decade of his life were motivated, in part, by the need to consolidate and increase his financial health.

So, goodbye to Charles Dickens! It’s been a long, fascinating journey. I hope that I have at least inspired a few of my blog readers to check out a novel, or two, of his that they have not read before. Me? After a substantial break from the great man, I think I’ll be back to re-read some of his best.


But, now, on to Virginia Woolf. Who’s afraid of Woolf, I ask. Care to join me and Tony? Details to follow. 2013 – the year of the Woolf!

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Theatre Review: Soulpepper's "A Christmas Carol"

On the evening of 28 December, Barb and I joined friends on an excursion to Toronto to see the Soulpepper Theatre Company’s live production of A Christmas Carol at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District.
This version of A Christmas Carol – originally a Christmas Book that Charles Dickens wrote in 1843 – was adapted for the stage and directed by Michael Shamata.
The fifteen-member cast divides up the 41 parts in the play; nearly everybody plays at least two characters. John Jarvis does all four ghosts. Maggie Huculak plays five female parts. Oliver Dennis does three characters, including Bob Cratchit. And Matthew Edison, in addition to doing Scrooge’s nephew Fred, plays three other parts. Joseph Ziegler plays just the one part – Ebenezer Scrooge – since he is on stage virtually throughout the entire play.

Joseph Ziegler as Ebenezer Scrooge

This production was presented in the Young Centre’s small Baillie Theatre, which is set-up physically as a theatre-in-the-round. Most playgoers were within half-a-dozen rows from the performers, and there was also a row of seats in a narrow balcony skirting three sides of the stage. It was interesting to see how the production was designed to fit a theatre-in-the-round: there were no permanent sets, for example, and the actors entered and exited the stage from four directions. The intimate setting, and the constant movement of actors, props, and minimal furniture, gave the performing space a three-dimensionality that enhanced the audience’s link to the drama.
And what of the actual production and that evening’s performance? I have to admit that it took me a while to get absorbed. I suppose it’s my over-familiarity with the content. I read the book only a week ago in preparation for a blog post about it, and my family watched the film version – as we do every Christmas season – on Christmas night. I noticed every time when this production digressed from the original – or added material to knit scenes together or summarise scenes that were dropped. Having said that, however, this adaptation was very faithful to the original novella – and huge chunks of dialogue came directly from Dickens’s pen. Not surprising, really, since the dialogue in Dickens’s novels is invariably dramatic and has the sound of authentic conversation.

I found the second half more compelling than the first. I suppose it was the scenes of the Cratchit family – first making merry, and later deep in mourning for Tiny Tim’s death – working their usual magic. You try to resist Dickens’s use of pathos – but you get sucked in every time. The final sequence – when the redeemed Scrooge awakes from his final ghostly encounter – is very quick. It goes by at quite a clip, but then there is that final definitive proof of Ebenezer’s change – the brief, but telling, scene when Scrooge confronts Bob Cratchit at his office on Boxing Day morning.
The blocking of scenes was very effective. Scrooge and the ghosts were moved constantly around the stage, so that each area of the theatre-in-the-round audience could register Ebenezer’s changing reactions. And the staging of the Fezziwig Christmas party was brilliantly done – especially the way that the decorations were put up section by section, and how the choreography of the dancing was done on such a tight performance space.
The acting was very good. Joseph Ziegler was perfect as Ebenezer Scrooge. His slow but steady progression from cold-hearted miser to concerned Uncle and friendly employer was shown through careful gradations. He had total command of his part. Oliver Dennis was also excellent as Bob Cratchit. The Cratchit family scenes can sometimes be over-the-top in their pathos. Dennis was good at portraying Bob as a very humane man, rather than a simpering simpleton. And Matthew Edison was convincing as Fred, Scrooge’s endearing and compassionate nephew.
The only quibble I can mention about the performances were some of the actors’ dubious accents – and the familiar problem of some actors laying the English accent on thick, and others doing them hardly at all. It really is hard to decide what path to take with this.
Soulpepper’s production of A Christmas Carol is a heart-warming and convincing version a true Christmas classic. I presume it will be back for future Christmases. I would recommend it to anyone who has not yet seen it. Merry Christmas!

Essay: Dickens's Novels - The Best of Books; The Worst of Books

OK, ranking artists, or ranking their works, is a bit silly, I know. How can you compare books that are really quite different and then say that one is better than another? Yes, a list that declares that this novel is better than that, and that those books are worse than these, is rather ridiculous. But the enterprise is fun anyway! Although, instead of listing the “best” of anything, however, it would make more sense to talk of one’s “favourites” – that would make it clear that the choices are strictly personal, and often based on highly subjective reasons, rather than measured distinctions.
With that in mind, I am going to divide the 15 Dickens novels that I’ve read and reviewed this year into three groups: top 5, middle 5, and bottom 5. Some of these novels I’ve only read once – encountering them for the very first time in 2012 (Dombey and Son, Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood). Some of them I’ve read twice (The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, and Martin Chuzzlewit). The other four I’ve read several times (Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations). So the rather cursory nature of my acquaintance with some of these books needs to be kept in mind!
All of Dickens’s novels, of course, are worth reading – at least once. And over the course of a long reading-life, one ought to come back to some of them several times. As one’s own life experiences enrich and bruise one’s attitude to, and knowledge of, the world, there is so much more in these books to admire and to think about.

Top 5

Great Expectations: the first Dickens novel I read – back in the mid-60s. I also studied it twice in university. A gripping coming-of-age novel that charts its protagonist’s inner development at the same time as introducing some truly memorable characters. It is also the most self-revealing of Dickens’s books. It was published weekly, and is about half the size of his usual novels, which makes the story move along at a good clip. Much less rambling and discursive than the longer books and the well-constructed plot keeps the story-telling taut and focused.

David Copperfield: another bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) presented with a first-person narrative. The book is chock-full of wonderful characters. The description of young David’s time at the Murdstone and Grinby factory is a fictionalised account of Dickens’s traumatic experience of working at Warren’s Blacking Factory, whilst the rest of the family was in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Despite this and  some other parallels to his own life, Dickens reveals less here about himself than he would later in Great Expectations.

Oliver Twist: a compelling story that charts the development of an orphan raised in a parish workhouse. It is one of Dickens’s most melodramatic stories – gripping its readers, with its sordid descriptions of London low-life and yet another array of wonderful characters. A shorter novel than some, it moves along expeditiously – but the mystery of Oliver’s parentage leads to some unnecessary convolutions in the plot.

Martin Chuzzlewit: a funny, satirical look at selfishness and greed as they contaminate the history of the extended Chuzzlewit family. The novel includes two of Dickens’s funniest creations – the self-styled “architect” Seth Pecksniff, who is a delightfully unctuous hypocrite, and the booze-loving nurse Sairey Gamp, whose loquacious ramblings both irritate and entertain at the same time, as she tells us constantly about the thoughts and actions of her (apparently ‘fictitious’) friend “Mrs. Harris.” When the sales of this novel begin to slump, Dickens added a long interlude describing the disastrous trip of young Martin Chuzzlewit and his friend Mark Tapley to the United States. His British readers were not that interested with this satirical account of America, based on Dickens’s own recent trip there, and many of his American readers were highly offended.

The Pickwick Papers: this was Dickens’s first novel. It’s a picaresque comic novel describing the adventures of the Pickwick Club, financed and led by the beneficent Mr. Samuel Pickwick, a retired business man who likes to travel around the country, with his friends, engaged in mild adventure. The introduction of the cockney servant Sam Weller took the novel into a whole new dynamic realm of fun and social commentary. Weller represents the worldly-wise, working-class man, always eager for the main chance. Pickwick symbolises the benevolent nature of the reputable middle-class gentleman. Dickens’s working-class readers loved the character of Sam Weller. Here was a writer who understood them, and championed their cause.

Middle 5
Bleak House: many academic critics select this complex, poetic novel as Dickens’s greatest artistic achievement. It is notable for containing two narrators, who share half of the story – an objective third-person narrator telling the story in the present, and the first-person narrator, Esther Summerson, who relates the story from a seven-year vantage point in the future. The biting satire of the book is focused on the corrupt legal system – specifically, the fate of a long-standing lawsuit, dealing with a contested will, that is making its slow-motion, tortuous way through the Court of Chancery. Despite its complex form and rich style, I found the book less involving than others – the story takes a long time to get going, and is not that interesting anyway.

Nicholas Nickleby: this is Dickens’s third novel. It combines humour and melodrama, and it also presents a young gentleman as protagonist – a man with no money or property, who is struggling to make his way in the world. In the opening section, Dickens does for Yorkshire boarding “schools” what he did for parish workhouses in Oliver Twist – skewer them unmercifully! The novel has elements of the picaresque adventure – Nicholas hits the road in search of his fortune, and enjoys an extended interlude as actor-playwright with the Vincent Crummles acting troupe. And it has elements of melodrama in the struggle Nicholas undergoes with his malignant uncle Ralph.

A Tale of Two Cities: is the second of two historical novels Dickens wrote. This one is set during the French Revolution, and Dickens does an amazing job meshing the fate of a single family with the key events of this dramatic political event – which is spread over many tumultuous years. The emotional underpinning of this novel was Dickens’s interest in projecting himself as a self-sacrificing hero, dealing with the pain of an unrequited love. It really had to do with the mid-life crisis in the relationship between himself and his wife Catherine. But he transmutes this inner turmoil into a wonderful story of dual identity and personal sacrifice. “It is a far, far better thing …”

Little Dorrit: is a wonderful book built ultimately on Dickens’s childhood memories of his family’s incarceration in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. The first half of the book gives a detailed portrait of the life experienced in that place. Arthur Clennam - one of the main protagonists in this novel – is a revealing self-portrait of the disenchanted author himself. And William Dorrit, the “father of the Marshalsea” is another portrait of his father, John Dickens. Micawber (in David Copperfield) had been a positive version of his ambivalent attitude to his father, William Dorrit is the negative view. Little Dorrit is another portrait of a sweet and innocent young woman – she is quite unreal – a figure of self-abnegating perfection.  

Our Mutual Friend: Dickens’s final complete novel. It is a biting, satirical look at the corrupt nature of English society – which Dickens considered more and more obsessed with money and social position. A key element of the plot is the fall-out from the apparent death by drowning of a young man, returning to London from overseas, who was the inheritor of a fortune earned by his father in dust heaps. The plot is a bit convoluted; some of the characters are not that appealing; but the writing style is often archly innovative and entertaining. There are several intriguing female characters in the novel – not always one of Dickens’s strong suit.

Bottom 5

Barnaby Rudge: this is Dickens’s first historical novel (the second was A Tale of Two Cities). Although it was his fifth novel, he had the story in mind very early in his career, but put it off because other work took precedence, or because of disagreements he had with his publishers. The novel is set during the anti-Catholic riots in London in 1780. Like A Tale of Two Cities, the plot intertwines real history with the fates of a small group of characters living just outside the city. The book is interesting for having a simple-minded youth as its main protagonist. And there are several characters that get the usual satirical treatment. The description of the riots – spread over a week, or so – is gripping, and it makes you want to learn more about this dramatic period.

Dombey and Son: this novel begins, it seems, as a satirical account of mercantile capitalism – through the figure of wealthy businessman Paul Dombey. But it is pulled this way and that as Dickens shifts focus several times. There is a Little Nell-like interlude, which charts the slow decline and death of the young boy, Paul Dombey, Jr. And there is the increasingly melodramatic account of the marriage between Dombey Senior and Edith Granger. Edith is pushed into the marriage by her scheming mother, who is desperate to see her widowed daughter marry into big money. After the death of Paul, Dombey’s daughter Florence becomes the focus of the rest of the novel, and she is another of Dickens’s innocent young women who are exploited and neglected by selfish fathers or grandfathers. And the book ends with the rather unbelievable redemption of the recalcitrant father, Paul Dombey, who finally learns to appreciate his daughter’s selfless love.

The Old Curiosity Shop: the notorious story of Little Nell, who sacrifices her own interest throughout, in order to care for her selfish and gambling-addicted grandfather. They abandon their home – the Curiosity Shop – in order to escape the vengeful clutches of the malign dwarf Daniel Quilp. The endless account of Nell’s road-travels with her grandfather is rather tiresome. Her fate is telegraphed fairly early in the book and one waits for it with mounting anticipation and – dare I say it – also with growing irritation. Victorians, apparently, were a much more sentimental bunch than us jaded and rather cynical moderns – they lapped up the pathos in this book with glee.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Dickens’s last novel. It was planned to be half the size of his usual epics. But he died, anyway, before finishing it – completing six of the twelve parts he had intended. It is based in Cloisterham, a town based on Rochester in Kent, where Dickens had grown up as a young boy, and where he returned (the nearby village of Higham, where his house, Gad’s Hill Place, was located) to live in later life. So his last novel is set in the two locations that had fuelled his creativity most (the other, of course, was London). This was a detective story – one of literature's first – so it was ironic that he would die without having revealed the secret to the mystery, although the murderer’s identity is pretty clear from what he had already written and, more importantly, what he had told to a few friends and associates. The most interesting character is John Jasper, who can be seen as another self-portrait by the author, a troubled, self-divided man – motivated by love and hate – with many secrets to hide.

Hard Times: a quickly written novel, published in weekly parts for Dickens’s magazine. It is the most didactic and straightforward novel he ever wrote. It is also the shortest – so it contains a very small cast of characters, and very little in the way of sub-plot and discursive digression. The book is a polemic against the philosophy of utilitarianism, which underpinned the no-nonsense industrialism of the mid-nineteenth century. Dickens had travelled north to Preston to witness for himself a notable industrial dispute. He was appalled by the working conditions in the factories, but he was also critical of what he thought was the immoral opportunism of some trade union leaders. An interesting, uncharacteristic oddity in Dickens’s body of work. The type of novel he might have done a lot more of, if his work had been centred on ideas, rather than the portrayal of humane and life-like characters.

Essay: Twenty of Dickens's Most Memorable Characters

Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller over a crowd of Dickens Characters - 19th. cent wood engraving (unknown artist)

As I pointed out somewhere, in one of my blog posts, Dickens’s books are primarily built on character and setting, rather than incident and plot. It’s fair to say that Dickens attracted his audience early on by the exuberance and humour of his characters – often over-drawn and exaggerated for comic effect, but still recognisable types that the reader could connect to.
E. M. Forster, in his small but influential book about novel writing called Aspects of the Novel (1927), divided literary characters into two groups: flat characters and rounded characters. He argued that the majority of the characters Dickens created were flat characters that didn't develop much – meaning that they often embodied a single trait or attitude, which could be summed up in a single phrase or descriptive detail.  And these characters often said the same thing every time they appeared. “I am a lone lorn creetur,” says Mrs. Gummidge – for example – in David Copperfield, “and everythink goes contrairy with me.”
There are lots and lots of characters in Dickens’s novels. At the front of each novel, in the Everyman Library editions that I read for this project, the critical apparatus includes a cast of characters – a list of all the characters named and identified in that book. I totalled up the number of characters in all 15 novels. It’s about 650 characters. The book with the most is Pickwick Papers. And The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Hard Times have the least.
From that list of 650 characters, I have selected twenty of the most memorable. Some of these characters are completely individual – one of a kind – like Bill Sykes or Ebenezer Scrooge. Others are the ultimate representative of a type that appears throughout his writing career: think Little Nell and The Artful Dodger. These stand out for me as twenty of Dickens’s best.

by John Kenney, 1965

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')

Mr. Pickwick from The Pickwick Papers (1836). Samuel Pickwick is the central character of Charles Dickens’s first novel. He is a retired businessman, with plenty of money to fund his adventures and to support the activities and travels of his club – a ‘club’ which is really just three others who stick with him loyally and venture out into the English countryside. Pickwick is merely humorous in the early sections of the novel; but, as the book progresses, it takes on a more serious tone, and by the end, Pickwick morphs from a rather silly buffoon into an embodiment of benevolence. He is an eminent example of Dickens’s warm-hearted humanity.

Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers (1836). It was with the introduction of Pickwick’s cockney servant (or valet) Sam Weller – in the book’s fourth instalment (Chapter 10) – that The Pickwick Papers really began to seize the imagination of the reading public. Literacy was expanding rapidly, especially amongst the middle-class, and the audience for these novels – always released in monthly instalments – was growing steadily. Working-class people, who were fascinated by an author who understood their lives and their concerns – and who loved characters like Sam Weller – could combine resources and share a monthly issue. Dickens was a champion of the poor and the working class throughout his working life. He advanced their cause in his writing and supported charitable institutions that relieved their sufferings. Sam Weller is the practical, wise-cracking, worldly sidekick who accompanies his employer on his club’s road travels – much like Sancho Panza serves Don Quixote in Cervantes’s picaresque novel. He is quick to quote some wise words, or to offer some appropriate bon mots to fit any particular occasion.

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')
The Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist (1837). John Dawkins (aka ‘the Artful Dodger’) is the leading figure in Fagin’s gang of young pickpockets. It is he who finds Oliver on the streets of London and brings the desperate boy within Fagin’s malign control. The Dodger is the ultimate example of a type that reappears in many of Dickens’s novels – the fast-talking, wise-beyond-his-years, young whippersnapper who is always looking for the main chance. They are entrepreneurial types who will always fall on their feet. We meet his type again in the likes of Bailey Junior, Jo ‘Toughey’, Rob the Grinder, and Trabb’s boy.

by George Cruikshank

Fagin from Oliver Twist (1837). One of Dickens’s most corrupt and ugly creations, Fagin takes in and trains a gang of young boys to work as pickpockets and thieves. He is also a miser and hordes the best of his stolen items. Fagin’s physical repulsiveness mirrors his moral degeneracy. Throughout the first half of the novel, Dickens’s refers to Fagin constantly as “the Jew”. Mrs. Eliza Davis wrote to Dickens to complain about the anti-semitic tone to the portrait of Fagin; she argued that it “encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew”, and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. Dickens reacted defensively; his response to Mrs. Davis was that he bore no prejudice against Jews, and that he intended no malice. But he dropped the constant reference to “the Jew” in the second half of the book. Much later in his career, Dickens made recompense to Mrs. Davis by creating the noble and gentle Jewish character of Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend.

by George Cruikshank

Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist (1837). One of Dickens’s most evil and unredeemable characters. Sykes specialises in break-and-enters, and he takes Oliver with him out into the suburbs on a failed attempt to rob the silver plate from a middle-class home. He has a long-suffering companion – his dog Bullseye. In a dramatic and memorable scene towards the end of the book, Sykes clambers across the roofs of some high, terraced houses, attempting to escape an angry mob. He falls and accidentally hangs himself with the rope he has been carrying.

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')
Nancy from Oliver Twist (1837). Nancy is the prototypical harlot with the heart of gold. She has a brave, independent spirit that stands up to, and challenges, the bullying of Bill Sykes and the scheming of Fagin. She feels a mothering-concern for Oliver, and resents the way that Fagin and Sykes exploit the youngster’s innocence. She takes the fatal step of meeting clandestinely with Mr. Brownlow, in order to save Oliver from Fagin’s menacing grasp. Bill Sykes, her lover, kills her brutally. Dickens used the gruesome description of this murder as the sensational subject of his public-readings - during the last couple of series. He was physically and emotionally exhausted at the conclusion of each of these performances.

by James Lobley

Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop (1840). The fate of Little Nell was a literary sensation. As the fate of Little Nell hung in the balance during the final few issues of the novel (printed in weekly-parts), American crowds at the harbour-front in New York City were reported to have yelled at the sailors on board of boats coming in from Britain: “Is Little Nell dead?” Her death is considered the ultimate example of Dickens’s penchant for sentiment and pathos. This young girl accompanies her grandfather around the country, as they attempt to evade Quilp – to whom her grandfather owes a large gambling debt. Little Nell is the ultimate example of what would become a familiar Dickens figure – the innocent young woman who sacrifices her own interests for an often ungrateful or oblivious father or grandfather.

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')

Daniel Quilp from The Old Curiosity Shop (1840). Quilp is a nasty but entertaining villain who enlivens a novel that is often tiresome and repetitive. Quilp is an ugly dwarf. He comes at a time during Dickens’s career when he seemed to delight in creating grotesque and physically damaged characters. Sometimes these physical weaknesses increased the reader’s pity for certain sympathetic characters; but in other cases the physical repulsiveness of a character – as with Daniel Quilp – helped   to emphasise his moral degeneracy. Quilp is delightfully bad, and he energises a novel that often goes soft in its reliance on pathos.

by Sol Eytinge, Jr.

Seth Pecksniff from Martin Chuzzlewit (1843). Pecksniff is the dominant character in a novel that satirises greed and selfishness. Some of the book’s characters know what they are up to – and we follow their machinations, as they plot to advance their own self-interest. What makes Pecksniff so entertaining is his lack of self-awareness. He is the epitome of hypocrisy, justifying his selfishness at all times by considering himself always as a disinterested and upright pillar of his family and community. We watch with glee as the elderly Chuzzlewit exposes his smarmy duplicity.

by John Leech

Ebenezer Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol” (1843). Scrooge does not appear in any of Dickens’s fifteen multi-part novels; he is the main protagonist in an extended short story – a novella – that Dickens wrote for Christmas 1843. It was the first of five so-called Christmas Books he wrote especially for the Christmas season. The first effort – A Christmas Carol – was the best, a beautiful tale of redemption that only the hardest of hearts could possibly resist. In a sense, the book is also a ghost story, and its moody atmosphere and other-worldly motif adds helps give the book its gripping intensity. The change in attitude of Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most convincing portraits of human redemption ever written. One of Dickens's greatest creations.

Dickens receiving his characters by William Holbrook Beard
by M.F. or E.M. Taylor

Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol” (1843). Tiny Tim appears in just a few scenes of Dickens’s first Christmas book, and he only has a little bit to say – but he looms over the story as a towering presence. Bob Cratchit’s accounts of Tim’s significance catch at the heart-strings, and Scrooge’s response to his plight make his redemption not just the result of re-visiting his own past, but also the desire to reach out and help the family of his loyal clerk. Tiny Tim is another quintessential figure of Dickensian pathos, but he is – even in our non-sentimental and rather cynical age – still almost impossible to resist.

by Frank Reynolds

Peggoty from David Copperfield (1849). Dickens often had trouble writing convincing female characters. He had particular trouble with sweet and innocent girls, and the love-interests of his aspiring young gentlemen. But he was much better creating scheming and nasty women. And occasionally he would come up with a female character who served as a wonderful example of the nurturing, ‘earth-mother’ type. Clara Peggotty is such a woman. She is the loyal servant of David Copperfield’s doomed mother, and David’s nurse and friend – a key ally when David is under the malign control of his step-father Mr. Murdstone. Peggotty takes David to Yarmouth and introduces him to the rest of her simple-hearted family.

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')
Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield (1849). Wilkins Micawber is one of two characters that Dickens created who are obvious portraits of his profligate father, John Dickens. [The other is William Dorrit, “father of the Marshalsea” in Little Dorrit.] Mr. Micawber is the sympathetic portrait – he may be hopeless at handling money, and constantly falling into debt, like John Dickens – but he always remains magnanimous in the face of adversity: “Something will turn up!” Despite his financial incompetence, Micawber is a clever and resourceful man. The account of his friendship with the young Copperfield is one of the highlights of Dickens’s first coming-of-age novel.

by Joseph Clayton Clarke ('Kyd')
Uriah Heep from David Copperfield (1849). Uriah Heep is one of Dickens’s creepiest villains. He constantly describes himself as “very ‘umble”, but he is scheming all the while to advance his own interest and to take advantage of all those around him who he perceives as enemies. He tries to ingratiate himself with others by portraying himself as an obedient boy to his mother – who is also, as he keeps telling us, “very ‘umble”. It is a nice touch that this despicable and repulsive villain is found out and thwarted by Mr. Micawber, who – despite his financial incompetence – is able to arrange and manipulate things at the Wickfield office, so as to bring the ‘umble scoundrel down.

Betsy Trotwood with Mr. Dick by Sol Eytinge

Betsy Trotwood from David Copperfield (1849). Betsy Trotwood is David Copperfield’s aunt. She is another of Dickens’s compelling female characters. She enters the story as a rather dotty and self-centred woman, but she turns out to be a figure of steadfast strength and moral uprightness. She is the only person who stands up to Edward and Jane Murdstone, and easily thwarts their plans. The way in which she cares for and champions the simple-minded Mr. Dick is also a testament to her no-nonsense humanity. Betsy Trotwood represents the grumpy and hard-edged character who hides a heart of gold.

by Ralph Bruce

Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Dickens wrote two historical novels during his career. The first, Barnaby Rudge – a story set during the anti-Catholic riots in London of 1780 – has for its protagonist a simple-minded young man who is almost executed for his unwitting support for the anti-Catholic rioters. If one were to look for a ‘hero’, it might be the unlikely Gabriel Verden, a stout and simple locksmith, who stands up to an unruly mob and refuses to open the lock on the main door of the Newgate Prison. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’s second historical novel, set during the French Revolution, there is a genuine hero – Sydney Carton, who sacrifices his life to save the life of the husband of the woman he loves. Many of Dickens’s novels have a young gentleman as the main protagonist, and the plot of these novels serves to work out an acceptable future for that young man. Sydney Carton is not a character of that sort. His expectations have been long denied. He is weary of life, and his one attempt at a redeeming love remains unrequited. But he achieves a sublime redemption of a wasted life, through an heroic act of self-sacrifice. A traditional hero in – at least for Dickens – an uncharacteristic book.

by Fred Barnard
Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Madame Defarge is a tremendous female villain who plays a key role in this tale of the French Revolution. Dickens does a good job laying out the history of this woman and her husband. He shows effectively how she develops into a cruel and vindictive revolutionary. Madame Defarge is a childless woman who devotes her life to the revolution. The image of her and her female cronies sitting at the foot of the guillotine, and knitting as the gigantic blade lops off the heads of the hated aristocrats, epitomise a cruel and single-minded need for revenge.

by F. A. Fraser

 Pip from Great Expectations (1860). Pip is the protagonist of Dickens’s second, and more profound, coming-of-age novel. Unlike David Copperfield, who seems to stop growing as a person in the second half of the book, Pip’s fate unfolds to the very end of the book, and there is a unity of purpose in the book between the plot and the development of its protagonist’s self-understanding. Pip is a deeply flawed character, set upon the wrong road of life through the demented pair of Mrs. Havisham and Estella. His snobbery and self-regard takes him on a long and self-defeating journey; his redemption is painfully earned.

by Harry Furniss
Miss Havisham from Great Expectations (1860). Miss Havisham is a brilliant conception – one of those great Dickens characters, who perfectly marry specific detail with abstract symbol. Miss Havisham is a woman whose mind and character has been severely damaged by a monstrous betrayal. Her heart has shrivelled up inside, and she has turned her adopted daughter into an ice-princess trained to entice, to torment, and to reject any man who dares to admire her. What makes her so much more compelling is that she realises, eventually, what her hatred has done – not only to Pip, who always respected her, despite her malignant personality, but also to Estella, the daughter whose mind she has warped forever. The final immolation, when her ancient wedding dress goes up in flames, is a moment of incredible drama and perfect symbolic truth.

by H. M. Brock
Estella from Great Expectations (1860). As a female love-interest, Estella is unique in Dickens’s novels. She seems perfect and ideal in her beauty and in her feminine poise, but she is a callous and shallow woman, who has been twisted by the tormented and vengeful mother who has adopted her. It is her contempt for Pip’s coarse and simple manners which creates the yearning he has to be a gentleman, and sets him on a path to self-centred snobbery. Estella instigates Pip’s folly, but she, too, is a victim. Her life is blighted by the frigid heart she has inherited from Miss Havisham. Is she redeemed at the end of the book? She has certainly suffered. And she has a full knowledge of who she is and what she’s done. But can she ever make real contact with another human being and learn to love?

"Dickens' Dream" by R. W. Buss - Dickens in his study at Gad's Hill Place dreaming his characters