Charles Dickens speaks to 21st century’s hard times


To the jaded Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye,” he was the guy responsible for “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” In “The Wire,” he’s the obsession of a philistine, prize-obsessed editor who can’t stop drawing glib parallels between contemporary Baltimore and 19th century London. To Oscar Wilde, the man’s most serious tragedy provoked tears . . . of laughter. ¶ Novelist Charles Dickens, who died in 1870 at 58, has taken a beating over the years. But he appears to be having the last laugh -- and not just because he’s gone from being the most popular writer of the Victorian age to the era’s best-read emissary for contemporary readers. He’s become to the boom-and-bust early 21st century what Jane Austen was to the roaring, chick-lit-besotted ‘90s. ¶ “Masterpiece” (formerly “Masterpiece Theatre”) devoted its February to May schedule to no fewer than three new Dickens adaptations (“Oliver Twist,” “Little Dorrit” and “The Old Curiosity Shop”) alongside a revival of “David Copperfield,” the novelist’s favorite and most autobiographical book. The authors Dan Simmons and Matthew Pearl have just published takes on Dickens’ unfinished last novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” ¶ Newspaper dispatches seem increasingly drawn from his pages, especially from books like “Oliver Twist,” which chronicles crushing urban poverty, and “Little Dorrit,” which follows the main character’s brutal fall in the social order. The phrase “hard times” -- the title of one of Dickens’ least characteristic novels but one expressing his abiding concern for children and the poor -- shows up in headlines almost daily.

Charles Dickens: An article in Saturday’s Calendar about Charles Dickens misspelled the name of his “Hard Times” character Gradgrind as Grandgrind. —

As things get worse, then, Dickens looks better and better.

“The fact that the economy is in free fall,” jokes Rebecca Eaton, “Masterpiece’s” executive producer, “is just lucky for us.”

But even before the recession and its ratcheting up of debt, poverty, homelessness and other familiar Dickensian themes, the author’s work was becoming pertinent in the 21st century.


“Practically every piece of Dickens’ is the story of the corrosive power of money,” Eaton notes, whether it’s “David Copperfield,” or “Great Expectations,” or the author’s most famous work, “A Christmas Carol,” which is best known for Scrooge’s greed.

Eaton adds that the grandfather in “The Old Curiosity Shop” -- played by Derek Jacobi in the version that broadcasts May 3 -- suffers from compulsive gambling; he’s like today’s day traders.

Jonathan Grossman, an associate professor of English who describes himself as “the Dickens freak at UCLA,” sees a related strain in Dickens. Students often think about the 19th century as being covered in smog and defined by industrialism. “But Dickens was writing about London, which was the capital of finance, with startling parallels to today’s Wall Street,” he says.

“In ‘Martin Chuzzlewit,’ you have a real-estate scam run by a guy forever building castles in the air,” and a company like AIG, whose risky investments tied to subprime mortgages resulted in the company’s disastrous fall and contributed to imperiling the global economy. And “Little Dorrit,” he points out, includes “a financier who everyone worships but who turns out to be running a Ponzi scheme.”

When Grossman was lecturing on this nefarious Mr. Merdle character in his Victorian lit course last winter, Bernard L. Madoff’s grand jury indictment was coming down: “My students couldn’t believe it.”

Made for TV

The 19th century classics have things to recommend them -- that’s why they’re classics. But many popular or esteemed Victorian novelists -- seen a good Trollope adaptation lately? -- haven’t made the transition to the theater or to the contemporary world’s electronic media. By contrast, Dickens is almost perfectly suited to them.

The fact that he wrote for magazine publication, with their cliffhangers and winding plots, suits him well to the television miniseries, and is likely why sophisticated long-form dramas like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” are sometimes called “Dickensian.” His strength as a visual writer -- as well as his zest with language and names -- Mr. Fezziwig, the Aged P, Squeers and Grandgrind -- and his fondness for large canvasses rather than difficult-to-dramatize interior monologues -- doesn’t hurt.

Dickens was speaking for himself when he said in an 1858 speech: “Every writer of fiction, though he may not adapt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage.” Dickens loved a live audience, giving spirited readings of his work, in the U.S. and elsewhere, nearly up to the day he died.

And as British fantasy novelist Philip Pullman puts it in his “Oliver Twist” introduction timed to Roman Polanski’s surprisingly straightforward 2005 film: “Later in Dickens’ career, he was actually writing for a medium that didn’t yet exist: I mean the cinema.” Scenes from “Bleak House” and “Our Mutual Friend,” Pullman writes, “are nothing less than shooting scripts complete with camera angles, and with stage direction in the appropriate present tense.”

Pullman, whose “His Dark Materials” trilogy many consider the finest fantasy series since Tolkien’s “Ring,” is one of many writers Dickens has influenced or inspired. (The trilogy’s two child-heroes could come right out of “Oliver Twist.”) That list is long and varied: Salman Rushdie’s teeming Bombay (most memorably portrayed in “Midnight’s Children”) has been termed Dickensian, as has Zadie Smith’s comic-ethnic London in “White Teeth” and, before them, the crowded Cairo of Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz.

“People tend to associate Dickens with extreme poverty,” Grossman says, “as well as the entwinement of the rich, the middle-class and the poor. He was famous in his own time for showing their connectedness.”

Chinua Achebe wrote “Things Fall Apart” -- still probably the key novel from Africa -- after growing up reading Dickens in Nigeria. Los Angeles writer Bruce Wagner, whose work often concentrates on Hollywood, modeled his “I’ll Let You Go” on Dickens. Tom Wolfe compared himself to the master, and vampire queen Anne Rice called Dickens “my hero because he was both a popular writer and a great writer.” Graphic novelist Alan Moore, author of “Watchmen,” included a cameo by Oliver Twist in his Victorian-era “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”

There’s a whole strain of fantasy and YA writers deeply rooted in Dickens, including Neil Gaiman (“Neverwhere”), steampunk writer Philip Reeve (the “Mortal Engines” series) and J.K. Rowling: The every-year-or-two release of the Harry Potter books, with its orphan hero barely escaping plots and traps, was sometimes compared to the ardor of Dickens fans who couldn’t wait to receive a story’s latest installment. (Potter fans take note: “Masterpiece’s” “David Copperfield” stars a 10-year-old Daniel Radcliffe alongside Bob Hoskins and Ian McKellen.)

Prescient work

Dickens, then, hasn’t wanted for readers or for literary offspring. Or for respect in the academy: UCLA’s Grossman said the author’s stock has remained high for decades, though it’s seen differently at various intellectual moments: In the ‘80s, “Bleak House” was widely taught, and Dickens’ work was sometimes seen to anticipate the critical theory of Michel Foucault. These days, “Little Dorrit,” with its vision of a globalized economy and its bureaucracy-from-hell called the Circumlocution Office, is esteemed by many scholars. The novel is seen as the precursor to both Kafka’s work and to the scientific discipline of systems theory.

“Masterpiece’s” Eaton wonders if some of Dickens’ hopefulness will get through to people. “He had an almost romantic sense that love will see you through. That may be what’s happening to people now -- after being hypnotized by money, we’re snapping out of it. He showed people striving to survive and be good when money was pulling them along.”

Dickens, of course, had a very personal reason to be fascinated with topics like money, class and the heartlessness of large systems. These, after all, were the stories of his life.

Born in Portsmouth, on England’s south coast, in 1812, Dickens watched his father sent to debtors’ prison -- Marshalsea, portrayed in “Little Dorrit” -- when he was 12. As a boy he devoured picaresque novels, worked briefly pasting labels on jars of shoe polish, and largely taught himself to write before becoming a reporter and publishing work in magazines.

Thanks to his serialized novels of the 1830s -- “The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby” -- he became an enormous success, traveled to the U.S., and put some of his fame into a push for reform. He became what Grossman calls “the star of the 19th century,” and worked himself almost literally to death.

“Dickens wrote about greed and debts -- over and over,” Eaton says. “He himself was deeply scarred by his father’s fecklessness. And then he became a very rich man. And boy, are we in the middle of that now. He wrote about rags to riches, but also about rags to riches to rags.”

The term “Dickensian,” became a kind of punch line in the final season of “The Wire,” set in a decimated Baltimore Sun and a city wracked with childhood poverty. But at least one of the celebrated show’s writers, former Sun reporter Rafael Alvarez, all but worships Dickens. Alvarez read “David Copperfield” as a teenager, and the book taught him to structure a narrative, and he now makes his living writing for the page and the screen. Alvarez respects Dickens’ portrayal of the little man and his sheer powers of entertainment.

“With a commercial run to rival the Beatles,” he says, “he popularized for a mass audience, and shamed the establishment. His characters will live long after the conditions that gave them life have been forgotten.”

“Masterpiece’s” Dickens adaptations run through May 3. (“Oliver Twist” concluded in February.)