Charles Dickens was born February 7, 1812 in Portsmouth, England. It is good to celebrate the many gifts he has bestowed on us all, and worldwide celebrations are indeed underway. There will be a major exhibition at the Boot Mill Gallery in Lowell, Massachusetts from March 30 through October 20, 2012, about Dickens’ travels in Massachusetts and America, along with performances, speakers and programs. Also at the Morgan Library in New York City there is an exhibition of manuscripts, letters, drawings and photographs from their excellent collection, but it ends February 12, 2012.
PBS television Masterpiece Theater will be airing several dramatizations beginning February 26 with The Old Curiosity Shop (starring Derek Jacobi), a new version of Great Expectations (starring Gillian Anderson and David Suchet) beginning April 1, and a completion of Dickens’ last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, on April 15.
My appreciation for Dickens was greatly enhanced by reading Peter Ackroyd’s magnificent biography, published in 1990. Here are a few of the many treasures I discovered, selected with a contemplative eye. There was a deep sense of grief and loneliness which haunted Dickens, because of the deprivations of his childhood. Themes of death and unrequited love abound in his novels. Images and places from his childhood appear frequently, such as the marshes in Great Expectations or the wharf-side factory in Oliver Twist. The scenery for his imagination comes from his childhood, much the same way our dreams often feature childhood imagery and places.
The sad side of Dickens is more than balanced by his wonderful sense of comedy and his array of colorful characters. His novels are so easy to adapt for stage and screen, because he loved dramas and acting in them. He said of the process of writing: “I don’t invent it – really do not – but see it, and write it down.” Ackroyd writes, “… there is a mystery in the origins of his characters, whom he seems to summon up when they are already half-formed in the ante-chambers of his imagination.” His characters take on a life of their own in his imagination and insist on working out their own histories in their own way.
Dickens walked twelve miles each day through the streets of London (three hours) and his observations during these walks often inspired characters and conversation for his stories. Interestingly, he enjoyed the solitude of these walks and the opportunity for self-communing through which he was better able to understand his own feelings. When he visited America in 1842 he was constantly in the public eye and did not have any alone time, so that he became exhausted. As extraverted as Dickens was, even he needed solitude! This reinforced for me the importance of my own practice of a daily walk. The present winter in New England has been kind in this regard.
Dickens own brand of religion was Christian and Unitarian, with a great dislike of pompous, quarrelsome clergymen, and doctrinal disputes about the literal truth of the Bible. His spirituality was a practical kind with deep concern about social injustice, but his valuing of solitude and walking, his recurrent theme of unrequited love, his intuitive process of character development, his unresolved grief, his sense of the numinous all put him a bit on the mystic path.