Dickens: A man driven by both social conscience and the need for money

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens
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The Dickens industry has cranked into top gear for the 200th anniversary of his birth. Sheena Hastings reports.

THE London Olympics, the Queen’s jubilee and the Charles Dickens bicentenary are set to be the three key events of 2012 in the UK and all three will generate a huge amount of income for Brand UK. Dickens, arguably the greatest literary superstar of the Victorian age, made a fortune during his lifetime not just from the books but from tours of a one-man show of “greatest hits” from his novels that paid the equivalent of £30,000 a night. During his lifetime the more cynical among American commentators liked to satirise him as a giant whose appetite for writing was matched only by his hunger for money.

He and his wife Catherine had nine children to feed, and after the marriage broke down Dickens kept a much younger lover – the actress Ellen Ternan – in a separate establishment away from the public eye. He lived in a grand house near Rochester in Kent, from 1856 until his death from a stroke in 1870, when he was 58. His family feared that the ferocious rate at which he worked and the frequency of the extended and exhausting tours would affect his health – and it seems they did.

At the time of his death and burial in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, the Dickens brand was huge and, apart from a few decades of comparative doldrums, it has been a worldwide best seller ever since. Now, thanks to marketing across the globe the next year will see a cultural tsunami of Dickens-related events. From London to Paris, Zurich to New York, Australia to the Far East, the writer’s works will be performed and celebrated with talks, debates, exhibitions, TV shows and films. His books will sell more than ever.

If Dickens is looking on, he will probably be delighted that his writing is still so popular and considered so relevant today. Money mattered a great deal to him – as a sign of public approval of his work, obviously, but also because cash equalled security for his large family. Many an applauded but commercially unsuccessful artist has died leaving their family destitute, and for Dickens it was essential that his family should never know the financial troubles that so marked his childhood, broke up the family and badly affected his education.

What has kept the books’ sales so buoyant for so long is probably the fact that Dickens’s stories cross genres and social divides and lend themselves perfectly to stage and screen adaptation. Since the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1902, Dickens’s works have been the most frequently adapted to screen – albeit sometimes in a rather sugar-coated form. His stories encompass adult and children’s tales, adventures, social comment, ghosts, servants and masters, dynastic battles, friendship, and the struggle to stay alive in dire circumstance. He reflects the world of ordinary people as no previous writer had and it’s that humanity which keeps books selling and leads other creative people to find inspiration from Dickens.

Claire Tomalin’s new biography of the great Victorian has been winning plaudits all round since its publication in October, and now a member of the Dickens family – Lucinda Dickens Hawksley the great-great-great granddaughter of the literary lion – has published Charles Dickens, an illustrated guide to the man and his work. Hawksley, the writer of 20 books including several biographies, and a patron of the Charles Dickens Museum in London, has put together an exploration of Dickens as a husband, father, lover, writer, friend and employee.

She explains his family relationships and delves into his circle of friends, and the book also contains pockets in which facsimile copies of documents from the Dickens archives are stored, including play bills, letters in the writer’s own hand, snippets of household accounts and pages from original manuscripts.

Surprisingly, although Lucinda grew up aware of the great man in the family and her grandmother took the children to see Oliver! every year, she did not read his books until she was older. In researching his documents and life story more recently, she was struck by several things she had not previously realised. Charles’s father John was a clerk in the naval pay office, and after the birth of their first child Fanny then Charles, the family moved to Kent and later London. John and Elizabeth were sociable and hopeless with money, and were to find themselves in debtors’ prison at Marchelsea with their younger children. At 12 years old Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory to help the family economy, while the musically gifted Fanny was left at her studies. This championing of female education was unusual at the time, though.

“In an era when ordinary families saw their children as a future means of helping to support the family, it was fascinating to find that although in the short-term poor Charles had to work long hours in the factory, it was really Fanny who they saw as the longer-term means of supporting them all. They believed that she would become a professional singer, so it was her education that could not be interrupted. I have worked for a time in Central America, where child labour is common and essential to families. I don’t believe the families do it lightly, and it was the same in Dickens’s time. It had to be done. Children had to contribute to ensure the family’s survival but Fanny was their great hope.”

Lucinda thinks that many people who are only familiar with screen or stage adaptations don’t realise that Dickens was a lifelong journalist and prominent social campaigner. He edited two magazines at different times, and these were his mouthpiece. He campaigned on sanitation and conditions in prisons and workhouses, and said it was wrong but true that it was far more beneficial to people to go to prison than the workhouse because the workhouse gave inmates so much less food. He visited women’s prisons, where most inmates were driven to prostitution by poverty.

“He also gave passionate speeches, on one occasion firing people up so much at a fundraising dinner for the great and good in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital that enough cash was raised not only to improve the existing building but to buy the building next door.”

Dickens was a perennial romantic, who needed to be in love, says Lucinda. He found he had fallen out of love with his wife Catherine, but still had a breakdown around the time of their separation. For a man of such intelligence, though, he seems to have been curiously blinkered in blaming his wife for being in an almost constant state of pregnancy and exhaustion for so many years.

Perhaps also unknown to occasional readers of Dickens is how much his acuity in observation of human behaviour impressed his peers, including fellow writer and close friend Wilkie Collins, and those who came a little later, such as father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. “Freud had copies of Dickens’s works in his homes in London and Vienna. He was admired for how well he understood human nature and his accurate psychological portrayals, including the character of Fagin and the children Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol. Ignorance is the child you don’t love and care for who then grows with doom written on their forehead.”

Theatrical or film adaptations sometimes fail to reflect Dickens’s great sense of humour too, says Lucinda. “Often bleak messages are wrapped up in humour. He had the sharpest wit. But isn’t it great that after 200 years people are still talking about him and the work lives on. I hope people will talk about his campaigns, though. Sadly almost all of the social causes he espoused are still relevant today – here or somewhere in the world.”

Charles Dickens by Lucinda Dickens Hawksley is published by Andre Deutsch, £30. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk