In this bicentenary year of his birth the best new biography of the life of Charles Dickens life is by Claire Tomalin – and later in the year she will deliver one of my Roscoe Lectures in Liverpool to celebrate the bicentenary https://davidalton.net/2012/01/24/roscoe-lectures-2012-tickets-0151-231-3852/ .
Charles Dickens capacity for brilliant storytelling, to change hearts and minds, and to challenge sharp elbowed and devil take the hindmost social attitudes, is as much needed today as it was then – which is why I recently suggested that children in our schools should be given a Dickens novel to celebrate both his birth and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee as well as encouraging literacy.
In 1869 Dickens came to speak in Liverpool and was given a gala dinner at St.George’s Hall, which is where Tomalin will also speak.
While in the city Dickens stayed at the Adelphi Hotel and among his private letters there is some lovely correspondence about the city and its people.
He starts by describing the evening, and how Liverpool has been turning out to hear his public readings:
“The mayor, being no speaker and out of health besides, hands over the toast of the evening to Lord Dufferin. The town is full of the festival. On Friday night last I read to two thousand people, and odd hundreds.”
Celebrated though he has become he then writes with some excitement about the other guests:
“I hear that Anthony Trollope, Dixon, Lord Houghton, Lemon…and Sala are to be called upon to speak; the last, for the newspaper press. All the Liverpool notabilities are to muster. And Manchester is to be represented by its mayor with due formality.” – which brings to mind the old saying, rooted in the rivalry between the two cities: a Manchester man and a Liverpool gentleman.
He then mentions the venue:
“As to the acoustics of that hall, and the position of the tables (both as bad as bad can be), my only consolation is that, if anybody can be heard, I probably can be.”
Some things never change in St.George’s Hall but ability to be heard to one side, it was the people of Liverpool who caught Dickens’ attention:
“One of the pleasantest things I have experienced here this time, is the manner in which I am stopped in the streets by working men, who want to shake hands with me, and tell me they know my books. I never go out but this happens. Down at the docks just now, a cooper with a fearful stutter presented himself in this way. His modesty, combined with a conviction that if he were in earnest I would see it and wouldn’t repel him, made up as true a piece of natural politeness as I ever saw.”
In these encounters we can see the raw material which Dickens relied upon for his brilliant novels.
He had extraordinary powers of observation and plundered his encounters – with the genius to transform everything he observed into both a cracking yarn and a transformative manifesto for social and personal change.
He shines his light onto the dark world of London pick pockets and child sweeps; onto the harrowing affliction caused by shocking poverty; into the horrific recesses of the work house or the orphanage. He takes us to industrialised squalor and brutalised school rooms; and introduces us to the regret of lives wasted or badly lived.
Recall the anguish of Mrs.Gradgrind, on her death bed and at last realising that obsessive functionalism and utility in the upbringing of her children had robbed them of the one thing which might have made a difference: tender hearted parental love .
If Dickens walked our streets today he would not regard our financial difficulties as the hardest of times. But he would see a different sort of poverty and many of his themes have a contemporary cutting edge and relevance.
Among the 800,000 children who have no contact with their fathers, or the 1 million elderly people who don’t see a friend or a neighbour in the course of an average week, he would surely find characters to illustrate lives of rejection, toxic loneliness, and alienation. Among trafficked children he would discover many a David Copperfield; a girl’s life ruined as she is drawn into prostitution; or an innocent child abused. And, in our heavily indebted nation, he would encounter today’s Mr.Micawbers still waiting for something to turn up.
Dickens would also be on the lookout for the prisoner who comes good, the addict who beats their addiction and starts again, the wealthy philanthropist who uses his resources to change lives, or the Little Tim whose affliction challenges the hardest of hearts.
Dickens was a man of faith who lived at a time when Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was challenging the way in which religion and new scientific discovery viewed one another.
Writing in a recent edition of Nature magazine, Professor Alice Jenkins says that Dickens held that science could do immense good but only when it worked in harmony with religion. Dickens was completely unfazed by the new theories and discoveries.
A Protestant by background Dickens chose not to affiliate to any denomination.
In the same year that he spoke in Liverpool he made a speech at the Birmingham and Midland Institute where he speculated that although Jesus could have chosen to reveal scientific truths and the “wonders on every hand” he would have seen no purpose in doing so as “the people of that time could not bear them.” Jenkins quotes the Victorian geologist, Adam Sedgwick, that if science caused “the imagination, the feelings” to be “blunted and impaired” then human beings would become “little better than a moral sepulchre.”
Dickens fundamental belief was that scientific knowledge should not be Godless and that it has to be attached to feelings and imagination and that every human being is made in God’s image and should be given the human dignity which this belief accords.