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“Even the burial of his body in the Abbey was a species of theft when you come to think of it”. George Orwell's words came into my mind as I watched the ceremonies surrounding today's 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.
Royalty and bishops of the Established Church surrounded the tomb of the radical with Unitarian leanings. But that is part of the unique quality of the novelist and journalist whose characters and stories are so inextricably wound into the fabric of our lives. Dickens cuts across status, political orientation and religious identity. Say something is “Dickensian” and there will be few who will not understand what you mean.
I enjoyed Dickens from an early age. I had a child's version of Oliver Twist and the alarming illustration of the bullying and brutish Noah Claypole jeering “Work'us” at Oliver troubled my dreams for years. Sometimes we would read chapters of the novels aloud round the fire and by the time I left primary school, I was familiar with quite a mixed bag of Dickens' work. When I later encountered Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend, I recognised immediately the provenance of “he do the police in different voices” - my grandfather's rendition of the dialogues between Arthur Clennam and Flora Finching were without equal.
So many of Dicken's characters were gargoyles, yet in their very exaggeration, we recognise truth and a common humanity. Speaking at today's celebration, Rowan Williams said of these grotesques: “We think we have never met anyone like them. Then we think again.” Heroes, villains, figures of pathos and comedy, even the impossibly virtuous and innocent women like Little Dorrit and Little Nell, all have the capacity to capture and hold our feelings, whether of affection or revulsion.
The laugh out loud moments and the sheer rococo exuberance of much of Dickens' work can make it easy to forget his immense skill. The depiction of the fog which opens Bleak House or the haunting passage describing Lady Dedlock walking in the rain on her estate at Chesney Wold, are passages of literary power worthy of standing with any of the great novelists of the 19th century.
The society of which Dickens wrote is in many ways strangely contemporary. The corrupt banker Merdle who ruins thousands, the impenetrable and unaccountable Circumlocution Office, the vast inequalities of wealth and power, the poor, fearful for their employment and beset by injustice and difficulty at every turn, a Gradgrindian Education Secretary – all these are instantly recognisable.
Dickens castigation of self-interested stupidity and cruelty is timeless and, for me, far from leaving a despondent feeling that nothing much changes, inspires hope. For among all the disadvantage and injustice which fill his narratives, lie the warmth, hope, humour and wondrous eccentricity which make life worth living.
It is this huge quality of humanity which, in the end, makes Charles Dickens such a great and timeless writer – to quote Orwell's words again, “a man who is generously angry... a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet