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Saturday, February 07, 2015

Happy Belated Birthday, Charles Dickens!

Charles Dickens in the US 1867 - public domain

I can't believe I made a fuss yesterday about Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had her own Google Doodle and whose work I haven't read, and somehow missed Charles Dickens, whose books I have read and who seems to have missed out on a Google Doodle. 

Well, Charles, you can have a belated birthday post from me! And anyone living in the northern hemisphere will look at the date above this post and say, "Huh? But it IS February 7th!" And since Mr Dickens was born in the northern hemisphere maybe I'm not too late.

Dickens was born in 1812 and died in 1870, but in that time wrote quite a lot of books, plays, newspaper articles, ran a magazine... 

He lived some of the experiences he wrote about in his books. He had to work as a child while his Dad was in debtors' prison and this and the fascinating characters he met made their way into his books. If you read his books and think, "This character is unbelievably over the top!" you will probably find he actually met them in real life. 

Charles Dickens as a child worker in a blacking factory - public domain 

Dickens has had so much influence on our culture. There's even a word, Dickensian, to describe dreadful working conditions, among other things. He is a part of modern fiction whether it 's a reworked version of A Christmas Carol(plenty of those, in books and films) or his appearance as a character in a book or TV show. Connie Willis(I think! Years since I read it)wrote a novel about a modern Scrooge-type boss, whose employees are helped by the kindly ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge himself, who also helps the boss reform, since he's been there, done that himself. Dickens appears in Sophie Masson's children's book The Understudy's Revenge, in his role as a magazine publisher. He is the subject of the Dr Who episode The Unquiet Dead, in which he is doing a one man show of A Christmas Carol, and helps the Doctor and Rose solve the problem of dead bodies  occupied by an alien race, running around the Welsh town Cardiff, where he's performing. (Incidentally, an old school friend of mine, Phil Zachariah, does that one man show, dressed as Dickens. If you ever get the chance to see it, go.)

He even appears in an episode of Bonanza, played by Jonathan Harris of Lost In Space fame, at the time when he was in the US trying to sort out copyright issues due to pirated editions of his work. He meets the Cartwrights, who ask him why it's such a big deal, and he asks them how they would feel if someone tried to take bits of their beloved ranch, where they have worked so hard.

Interesting to think that book piracy was an issue that far back - I know how you felt, Charles! I keep finding pirated downloads of MY books online and anyone who tells me to my face that it's good for promotion will get a fat lip. That has to be the author's decision, not the pirate's. There was actually a forum somewhere in which someone was having the cheek to ask how they could get a free download of Wolfborn. Someone else pointed out that as the book was in copyright this was illegal, but was ignored. Pity you had to be subscribing to comment or I would have had my say.

On the other hand, as Dickens wrote his books in serials, the legal versions took months to reach the US  and there was the story of how people met a ship from England with the question, "Does Little Nell die?" You can understand their frustration, just as fans of a certain popular TV show on this side of the world who have to wait for US producers must be frustrated. I must admit, I once had a copy of a DVD not available here that my brother burned for me, though as soon as it was available I bought it and disposed of the illegal copy. 

I'm not sure I can forgive him for Fagin, but even he was based on Ikey Solomon, who has a fascinating story of his own and is a part of Australian history(shameless self promo here, Solomon gets a mention in my book Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly). 

I had to read Great Expectations for English at high school. It 's a wonderful novel, though I do agree with my sister Mary that "Pip is a little shit." And Aussie writer Peter Carey's novel Jack Maggs, which is Great Expectations told from the viewpoint of Magwitch, basically says the same. 
Jack arrives back in England, leaving behind his Aussie born children for a time, to meet Pip the gentleman. He moves in next door and gets a job as a servant, and Pip moves out as soon as he realises who is living next door. Jack tells his story to a sympathetic maid, who doesn't understand why he wants to have anything to do with the little shit. I won't tell you the ending, which is not Dickens's, but read it! A terrific book.

Hmm, if he hated piracy I wonder how how he would have felt about fan fiction like this? Sorry, Charles, public domain! 

From what I gather, you wouldn't want to be married to the man, but there are a lot of geniuses in history who were not nice people. Maybe the niceness was shoved aside by the genius. And there's no question in my mind that he was a star. 

I remember reading, by the way, that he once hosted another genius, Hans Christian Andersen, and was absolutely delighted to see the back of his guest when he left!

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