Going Mad for Charles Dickens

Two centuries after his birth, the novelist is still wildly popular, as a theme park, a new movie and countless festivals attest

Dickens World, a theme park in Chatham, offers an 1800s immersion. The novelist, says the attraction's Kevin Christie, "was a showman. He would have loved this." (Stuart Conway)
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In an abandoned Gillette razor factory in Isleworth, not far from Heathrow Airport, the British film director Mike Newell wades ankle-deep through mud. The ooze splatters everybody: the 100 or so extras in Victorian costume, the movie’s lead characters, the lighting engineers perched in cranes above the set. Newell is ten days into shooting the latest adaptation of Great Expectations, widely regarded as the most complex and magisterial of Charles Dickens’ works. To create a replica of West London’s Smithfield Market, circa 1820, the set-design team sloshed water across the factory floor—which had been jackhammered down to dirt during a now-defunct redevelopment project—and transformed the cavernous space into a quagmire.

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Dickens completed Great Expectations in 1861, when he was at the height of his powers. It’s a mystery story, a psychodrama and a tale of thwarted love. At its center looms the orphaned hero Pip, who escapes poverty thanks to an anonymous benefactor, worships the beautiful, cold-hearted Estella and emerges, after a series of setbacks, disillusioned but mature. In the scene that Newell is shooting today, Pip arrives by carriage in the fetid heart of London, summoned from his home in the Kent countryside by a mysterious lawyer, Jaggers, who is about to take charge of his life. Newell leans over a monitor as his assistant director cries, “Roll sound, please!” Pause. “And action.”

Instantly the market comes alive: Pickpockets, urchins and beggars scurry about. Butchers wearing blood-stained aprons haul slabs of beef from wheelbarrows to their stalls past a pen filled with bleating sheep. Cattle carcasses hang from meat hooks. Alighting from a carriage, the disoriented protagonist, portrayed by Jeremy Irvine, collides with a neighborhood tough, who curses and pushes him aside. “Cut,” Newell shouts, with a clap of his hands. “Well done.”

Back in his trailer during a lunch break, Newell, perhaps best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, tells me that he worked hard at capturing the atmospherics of Smithfield Market. “Victorian London was a violent place. Dickens deliberately set the scene in Smithfield, where animals got killed in [huge] numbers every day,” he says. “I remember a paragraph [he wrote] about the effluence of Smithfield, about blood and guts and tallow and foam and piss and God-knows-what-else. And then this boy comes off the Kentish marshes, where everything looks peaceful, and he’s suddenly put into this place of enormous violence and cruelty and stress and challenge. That’s what Dickens does, he writes very precisely that.”

Scheduled for release this fall, the film—which stars Ralph Fiennes as the escaped convict Magwitch, Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers—is the most recent of at least a dozen cinematic versions. Memorable adaptations range from David Lean’s 1946 black-and-white masterpiece starring Alec Guinness, to Alfonso Cuarón’s steamy 1998 reinterpretation, with Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke and Robert De Niro, set in contemporary New York City. Newell, who became entranced with Dickens as an undergraduate at Cambridge, leapt at the opportunity to remake it. “It is a great, big powerhouse story,” he tells me. “And it has always invited people to bring their own nuances to it.”

Dickens burst onto the London literary scene at age 23, and as the world celebrates his 200th birthday on February 7, “The Inimitable,” as he called himself, is still going strong. The writer who made the wickedness, squalor and corruption of London his own, and populated its teeming cityscape with rogues, waifs, fools and heroes whose very names—Quilp, Heep, Pickwick, Podsnap, Gradgrind—seem to burst with quirky vitality, remains a towering presence in culture both high and low. In December 2010, when Oprah Winfrey’s monthly book club selected A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, publishers rushed 750,000 copies of a combined edition into print. (Sales were disappointing, however, in part because Dickens fans now can download the novels on e-readers free.) The word “Dickensian” permeates our lexicon, used to evoke everything from urban squalor to bureaucratic heartlessness and rags-to-riches reversals. (“No Happy Ending in Dickensian Baltimore” was the New York Times headline on a story about the final season of HBO’s “The Wire.”) Collectors snap up Dickens memorabilia. This past October, a single manuscript page from his book The Pickwick Papers—one of 50 salvaged in 1836 by printers at Bradbury and Evans, Dickens’ publisher—was sold at auction for $60,000.

Celebrations of the Dickens bicentenary have rolled out in 50 countries. Dickens “saw the world more vividly than other people, and reacted to what he saw with laughter, horror, indignation—and sometimes sobs,” writes Claire Tomalin in Charles Dickens: A Life, one of two major biographies published in advance of the anniversary. “[He] was so charged with imaginative energy...that he rendered nineteenth-century England crackling, full of truth and life.”

In New York City, the Morgan Library—which has amassed the largest private collection of Dickens’ papers in the United States, including the manuscript of A Christmas Carol, published in 1843—has organized an exhibition, “Charles Dickens at 200.” The show recalls not only the novelist, but also the star and director of amateur theatricals, the journalist and editor, the social activist and the ardent practitioner of mesmerism, or hypnosis. There’s a Dickens conference in Christchurch, New Zealand; “the world’s largest Dickens festival” in Deventer, the Netherlands; and Dickens readings from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe.

London, the city that inspired his greatest work, is buzzing with museum exhibitions and commemorations. In Portsmouth, where Dickens was born, events are being staged thick and fast—festivals, guided walks, a reading of A Christmas Carol by great-great-grandson Mark Dickens—although the novelist left the city when he was 2 years old and returned there only three times. Fiercely protective of its native son, Portsmouth made headlines this past autumn when its libraries at last rescinded an eight-decade ban on a 1928 novel, This Side Idolatry, which focused on darker elements of Dickens’ character—including his philandering. Rosalinda Hardiman, who oversees the Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum, told me, “Feelings still run high about Dickens’ memory in the city of his birth. Some people don’t like the idea that their great writer was also a human being.”

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in a modest four-story house, now the museum. Dickens’ father, John, was a likable spendthrift who worked for the Naval Pay Office; his mother, born Elizabeth Barrow, was the daughter of another naval employee, Charles Barrow, who fled to France in 1810 to escape prosecution for embezzling. The Dickens family was forced to move frequently to avoid debt collectors and, in 1824, was engulfed by the catastrophe that has entered Dickens lore: John was arrested for nonpayment of debts and jailed at Marshalsea prison in London. He would serve as the model for both the benevolently feckless Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield and William Dorrit, the self-delusional “Father of the Marshalsea,” in the later novel Little Dorrit.


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