200th Anniversary of Dickens: What makes his prose so timeless?

By Roanne Ward

Award-winning British actress Miriam Margolyes (Harry Potter, Romeo + Juliet) brings her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, to The Cultch this week setting out to discover the man himself.  The play is as much about Charles Dickens as it is about the twenty-three characters performed by Margolyes. These characters are drawn from his novels and sketches and include both the iconic and famous individuals including Mrs. Gamp, Miss Havisham and other, lesser-known creations from Dickens’ books. They all offer a unique glimpse into the real life of Charles Dickens.

Dickens’ Women is just one of many bicentennial events celebrating the author’s birthday this year. Some 142 years after his death, people around the world are still reading, performing and discussing Dickens’ work. At least 180 motion pictures and TV adaptations based on Dickens’ works have been produced.

So what is it that makes Dickens’ work so timeless? At the young age of 24, Dickens’ first novel, The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club (The Pickwick Papers), was published. Dickens provided text to a series of illustrations depicting cockney sporting life, which he would later tie into a more cohesive novel written under the pseudonym ‘Boz.’ With this he gained instant success. He would then go on to write 14 more novels, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, and would lecture and perform spirited readings of his work. He was the literary celebrity of his time. From The Pickwick Papers to Oliver Twist to Great Expectations, Dickens’ stories were filled with complexity and moral analyses that reflected on our own lives.

The times may have changed but the themes still translate and resonate today. Dickens often commented on the ‘hard times’ of Victorian London, warning us of the dangers of greed and the effects of poverty. With global economies facing challenging financial times, Dickens’ cautionary tales have never been more apt, illuminating the destructive power of money in society. Just as Fagin and his gang of juvenile pickpockets took to the streets of London in Oliver Twist, so did hundreds of teenagers in the 2011 London riots after a long and brutal recession. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens holds up the mirror to show us the corrosive power of greed through the wonderfully dark Ebenezer Scrooge.

Dickens created over 2000 multi-dimensional characters and rather than letting them lie flat on the page he gave them life. Margolyes says he had the ability to reveal the most interesting fact about people, which is that we all have secrets. Through his many characters we are exposed to the most intimate and complex of secrets, satisfying our inner-voyeur by being privy to such intimate thoughts and prompting self-analysis. He wrote on many social issues: housing, sanitation, education, labour laws and was a true advocate for the arts believing that “enriching people’s life with knowledge and enjoyment of the arts was key to building a fair society and creating opportunities”. Margolyes says, “I think our society needs mending. I think Dickens knew it and I think all his writings are testaments to the necessity to lead a moral life and the strange thing is that he didn’t do it himself and that’s the paradox that my show explores.” She and many others have commented on his writing as being incredibly effective for the stage and Dickens himself said that “every writer of fiction, though he may not adapt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage.”

Dickens’ Women runs at The Cultch until  December 1. Tickets start at $17and are available online at tickets.thecultch.com, by phone at 604.251.1363, or in person at 1895 Venables St.