On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens two days ago, Philip Hartigan, artist, lover of books and words and me (he’s my husband, after all) wrote this really fine post about the great author’s work and effect on the life of a young artist.
The Rain on Our Hard Hearts
posted by Philip Hartigan on Google+, February 7, 2012
Two hundred years ago today, Charles Dickens was born. Fifty years and seven days ago, I was born. The connection between those two facts is something that wasn’t unusual, I think, for a British person growing up in the 1960s or earlier, in that the stories and characters of Dickens’ novels were still a part of the fabric of the popular imagination. The imprint was starting to get fainter, but it was still visible. I can still remember the children’s versions of the stories in the school library, the adaptations on the BBC and ITV, and the way that my solidly working class and undereducated grandparents would casually drop references to Dickens characters and phrases into their conversation: Something will turn up. He’s a real Bill Sikes. Please Sir, can I have more? As creepy as Uriah Heep. Bah, humbug! The musical “Oliver!” was premiered two years before I was born, and the movie when I was six. That’s a sign of how current Dickens still was: the musical came about, and the film was made of it, precisely because the creators knew that the audience would respond to the story, would still know what it referred to.
Some of that was nostalgia, of course—a very particular costume drama nostalgia which later became redirected into adapations of E. M. Forster and Jane Austen novels. All of it left its mark on me, left a deep love of Dickens writing, which lasted through adolescence, when Great Expectations was one of my favourite books (and still is); lasted through college, when no amount of sneering by teachers of literature at Cambridge could completely kill my affection for Dickens; and well into adulthood, when I set myself the goal ten years ago of reading all of Dickens’ books that I hadn’t yet read (it took me two years).
He has limitations: verbosity, letting his comic scenes run on well past the time when they’re still funny, the stock characters that seem to have stepped out of a stage melodrama (the mild and fainting heroines, the moustachioed villains, the last-minute saviours), the elaborate, coincidence-filled plots. But his good qualities are good enough to ensure that people will always return to him: the vivacity of the descriptive passages, the astonishing variety of his characters, the intensity of his first person narratives (particularly David Copperfield and Great Expectations), the majesty of his long sentence forms, and the compelling sense of scene. Above all, there is his warmth, humanity, and feeling, expressed in passages such as this one from Great Expectations, which I committed to memory when I was fourteen years old and recite whenever I can:
“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”