London - AFP
Britain on Tuesday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, acclaimed as one of the finest writers of the English language and one whose novels have become enduring classics.
Events will take place around the country to mark the bicentenary, including a street party in the city of Portsmouth, on England’s south coast, where he was born on February 7, 1812.
Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, and actor Ralph Fiennes will be among guests at the laying of a wreath at Dickens’ grave at Westminster Abbey in London to mark the occasion.
Dickens’ books remain cornerstones of English literature and the latest film version of one of his greatest novels, “Great Expectations”, starring Fiennes and Helena Bonham-Carter, is currently in production.
Claire Tomalin, a leading biographer of the author, says there is no one to compare with Dickens today.
“He had extraordinary energy and he was extraordinarily hard-working. His first three novels — ‘The Pickwick Papers’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ — came out in monthly instalments,” she told AFP.
“When he was halfway through ‘The Pickwick Papers’ he started writing ‘Oliver Twist’, so each month he was writing two instalments of quite different novels.
“Can you imagine doing that now?”
Dickens’ novels were informed by his own early experiences, from the happy boyhood he spent in Kent in southeast England, before his father was thrown into the debtors’ prison, to the childhood of poverty into which he was then thrust.
At a tender age, Dickens was forced to work in a blacking factory, attaching labels to bottles of polish, which inspired one of his best-known works, “David Copperfield”, first published as a novel in 1850.
Later, despite only intermittent schooling, Dickens found work as an office boy in a law firm. He was 15.
“The most extraordinary thing about his life is that nine years later he was famous as the author of ‘The Pickwick Papers’,” said Tomalin.
“He did it by learning shorthand, by becoming a law reporter, a parliamentary reporter and a newspaper reporter.
“He was a writer of genius. After Shakespeare he was the greatest inventor of character.”
Dickens had a less-publicised life helping to run and to finance a house for “fallen women”, offering prostitutes a new start away from their old lives in a large house in London.
This most Victorian of callings occupied years of his life, yet he still found time to father 10 children and maintain a prodigious output of books, articles and give numerous lectures.
Unlike many of the great writers and artists, Dickens was a star in his own time. Tomalin says that was because he gave readers what they wanted.
“He wanted to show that ordinary people were as interesting as rich, famous, grand people,” she noted. “He succeeded in that. He was really funny, he made people laugh.
“And he also wanted people to cry and he did that with pathos and by writing thrilling plots.”