Dickens At 200: A Birthday You Can't 'Bah Humbug'

Feb 7, 2012
Originally published on February 7, 2012 11:01 am

Tuesday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens — the great 19th century English novelist who gave us stories of pathos and comedy, and colorful portraits of the people of London, from the poor in the back streets, to the rich in the parks and avenues.

Lots of Dickens' phrases — like "Bah humbug" and "God bless us, every one!" — have slipped into our minds and our memories. And along with the words, the characters, too — from hungry orphan Oliver Twist to Little Dorrit to cruel Mr. Murdstone.

"After Shakespeare, Dickens is the great creator of characters, multiple characters," says Claire Tomalin, author of the new biography Charles Dickens: A Life. "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."

Dickens liked to walk, as he said, "far and fast," gathering his thoughts and his strength to pour into his novels. The books were published as cliff-hanging serials in magazines or pamphlets before they became bound books — so nothing could be rewritten or reorganized.

"He would write these quite rapidly," Tomalin explains. "And very little was changed when they came out in book form, in volume form, afterwards. ... He was writing books that would become classics, and no other writer has done this."

Tomalin notes that there is bad writing to be found in Dickens' speedily produced novels — but the poor writing is eclipsed by the great writing. One of Tomalin's favorites is David Copperfield — which was also Dickens' favorite.

"It was his first sustained piece of first-person writing," Tomalin says. "Those first 14 chapters ... in which David Copperfield describes his childhood, are extraordinary documents about ... attachment and loss and cruelty and the sort of hazards of childhood."

If you were force-fed Dickens in middle school and hated him, it might be time to reconsider, Tomalin says. Novelist Jennifer Egan is a fan who came back to the books and unexpectedly found that Dickens felt modern.

"The way that Dickens structured his books has a form that we most readily recognize now from, say, the great TV series, like The Wire or The Sopranos," says Egan. "There's one central plot line, but then from that spin off all kinds of subplots. And so he would go off in all sorts of directions and create these amazing secondary characters who would go in and out of focus. But then there was also this sort of central spinal column of a plot that he would return to."

Part of her new attraction, Egan says, are the issues Dickens deals with — wealth and poverty, class and corruption, politicians who speak about morality but behave very differently.

"The things he's interested in are still very relevant," Egan says. "For example, [in] Bleak House, one of the major characters is [in] corporate litigation, and the way in which it consumes all kinds of people associated with it ... the way it kind of chews up and spits out people whose lives depend on the outcome of this case."

One of the characters ground down by the long-running lawsuit in Bleak House is one of the heirs — handsome, charismatic Richard Carstone — who starts to realize that the resolution of this litigation might make him rich.

"Dickens beautifully portrays the way this acts on him almost like a drug, like an addiction," Egan says. "He's constantly enthralled by this possibility that maybe he'll just become rich, and eventually the addiction — it kills him. He ends up with less and less and less until finally he just dies."

Dickens' novels often had more than 100 characters — major and minor — each with their portraits vividly painted — each with their own characteristic manner of speaking. Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus wrote a birthday column calling attention to commonly used names and expressions that had their origins in Dickens: We call a miserly person a "Scrooge"; we refer to grouches who say "bah humbug"; and in Bleak House, it's Mr. Snagsby who uses the expression "not to put too fine a point on it."

Zimmer says that Dickens also used terms that were considered slang or vulgar, and brought them into the vernacular — "butter fingers" for a clumsy person, "flummoxed" to mean bewilder, "slaw bones" to refer to a surgeon. "He seemed very keen on bringing a new type of language into English literature," Zimmer says.

Dickens remains one of the most prolific, well-loved storytellers in the English language — and if you surrender to his winding narratives, his detours, his huge cast of characters — you will be rewarded. Perhaps like Jennifer Egan was:

"I was on a very bumpy plane ride, an overnight flight," she recalls. "I was so miserable, and I pulled out David Copperfield, and I forgot how scared and tired I was, and I thought, 'This is what reading should be.' I'm utterly transported out of my current situation."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago today.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Born just in time to become the greatest writer perhaps of the Victorian age, the English author brought us some of the most enduring characters and novels in the English language - "A Tale of Two Cities," "Great Expectations," "A Christmas Carol" and "David Copperfield," to name a few.

MONTAGNE: Birthday celebrations are going on around the world. There is a street party in Portsmouth, where Charles Dickens was born, a memorial service in Westminster Abbey, where he is buried, complete with members of the English royal family and 200 of his descendants. And adoring fans from Australia to Zimbabwe are participating in a 24-hour read-a-thon of his works.

INSKEEP: NPR's Linda Wertheimer is also a big fan of the novels and of course of the movie adaptations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A TALE OF TWO CITIES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (as Oliver Twist) Please, sir, I want some more.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) What? What? What? Want some more?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Fred) A Merry Christmas to you, uncle. God save you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as Scrooge) Humbug, Christmas humbug.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Fred) Uncle, I'm sure you don't mean that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as Scrooge) Humbug I say and humbug I mean.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Bah humbug and then God bless us everyone are heard every year in the Christmas holidays. Like lots of Charles Dickens' words, those phrases have slipped into our minds and our memories, together with people like the hungry waif Oliver Twist, sweet Little Dorrit, cruel Mr. Murdstone, who put children to work in his factory. Claire Tomalin has written a new biography, "Dickens: A Life," about his extraordinary imagination.

CLAIRE TOMALIN: After Shakespeare, Dickens in the great creator of characters, multiple characters. He did these great walks. He would walk every day for miles and miles and miles and I sometimes think he was sort of stoking up his imagination and thinking of his characters. And the way he built his novels was through the voices of his characters.

WERTHEIMER: Dickens himself said he must walk far and fast - perhaps because of deadline pressure. The novels were published as cliff-hanging serials in magazines or pamphlets before they became bound books. Nothing could be rewritten - he had to get it right the first time.

TOMALIN: He would write these quite rapidly and very little was changed when they were brought out in book form, in volume form, afterwards. And what he was doing, he was writing books which would become classics. And no other writer has done this.

WERTHEIMER: Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin. She notes there is bad writing to be found in Dickens's speedily produced novels, but much more that is great. Her favorites are "Bleak House," "Our Mutual Friend" and "David Copperfield."

TOMALIN: "David Copperfield" was, of course, Dickens's own favorite book.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DAVID COPPERFIELD")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (as David) Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

TOMALIN: It was his first sustained piece of first-person writing. I think those first 14 chapters in which David Copperfield describes his childhood are extraordinary documents about what children feel with attachment and loss and cruelty and the sort of hazards of childhood and how children can respond to them.

WERTHEIMER: For those who were force-fed Dickens in middle school and hated him, Claire Tomalin urges us to reconsider. Jennifer Egan, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for her book "A Visit from the Goon Squad," is a fan who came back to the books and unexpectedly found that Dickens felt modern.

JENNIFER EGAN: The way that Dickens structured his books has a form that we most readily recognize now from, say, the great TV series like "The Wire" or "The Sopranos." There's one central plotline but then from that spin off all kinds of subplots. And so he would go off on all different directions and create these amazing secondary characters who would go in and out of focus. But then there was also this central kind of spinal column of a plot that he would return to.

WERTHEIMER: Part of her new attraction, Egan says, are the issues Dickens deals with - wealth and poverty, class and corruption, politicians who speak about morality but behave very differently.

EGAN: The things that he's interested in are still very relevant. For example, "Bleak House," one of the major characters is corporate litigation and the way in which it consumes all kinds of people associated with it, both in the sense that it sort of nullifies the morality of the people that represent it and the way it kind of chews up and spits out people whose lives depend on the outcome of this case, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, that never seems to end.

WERTHEIMER: One of the people ground down by the courts of chancery in that long-running lawsuit is young Richard Carstone.

EGAN: Richard's story is really harrowing because he's a man of great promise. He's handsome and charismatic, but at a certain point he starts to think that maybe he will be able to become rich through the resolution of this litigation. And Dickens beautifully portrays the way that this acts on him almost like a drug, almost like an addiction.

(SOUNDBITE OF "BLEAK HOUSE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (as Richard) I give my heart to it all, or my mind, my soul. I can't attend to anything while those villains in court are holding my fate in the balance.

EGAN: He's constantly enthralled by this possibility that maybe he'll just become rich. And essentially the addiction kills him. He ends up with less and less and less until finally he just dies.

WERTHEIMER: Dickens novels often had more than 100 characters, major and minor, each with their own vivid speech. Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus has written a birthday column about Dickens' language.

BEN ZIMMER: He used slang terms like butterfingers for a clumsy person, flummoxed to mean bewilder. There was a term sawbones, which was a slang term for a surgeon. And so he seemed to be very keen on bringing a new type of language into English literature.

WERTHEIMER: Now we use those words and, Ben Zimmer points out, we also use the names of Dickens' characters to describe people.

ZIMMER: We could talk about a Scrooge. That's a miserly type who says things like bah humbug. There's Fagin from "Oliver Twist."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OLIVER TWIST")

ALEC GUINESS: (as Fagin) Is my handkerchief hanging out of my pocket, dear?

JOHN HOWARD DAVIES: (as Oliver) Yes, sir.

GUINESS: (as Fagin) See if you can take it without my feeling it. Is it gone?

DAVIES: (as Oliver) Yes. Here it is.

GUINESS: (as Fagin) Ah, you clever boy.

ZIMMER: That character named Fagin then ended up being used to refer to anybody like Fagin in "Oliver Twist," who trains young people into a life of crime.

WERTHEIMER: But the bottom line on Charles Dickens is that he was one of the greatest storytellers in the English language. And if you surrender to his winding narratives, his detours, his huge cast of characters, you will be rewarded. We'll give the last word to his fellow writer, Jennifer Egan.

EGAN: I remember there was a point where I was on a very bumpy plane ride, an overnight flight. I was so miserable. And I pulled out "David Copperfield" and I forgot how scared and tired I was. And I thought this is what reading should be. I'm utterly transported out of my present situation.

WERTHEIMER: Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812. I'm Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Food, glorious food, hot sausage and mustard. While we're in the mood, cold jelly and custard. Pease pudding and saveloys. What's next is the question. Rich gentlemen, have it, boys. Indigestion. Help yourself...

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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