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Dickens, Charles

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(British, 1812–1870)

The impact of Dickens is such that the terms ‘Dickensian’ and ‘Victorian’ are sometimes used interchangeably. His works teem with characters who have entered the popular imagination—Fagin, Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Little Nell. High farce coexists with tragedy, exaggeration with stark realism, mawkishness with bitter sarcasm. To criticize Dickens as melodramatic and sentimental, as some do, is to miss the point. Unashamedly popular, Dickens was of his time but transcended it. Oliver Twist (1837–9), A Christmas Carol (1843), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1)—these are essentially fairy-tales, but they are also great stories, edged with profundity, in which the dark underside of life predominates.

David Copperfield (1849–50) is a wonderful introduction to Dickens. Packed with comedy and exaggeration, lyrically poetic, it is also moving and psychologically complex. David is a sensitive child whose world is shattered when his childlike young mother marries tyrannical Mr Murdstone. We accompany David through happiness with the Peggottys in their boat-house at Great Yarmouth, through misery at school, friendship, love, betrayal, and, eventually, success as a writer. There are numerous resonances with Dickens's own life. He was 10 when his father lost all his money and the entire family, apart from Charles, was incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors' prison. Dickens went to work in a blacking warehouse, which he detested. In David Copperfield, he placed the feckless Mr Micawber in the Marshalsea, and would return there for Little Dorrit.

Great Expectations (1860–1) is another first-person narrative of a boy's progression to manhood, but its hero is altogether different from David. Beginning with Pip's dreamlike encounter with the escaped convict, Magwitch, in a sinister marsh landscape, the novel goes on to introduce us to one of literature's great grotesques: Miss Havisham, who, jilted on her wedding day, still lives with her cobwebbed bridal feast and wears the crumbling gown and one shoe in which she heard the news of her abandonment. Taken up by her, Pip is humiliated by her heartless, beautiful ward, Estella, and becomes ashamed of his lowly roots. His progress is assured, however, when a mystery benefactor bestows upon him the means to enter society. Humorous, disturbing, ironic, Great Expectations is an acute study in ambition, snobbery, and guilt.

Less well received in its day, Our Mutual Friend (1864–5) is now considered by many to be Dickens's greatest book. John Harmon's escape from drowning impels him to assume a false identity in order to test the character of the woman he loves. Meanwhile, as fashionable society prattles nastily in drawing-rooms, louche lawyer Eugene Wrayburn vies with passionate but repressed schoolteacher Bradley Headstone for the love of river-girl Lizzie Hexam. The Thames in this powerful book is a fatal river, giving up its dead and drawing down others to retribution or rebirth. A study in avarice and corruption, love and obsession, Our Mutual Friend challenges accepted social barriers, depicting a London of extremes: the poor of the riverbanks and those who pick a living on the dustheaps set against society with its old and new money.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Peter Carey.


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