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Charles Dickens, Victorian Superstar

Charles Dickens was the most famous writer of his time, the Victorian equivalent of a rock star. Everyone knew him and most people who could read, read him. He was known in England, of course, but equally famous in the United States and Europe. Dickens has been part of my life for forty years and if he wasn’t such a daunting subject, I’d write about him.

If I wrote about Dickens I’d have to tell you how he was forced to leave school at twelve and go to work in a boot blacking factory to support his family in debtors prison. I’d tell you that when the family fortunes improved he completed his education and at twenty-four became an overnight sensation with his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.

If I wrote about his life I’d have to tell you how he married and had ten children, but lived apart from his wife and family for many years. I’d tell you that he was a bit of a dandy and favored flamboyant waistcoats and shiny books and don’t get me started on that ridiculous beard. I’d tell you how he produced and acted in minor theatricals and championed education for the poor and dazzled friends and acquaintances with his quick wit and boundless energy.

Of course, I’d tell you how he got up in the morning and took a cold bath before setting to work at 10 am and working until two. After work, he’d head out for his daily constitutional, often walking ten or fifteen miles a day through the streets of London. He’d make his way along the fetid alleys of the city where the poor lived in hovels, their children begging for coins. Through the parts of town where women sold themselves on corners and men drank themselves to death while their wives carried yet another baby. He walked the better parts of the city, too, along the wide thoroughfares where nannies pushed prams along the sidewalks and men in top hats swung their walking sticks on their way to the Exchange and servants polished the brass knockers on the glossy doors of the rich.

If I told you about Dickens I’d have to tell you how during those daily four hours of work, he crafted his great books chapter by chapter, sending each off to his publisher where they were printed for serialization in the weekly newspapers and magazines. I’d tell you how his readers lined up at newsstands on release days to read the next installment, how people in US ports stood on the docks waiting for the ships that carried the stories of Little Nell and David Copperfield and Martin Chuzzlewit across the ocean.

And if I told you that, I’d have to tell you about the readings. How Dickens would fill an opera house night after night with people eager to hear his stories. I’d tell you how he had a special lectern made on which he could prop his book and have access to a carafe of water and a glass. I’d tell you how when he read the scene in Oliver Twist in which Bill Sykes murders his lover, Nancy, the audience would gasp and shiver and the ladies would cry. Dickens himself admitted to being so spooked by his performance that he was quite afraid to walk home in the dark.

Once you heard about his readings in England, I’d have to tell you he traveled to America. On his first visit he was appalled by what he called our “peculiar institution” by which he meant slavery and embarrassed by Americans’ unseemly habit of talking endlessly about money. Then I’d have to describe his second visit to the States during which he traveled to city after city by carriage, rail, and boat to read to sold out audiences. Everywhere he went, people waited for hours to purchase tickets and scalpers charged outrageous sums to those who came late and could afford it. I don’t, of course, know about the scalpers, but knowing what I know about human nature, it seems likely. I do know Dickens made $140,000 dollars doing those readings which at the time was a vast sum of money to pay someone to read aloud from a book that everyone had already read.

And finally, I’d have to tell you that by the time Dickens returned to England he was physically and emotionally exhausted, but continued to do readings in London in spite of his declining health. I’d tell you that after a long day working on Edwin Drood, his fifteenth novel, he suffered a stroke at dinner and died the following day at the age of 58. And I’d tell you how his fans lined up to pay their respects and lay countless bouquets on his grave in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abby.

There is a great deal more to the story of The Inimitable, the name by which Dickens referred to himself. There is his writing. The articles, travel writing, short stories, Christmas stories, not to mention fifteen novels.

But I’ll save that for the next time I don’t write about Dickens.

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