The Idler: The Dickens bicentenary


nm mustard kids

REUTERS

Children walk through a mustard field carrying sacks of dried leaves near Gauriganj town in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens’s opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities, one of his early novels, could have been written for today as people start celebrating the bicentenary of his birth.

Dickens it was who so vividly captured the essence of 19th century London with all its promise and all its squalor; the quick-wittedness of its inhabitants battling for survival. His comic characters live on in the minds of readers. He also raised questions of social justice that had previously been swept under the carpet.

Dickens was enormously popular in his time and not only in England. He had a strong influence on a later generation of Russian writers.

Yet he had his denigrators, the charge generally being superficiality, lack of intellectual depth. As contemporary novelist and poet George Meredith put it: “Not much of Dickens will live, because it has so little correspondence to life. He was the incarnation of cockneydom, a caricaturist who aped the moralist; he should have kept to short stories. If his novels are read at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw in them.”

How wrong can you be? Yet it’s true that Dicken’s reputation did wane for a long time. It was only in the 1940s that critics such as George Orwell restored him to his rightful place.

Recently I was at a gathering of literary folk who were discussing the bicentenary. We discovered that all of us think first of Dickens’s characters – Samuel Weller, Quilp the dwarf, Mr Jaggers, Bill Sykes and the rest – before placing them in the book where they appeared. It shows how vividly they were drawn.

No, they won’t be holding bicentenary celebrations of the birth of George Meredith.

Mystery solved

A READER who calls himself Mark has solved the mystery of who David Baird is, whose memoir on the watering holes of Durban in days of yore has been going about the internet and featured in this column last week.

Mark says he was at school with David at St Henry’s. David went on to the University of Natal, taking a few years longer over his degree than usual, while acquainting himself with Durban’s drinking spots.

He returned to his native Scotland in 1993 – his parents had immigrated in the late 1960s – taking with him a Bloemfontein girl who he married.

Video games

A TAIWANESE man died while playing video games in an internet café in Tapei. His body sat there at the keyboard for nine hours before anyone noticed anything was amiss.

Chen Rong-yu had been playing League of Legends.

Yes, the world of video games is sad, isolated and withdrawn. Nobody cares if you live or die.

Mum’s lessons

A READER lists the things her mother taught her:

l Appreciation of a job well done – “If you’re going to kill each other, do it outside. I just finished cleaning.”

l Religion – “You’d better pray that this will come out of the carpet.”

l Logic – “ Because I said so, that’s why.”

l Irony – “Keep crying and I’ll give you something to cry about.”

l Contortionism – “Will you look at that dirt on the back of your neck!”

l Humour – “When that lawnmower cuts off your toes, don’t come running to me.”

Tailpiece

DID YOU HEAR about the new girlie mag that caters for the married market? It’s just like Playboy or Penthouse but it’s all the same model, month after month after month.

Last word

Every man is wise when attacked by a mad dog; fewer when pursued by a mad woman; only the wisest survive when attacked by a mad notion. – Robertson Davies


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