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Tuesday, 7 February 2012


A couple of years ago, I played Charles Dickens in an episode of the British sci-fi series “Doctor Who.” As the doctor takes his leave of Earth, Dickens asks whether his books will still be read in the future. Yes, the doctor replies. For how long, Dickens wants to know. Forever, says the doctor, disappearing into cyberspace.
He would appear to have been right: Dickens is everywhere on the eve of his 200th birthday in February. Dickens’s characters and their destinies are in wide circulation on film and television. Major biographies follow one another in majestic procession, offering often brilliant insights into the paradoxical complexities at the heart of the author of the single greatest oeuvre, after the plays of William Shakespeare, in English literature.
Surprisingly, considering that Dickens is that unusual thing, a writer whose life was as riveting as his work, there has been no film biography. If there were one, a large part of it would surely center on his early years, and especially on one year of shame, humiliation and degradation, the memory of which was so painful to him that he hid it from view completely, allowing it to be revealed only after his death. Victorian England was profoundly shocked to discover that Dickens’s compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged sprang, not simply from Christian kindness, but from the bitter personal experience of toiling 10 hours a day, for 6 shillings a week, in a rat-infested shoe polish warehouse off the Strand from the ages of 12 to 13. It is of course this experience that placed children at the center of so much of his work.
The simplest and most straightforwardly presented is “A Boy Called Dickens.” It concentrates entirely on the novelist’s time at Warren’s, the blacking factory, where 12-year-old Dickens went to work making shoe polish to support his family. The book follows his daily routines and traversal of the city, quite credibly proposing that during this time he was dreaming the stories which became his novels: “There are lawyers, clerks, convicts and keepers of old curiosity shops. . . . All these characters and their stories swirl about the boy like the fog.” It is a portrait of the artist as a boy, very touching and believable, and it carries the story through to Dickens’s reprieve from Warren’s, his return to schooling and his ultimate success as a writer.
by Simon Callow
in New York Times, Sunday Book Review( adapted)
Charles Dickens was born on Feb. 7, 1812, and died June 9, 1870.
At his death Dickens was regarded by the great mass of his contemporaries not simply as a great writer but also as a great and good man, a champion of the poor and downtrodden, who had striven hard throughout his whole career for greater social justice and a better, kinder world.

in The New York Times, Times Topics (adapted)