Today I had the privilege of chatting with Sally Ledger, Professor of 19th Century Literature at Birkbeck College of the University of London. We sat at an outdoor cafe just outside the main entrance to the British Library and she gave me her thoughts on all things Dickens. I asked her about his legacy, his popularity in the Victorian era, the language he uses, his style and why we should still read his works. She was extremely insightful, kind, and easy to talk to, AND, as the mother of a teenage son, had some great advice on teens and 160 year old language.
--Click to hear Sally's thoughts on his writing style and the challenges it presents to modern-day readers, especially young people
One of the most striking things she communicated was how beloved Dickens's stories were during the Victorian era. I had heard about his great fame many times, but she explained that, with the exception of a very few members of the elite intelligentsia who looked as his writing as a bit overly dramatic and what we might call "sappy" or "cheezy", people from every part of the country and indeed all rungs of society devoured everything of his that was published.
In his book The English Novel Walter Allen describes Dickens as the "great novelist who was also the great entertainer, the greatest entertainer, probably, in the history of fiction." His incredible knack for describing scenes and objects and people specifically and realistically grabbed his readers' attention immediately and his ability to keep them interested by adding action, love, sadness, brutality and humor was unmatched by other writers of the time. His daughter Katey, who used to sit in his study while he was writing, is said to have watched him in the mirror, making faces and delivering dialogue in order to see what it looked like acted out before he put it down in words.
The extremely poor and the lavishly wealthy were addicted to his stories and because most of them were released in small portions or serials, over a series of weeks, much like television shows are today, his readers waited hungrily for each installment. Sally compared his stories to the show the EastEnders on the BBC, the longest running soap opera in the United Kingdom. It is watched by millions of people in England, but also by people all around the world. The increase in literacy during the Industrial Revolution brought his words to many more readers than in previous generations. Also due to his own family's struggle with poverty, his books featured working-class, poor characters. Therefore the working class people of England loved him and his books just as much as the more educated people did. And because his stories were so full of drama and entertainment, they were often acted out on stage, giving illiterate audiences a chance to hear his words as well.
--Hear Sally's answer to my question about his popularity
She also said that perhaps Dickens could be called the J.K. Rowling of his time, because of his intense popularity and the subject matter of his books. Like Ms. Rowling, Dickens wrote stories that deal with the battle between good and evil; like Harry, there was often an orphan at the center of his tales; he used wildly descriptive language and got the reader to root for the good guy and intensely hate the bad guy. And, like Ms. Rowling, he gained fame throughout the English speaking world, especially in the United States.
-- Listen to Sally's thoughts on Dickens and Rowling
--Listen to Sally's thoughts on the legacy of Dickens