By Deepa Agarwal
(This is the third in a series on iconic authors who wrote for children.)
The other day, I happened to attend a school performance of an adapted version of that old seasonal favourite A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was as if I had travelled back in time. I could not help reflecting on this classic work, which has not lost its appeal even after 176 years.
A Christmas Carol is considered to be Charles Dickens’s most famous book. Published in 1843 by Chapman & Hall, with illustrations by John Leech, the theme of the book emphasises the spirit of Christmas as a family festival and a time for giving and sharing. Through the course of this novella, the main character Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed from a skinflint obsessed with hoarding gold coins into a caring and generous man. The visions shown by the ghost of his old partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come have this effect. The book gained immediate fame and so widespread was its influence that the name “Scrooge” has become synonymous with “miser”. Tiny Tim’s statement at the Christmas dinner, “God bless us, every one!” has also made this critically ill but cheerful boy unforgettable.
Charles Dickens is considered the greatest novelist of the Victorian era and several of his books have child heroes who undergo serious problems but are usually saved at the end. Dickens was intensely concerned about the condition of impoverished children and felt that the wealthier classes should be sensitised to their plight. In his view, education was essential to save such youngsters from turning to crime to survive. He happened to visit a “Ragged School” set up for underprivileged kids in September 1843 and apparently it left a deep impact on him. In October he started writing A Christmas Carol and it was published on December 19 the same year, soon becoming a popular classic.
The autobiographical David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, always described as the “boy who asked for more” and Great Expectations are other memorable tales of growing up and self-discovery, often recommended as reading for children, sometimes in an adapted form. In fact, Oliver Twist was the first child hero of an English novel. But David Copperfield, written in first person, is considered Dickens’s masterpiece. It narrates the vicissitudes of the hero’s life from childhood to middle age. In this book he has addressed issues such as child labour, brutality in schools, the criminal justice system, inequality in the class system, besides the status of women at that time. David’s cruel stepfather Mr Murdstone, feckless Mr Micawber, who is constantly hoping ‘that something will turn up’ and the scheming Uriah Heep are all characters from the book that have come to symbolise certain character traits in common parlance. Oliver Twist depicts the plight of an orphan who is consigned to a workhouse, a dismal institution for the destitute in Victorian England. In this grim story, Oliver’s predicament is starkly underlined, especially his stint with Fagin, a criminal who lures runaway children and turns them into lawbreakers. Here again, Dickens has given us memorable characters like Fagin and the Artful Dodger, a clever pickpocket. Fortunately, the kind Mr. Brownlow rescues Oliver and good wins over evil in the end.
Great Expectations is a bildungsroman or coming-of-age book and my personal favourite among the author’s works. It is Dickens’s second book to be written in first person. The hero Pip, is also an orphan, being raised by his older sister Georgiana and her kindly husband Joe Gargery. The child Pip’s life undergoes a change after he encounters a convict, Abel Magwitch in the marshes near his house. Magwitch is caught by the police. Later, Pip is invited by the wealthy Miss Havisham to play with her pretty adopted daughter Estella. Pip is smitten by Estella, not knowing that she has been brought up to wreak the once jilted Miss Havisham’s revenge on men. When an anonymous benefactor funds his education, Pip assumes it is Miss Havisham. He is shocked to discover that it was Magwitch. Indeed, Pip has to undergo a great deal of heartbreak and disillusionment before he finally turns into a mature and empathetic person.
In these and other books, Dickens has delineated the exploitation of the penurious masses with pitiless accuracy. As a young boy, he too had been compelled to work in a shoe blacking factory when his father was thrown into debtors’ prison. Thus, he had first-hand experience of the harsh working conditions and long hours common in Victorian England. He has satirised the working of the bureaucracy and the judicial system as well. Social commentary and the need to address societal wrongs is a recurring theme in his work. Dickens was a philanthropist but it was his books that made such an impact that journalists and politicians became conscious of the need to end social oppression. It is said that the vivid prison scenes in The Pickwick Papers led to the closure of the notorious Fleet Prison.
A literary genius, Dickens created the most engaging story lines and was the master of satire and characterisation. He had a great gift for language, an extraordinary sense of place and resonant dialogue. His frequently ludicrous characters are larger than life caricatures, which is the reason why they leave a lasting impression on the reader, along with their unusual and symbolic names. The great poet, critic and playwright T S Eliot stated that Dickens “excelled in character; in the creation of characters of greater intensity than human beings.”
Dickens was the most popular writer of his time and his illustrious admirers included Queen Victoria herself. His works continue to grip people’s imagination and have been widely adapted for the stage, cinema and television. Interestingly, celebrated children’s writer Roald Dahl was a great fan too and in his well-loved book Matilda the irrepressible title character has read three of Dickens’s books. What greater tribute to a favourite writer can there be and what better incentive for children to read Dickens!
(Author, poet and translator, Deepa Agarwal writes for both children and adults and has over 50 books to her credit. She interacts regularly with children, conducting creative writing workshops and storytelling sessions in schools. She tweets @dipuli.)