So as long as we’re on the trail of various quasquicenttennials and semicentennials, we may note another ennial, as today is the bicentennial, or 200th anniversary, of the birth of Charles Dickens. It is a mark of his continuing legacy that I STILL get people in the literature section who stop and argue about whether or not he belongs there. Not so very many years ago, a customer informed me that all Dickens ever did was write pop fiction that was easy to adapt into Classics Illustrated comic books. I marveled at the British reading public, buying books in the 1830s that could be made into comic books in the 1940s. I did not stay for the entire lecture on bourgeois reading habits which followed, as I heard a banana box calling me.
(By the way, have I mentioned—lately, anyhow—that the author with the most books adapted for Classics Illustrated was actually another Victorian author, one George Alfred Henty? But you have to wait another twenty years for his bicentennial.)
Anyhow, we’ve been seeing a slew of articles and books on Charles H. Dickens, concentrating on his personal life (not too shocking for a 20th century author, but worrisome in a Victorian), financial affairs (also occasionally troublesome, but it bothered him, too: he noted once that Ebenezer Scrooge was a portrait of the man he thought he was turning into), and other dark corners of his life. You can actually find people arguing about why he avoided Chicago on his second American tour, I think he was just worried about how he’d ship home all the books he bought at the Newberry Book Fair, but I am having a little trouble making the dates of his visit fit with the Book Fair dates. I’ll work it out yet.
Meanwhile, the D section in Literature continues to get cleaned out at the Book Fair, so people are still buying A Tale of Two Cities (which it says here wound up being his best selling book of all time), Oliver Twist (a good, solid Gothic mystery in its own way), A Christmas Carol (have to have it on the shelf whether you read it or not), and David Copperfield (which seems to be in the top ten list of “Books I’ll Read Someday if It Kills Me” for a lot of my customers. I haven’t gotten around to it yet myself.) And, as noted, I have plenty of customers who sniff at the others for reading books “that just happen to be easy to read”. Dickens, I have been informed by people other than the lady who delivered the comic book slap, simply wrote what people wanted to read and therefore doesn’t deserve to be considered a writer of any value.
Well, so did G.A. Henty, and he wrote more books than Charles H. Dickens, and yet I have a feeling his bicentennial won’t produce nearly so much excitement. So Charles must have been doing something right, and he’s going to be found in the Literature section. Playwright, novelist, difficult husband, persnickety businessman, disgruntled tourist: I say happy birthday to him, and God bless him, every one!
(note: There is very little justification for calling him Charles H. Dickens, as his full name was Charles John Huffam Dickens. Charles J. Dickens could have been used with equal validity and/or silliness. Please don’t write me about that; I haven’t answered all the notes from the fans of F. Scott K. Fitzgerald yet.)