In case you live in a cave somewhere without internet, a newspaper or even a handy-dandy novelty calendar to remind you, today is Charles Dickens' birthday. My favorite websites are, of course, all over it... so I don't need to wax poetic quite to their degree. (Check out Google's banner for the occasion. Awesome!) Still, I could not let the day pass without adding my own little offerings on the occasion.
I was one of those who was exposed to Dickens early and never really knew why. First there was A Christmas Carol in middle school; then A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Nicholas Nickleby in high school. This in conjunction with later offerings of Moby Dick, Pride & Prejudice, Return of the Native, offerings from The Canterbury Tales and Wuthering Heights; it is hard to read Dickens if you're a teenager with her head in a galaxy far, far away or in Neverland or floating out in the cosmos somewhere in a Tardis.
Of course, if you're anything of a Whovian, you'll know that the Doctor met Charles Dickens and saved Cardiff from an invasion of ghostly aliens in 1869. But I digress...
Dickens is awesome - but you knew that, of course. It may have taken my little brain a while to realize it, but it is quite obvious. In recent years, I've become blissfully lost in all the plot paths, back alleyways, shadows and sudden turns of his work. It takes patience. The man uses a lot of words. He can ramble. He can paint a very intricate political allegory (case in point, the plethora of Barnacles in the useless Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit). It is not easy to begin him young. But he is a delight to dive into a little later.
Claire Tomalin puts it this way (as I read it in Linda Wertheimer's article on NPR today): "He did these great walks — he would walk every day for miles and miles, and sometimes I think he was sort of stoking up his imagination as he walked, and thinking of his characters. The way he built his novels was through the voices of his characters."
That, I think, is the fundamental reason his stories resonate so clearly with us today. It is a piece of advice from beyond the grave, as it were, from one Great Writer to this little writer: "think of your characters and their voices."
What I celebrate today is a Writer of Writers, whose stories move us. Films and plays of his works will forever challenge filmmakers, actors and writers for years to come. Today, the Prince of Wales, Dickens' descendants, and many, many others paid their respects, and placed white roses and snowdrops on his grave. Ralph Fiennes read a passage from Bleak House. In so many ways, it was clear how Mr. Dickens is alive in all of us.
What a wonderful thing it is to remember a writer, a wordsmith, a story-teller, to continue to laud his accomplishments and consider the mystery of his life. It demonstrates what we hold onto as human beings - how much we cherish the art of Story, and how that will carry us into a hopeful future.
Thank you, Mr. Dickens, for the ways in which you inspire all of us to write and imagine.