(Reuters) - British writer Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago on February 7. 1812. Dickens was one of the great forces in 19th-century British literature and an influential voice against social injustice in the Victorian age.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, attending one of Dickens’s readings in Boston, “laughed as if he must crumble to pieces,” but, discussing Dickens afterward, he said, “I am afraid he has too much talent for his genius; it is a fearful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from it nor set to rest...He daunts me! I have not the key.”
Here is a look back at Dickens, his novels and some of the most famous film adaptations:
— Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in a suburb of Portsmouth, the second of eight children to John Dickens (1786-1851), a clerk in the Navy Pay Office.
— The family moved to London’s Camden Town from Chatham after his father lost his job. His father, was arrested for debt and the whole family, except Charles, were imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison in 1824. Charles was sent to work in a factory to support the family. The images of the prison and of the lost, oppressed, or bewildered child recur in many of his novels.
— On his father’s release he was sent back to school and then worked in a lawyer’s office and taught himself shorthand.
— In 1833 Dickens began to contribute short stories and essays to periodicals. “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” was Dickens’s first published story. It appeared in the Monthly Magazine under the pen-name ‘Boz’. He sold “Sketches by Boz” for 150 pounds buying it back later for 11 times the amount.
— In 1836 the first part of “Pickwick Papers” appeared and days later he married Catherine Hogarth daughter of the editor of the Evening Chronicle and had 10 children with her before their separation in 1858.
— Finding serialization congenial and profitable, he repeated the Pickwick pattern of 20 monthly parts with “Nicholas Nickleby” (1838-39); then he experimented with shorter weekly installments for The “Old Curiosity Shop” (1840-41) and “Barnaby Rudge” (1841).
— Exhausted, he took a five-month break in the United States, touring as a literary celebrity but offending national sensibilities by protesting against the absence of copyright protection.
— Dickens’ series of Christmas novels followed including “A Christmas Carol” (1843). After living abroad in Italy and Switzerland, Dickens continued his success with “Dombey and Son” (1848), the largely autobiographical “David Copperfield” (1849-50), “Bleak House” (1852-53), “Hard Times” (1854), “Little Dorrit” (1857), “A Tale of Two Cities” (1859), and “Great Expectations” (1861).
— Spending time abroad, he delivered lectures against slavery in the United States and toured Italy with companions Augustus Egg and Wilkie Collins, a contemporary writer.
— In 1869 he collapsed, showing symptoms of mild stroke. He set to work on his final novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” inspired by Collins, but died in 1870 before he could finish it.
— With more than 300 film and television adaptations based on his work, Dickens could claim to be cinema’s favorite novelist. Both Britain’s National Film Theatre and the American Film Institute are holding retrospectives.
— Few of the film adaptations have coped with all the challenges presented by the books - the focus being fixed on character and plot rather than the social criticism that made Dickens such an important figure in his time.
— The most notable include the MGM “David Copperfield” of 1935, with inspired casting in the form of comedian W. C. Fields as Micawber, and the same studio’s “A Tale of Two Cities” (also 1935), with Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton. These two films still stand as highly acclaimed adaptations.
— British director David Lean’s “Great Expectations” (1946) and “Oliver Twist” (1948) are generally considered the classic treatments of these works. “Oliver Twist” succeeds in capturing the many dimensions of Dickens’ work - the realistic, the grotesque, the comical, the social comment, the sentimental, the symbolic, the fascination with violence presented in imagery that created a London, both as a real city and a symbolic underworld. The definitive “A Christmas Carol” film is widely acknowledged to be the 1951 “Scrooge,” starring Alastair Sim.
— British television, where the serial format over several episodes can allow a fuller and more leisurely treatment of the texts continues to turn out Dickens, most recently “Bleak House” in 2005.
Sources: Reuters/www.britannica.com/Chambers Biographical Dictionary/www.dickens-online.info/BBC (Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit)