March 31, 2023

Oxford Literary Festival: My love affair with Charles Dickens

It’s come around again, the Oxford Literary Festival, Christchurch meadow and Christchurch college in the beautiful spring sunshine, celebrating all kinds of literature currently out there; detective mysteries, classic authors, biographies, cookery books, children’s illustrators, political diaries and journals and some good old fashioned novels too. I’ve been for the last two years and loved it both times. The atmosphere is overflowing with literary enthusiasm, which is so vital to sustain an exciting climate for new books to flourish in. To top it all off, some of the most influential and interesting figures from the world of books are there to speak and sign copies that you can purchase from the huge Blackwell’s marquee, which is basically a portable version of the Broad Street shop itself. This year another highlight was the Jamie Oliver café, which sold some delicious food created by the man who is in my opinion the culinary genius of the 21st century… But I shall save my musings on the Essex lad for another day. Right now, it’s all about the books.

My festival experience this year was dominated by Charles Dickens and thus commenced with a talk by John Crace and John Sutherland, purely because like myself they are also currently engaging in what can only be described as a love affair with the author. The bicentennial can only have been a good thing to revitalise interest in such an iconic figure from British literary history, boosting sales of his novels and enlightening a new generation to the wit and social conscience of the Victorian writer. Despite not having read or being particularly keen to read an explanatory ‘dictionary’ of Dickens as Sutherland has written, books that need no more expansion than purely the craft of the words that compile them, it was interesting to hear particularly John Crace’s opinions on Dickens. They originated from his GCSE years where he described his encounter with Hard Times as the literary equivalent of ‘drawing blood out of a stone’ and seems to have now developed into pure admiration for Dickens’ talent, whether it be the innuendos apparent in the evocative names (M’Choakumchild, Uriah Heap or Rosa Bud being particularly noted by Crace) or his attempted social reform through ‘characters, which are locked within themselves’ and epitomise the public or private struggle of all parts of society in his era.

Dickens seems to be able to be so far-reaching in his appeal. He has an ability to relate to most of society, whether that be through the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield or the infamous descriptions of any member of the legal profession in, most notably, Bleak House. He brings his own experiences into his writing, giving them a life of their own, an influence that very few authors seem to achieve. It is the subtlety of Dickens that is so beautiful and, in my opinion, it is subtlety that is the mark of a great polemic. The hilarity of the Pickwick Papers, such hilarity that almost 200 years after its publication still made me laugh out loud, is something that could only have been achieved by someone so observant and articulate as Charles Dickens.

John Crace said that the question on his mind when he writes his Digest is ‘How can we make Dickens our contemporary?’ Dickens does this perfectly by himself. Hard Times, like any novel that requires reflection, demands concentration and Crace’s analogy to drawing blood from a stone, while at first glance a criticism, merely highlights the necessity for the reader to read between the lines. To see the utilitarian ideology shine through the actions of Mr Gradgrind without Dickens having to spell it out is the brilliance of it. What better polemic technique than relating it to the plights of a common family? The same can be seen in A Christmas Carol, through the emotive description of the life of Tiny Tim. Dickens is our contemporary merely by recognising that the problems he highlights are relevant today. A corrupt political system? Inequality? Welfare? Education? If Dickens were around today it seems that he would find a mountain of material for his next novel. While it was therefore good to hear the opinions of a ‘lay-reader’ as John Crace coined himself, I recommend that anyone with an interest in Dickens simply read the books. They do the talking all by themselves.

I also managed to see Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ most recent biographer. Despite not having read the biography, again being of the view that the novels speak for themselves, it was fascinating to hear from Claire herself what she loves about Dickens and why she decided to write about him. Tomalin began her talk by suggesting that the best way to meet Dickens was to ‘hear his own voice’ and so she read a letter that he had written to his sister, and then analysed it. It was a bit like an English lesson; what does this word show about his personality and why did he choose to write this part? Yet it was fascinating. His ‘tremendous spirits’ and ‘energy’ are apparent in every turn of phrase and Tomalin gave amusing evidence for these traits by describing his dandy like appearance, his love of clothes and parties and his long curly locks. Dickens walked around London at night to expel this energy, walks that gave him inspiration and insight for his future works. Tomalin also emphasised the performer-side of Dickens’ personality, which originated from his days as a parliamentary reporter, and which continued throughout his career when he gave readings of his work. He was also a man of obsessions; he ordered the world around him, most notably he would rearrange the furniture to suit him in hotel rooms. Tomalin presented Dickens as rather eccentric; he wrote with a quill pen and took his friends on visits to prisons as a ‘treat’ such as the event of his daughter Katie’s christening. These pockets of anecdotes gave another dimension to Dickens’ writing. When asked by an audience member what new perspective Tomalin herself thought her biography brought to the arena, she responded with the emphasis that she had placed on Dickens’ relationship with John Foster, a relationship that I had no idea was so influential. Tomalin dedicated the latter half of her speech to enlightening the audience of this influence; it was at Foster’s suggestion for example that David Copperfield be written in the first person.

Biographies are an interesting genre. We don’t need to know about the author to appreciate their work or understand or enjoy it. Tomalin herself admitted this in response to another question from the audience. However, she also said that while we do not need to know, the human being is inquisitive. Lives are interesting. There is no doubt that all lives are, and one does not need to be a famous author or social reformer to provoke this interest. But I will concede that in this case, even I am intrigued by the life of the author. Who has read Great Expectations and can’t help but be enchanted by the brain that created it and the experiences he had? Maybe a biography is as great a tribute a fan of an author can give? However, I believe there is no greater tribute to Dickens than reading his work; it truly is the work of a genius and one does not need to know that he worked in a blacking factory to see that.

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