Last night I celebrated Dickens’ 200th birthday with the Central Regions Arts Club in Birmingham, an organisation stemming from the Open University, of which I am a member. CRAC organises events throughout the year and the Dickens celebration was an eye opener for me – someone who has watched adaptations, read a meagre handful of his works and didn’t really know anything about his life.
The small but friendly group in the CRAC gathered on a cold winter night to mark tribute to a man whose legacy lives on long after him, and more unusually became a legacy while he still lived. There were readings from peoples’ favourite stories and audio clips from the new OU collection available from itunes – just search for Dickens.
The main theme of the evening was a study of Dickens’ portrayal of children in his works and indeed a reading from Pickwick Papers drew an extremely close parallel with the rare extract of his own writing about his childhood that was eventually published by way of his executor. It was strange to hear Dickens speak of himself in almost the same voice as he did of his characters. Most memorable was the exploration we made of his description of the children in A Christmas Carol with the Ghost of Christmas Future: ignorance and want as a reflection of Scrooge’s attitude and the wrongs of humanity.
We probably remember Dickens most for his fantastic portrayal of characters, his lingering descriptive passages and vast array of novels. We likely also consider him greatly for his reflections on society and his seeming desires to illustrate the shortfalls of the world around him. But do we remember him for the man he was? Enough detail of his life exists to know him as a man who was enthusiastic and relentless about his work. He had ten children but is notoriously known for then leaving his wife, near abandoning the children and absconding with a young actress.
Or do we remember him as the actor, the public speaker, who during the latter years of his career made an enormous success and vast fortune by carrying out rather extravagant public readings to audiences that we would be proud of today. He even toured America twice and in his own lifetime was exceptionally popular despite his behaviour in his private life and his obvious disparagement of so many elements of society.
Last night, however, we remembered him with words and memories and birthday cake, as a man that poured the essence of who he was into his art so passionately, furiously and with such vigour, that he burned himself out on his enthusiasm and dedication to performance, to die an old man before his time when he was just 58. Even now his words are poignant and he must be hailed as one of the lasting greats.