The History Behind A MATTER OF TIME
A Matter of Time: Coming in December, but available now for pre-order for your Kindle.
Perhaps like Merrideth, the closest you’ve ever come to reading a Dickens’ Novel was the Cliff Notes version of Great Expectations. His books are seldom taught in high schools any more. Thankfully, Miss Evelyn Allen taught them at my high school. She loved Dickens so much that some students (not mentioning any names) often brought up some Dickens-related topic just to listen to her go off on a long tangent about her hero. It was a great way to avoid less interesting subjects, such as dangling participles, subject/verb agreement, or other grammatical horrors. In memory of her I gave a character in A Matter of Time her name.
In 1843 when sales of Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit fell off, his friend and (and eventual biographer) John Forster bemoaned the fact, saying, “The excitement by which a popular reputation is kept up to the highest selling mark, will always be subject to lulls too capricious of explanation.”
That’s an encouragement to me as I check my own book sales each day. But in Dickens’ case, the dip in sales was only a temporary fluke. Dickens was the most popular author of his time and considered by some the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. Even to this day, he is one of the best known and most read authors in the English language. His books have never gone out of print. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations as well as his novella A Christmas Story have been adapted dozens of times as plays, musicals, movies, and made-for-TV specials.
His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published in serial form in 1836. He went on to write fifteen more novels, five novellas, and hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles.
As a matter of fact, Dickens pioneered the concept of serial publication, making it possible for thousands of poor people to be able to afford to read. And even the illiterate paid to have each new episode read to them. Others waded through the super thick novels when they came out in book form.
When Dickens toured America in 1842, he was already an international literary rock star at the ripe old age of thirty.
Why? Because Dickens was a genius at humor, satire, caricature, and linguistic flights of fancy. G. K. Chesterton said that although Dickens wrote sixteen thick books, “he could have written endless others, he was that creative…his letters are as creative as his literary works and very funny.”
And Dickens had such a profound understanding of human society that some have said he was the second greatest creator of fictional characters in the English language, the first being Shakespeare. Many of Dickens’ characters have become intrinsically intertwined with English culture. Some have entered the dictionary. A scrooge, for example, is another name for a miser.
He had a keen ear for dialect and a sharp eye for visual details. He watched the people and settings around him and he remembered. From the time he was a child, he kept a notebook of character sketches. I like to think he took notes on some of the people he met in Lebanon, Illinois during his stay there April 12, 1842.
In spite of his literary genius, Dickens wrote the average person, not the educated elites. G. K. Chesterton, another biographer, said of him:
It is now popular to sneer at the middle classes, but Dickens didn’t. He didn’t condescend or talk down to his readers. He was a literary genius who had a taste to write what the “community” [masses] wanted. He had not only produced something they could understand, but he took it seriously, and toiled and agonized to produce it well.
At a time when Britain was the world’s largest economic force, Dickens used his considerable talent to call attention to the plight of the poor and disadvantaged within the sharply stratified Victorian society in which he lived. It was only after his death that John Forster’s biography The Life of Charles Dickens revealed that many of Dickens’ realistic portrayals of inner city London squalor came from his own impoverished early life.
Dickens was praised by many of his peers, including Leo Tolstoy and George Orwell, but some, Oscar Wilde for one, mocked his work for its vein of saccharine sweet sentimentality. Others were distressed at having to come far too close to the ugliness of poverty for their own comfort. Walt Whitman often defended Dickens against such attacks. He says in his Boz and Democracy:
The richer classes…are taught to feel, in fancy, what poverty is, and what thousands of fellow-creatures, as good as they, toil on year after year, amid discouragements and evils, whose bare [telling] ought to make the heart sick. The rich cannot taste the distresses of want from their own experience; it is something if they are made to do so through the power of the pen.
Charles Dickens died in June 1870 and was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. His great friend John Forster spoke movingly of him:
He whom we mourn was the friend of mankind, a philanthropist in the true sense; the friend of youth, the friend of the poor, the enemy of every form of meanness and oppression…We read him, talked about him, acted him; we laughed with him; we were roused by him to a consciousness of the misery of others, and to a pathetic interest in human life. Works of fiction, indirectly, are great instructors of this world; and we can hardly exaggerate the debt of gratitude which is due to a writer who has led us to sympathize with these good, true, sincere, honest English characters of ordinary life, and to laugh at the egotism, the hypocrisy, the false respectability of religious professors and others…No one was ever so much beloved or so much mourned.
Charles Dickens is long gone but still not forgotten. In 2002, he was number 41 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 greatest Britons. In the 2003 UK survey The Big Read, five of Dickens’ books were named in the top 100. And he’s respected outside of his country, too. Esteemed American literary critic Harold Bloom lists him among the greatest western writers of all time.
Alas, by the time I went to college, Dickens had fallen out of favor among the ivory tower crowd there. Nevertheless, when I had an English classroom of my own, I presented Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations to my students. Much to my sorrow and disappoint, most of them thought I only did so to torture them. (But this may be more the fault of the teacher and/or the student than the author.)
If you haven’t read Dickens novels, I hope you’ll give one a try. See for yourself. Or at least when A Matter of Time comes out, time-surf along with Merrideth and Brett to meet Dickens the time he visited tiny Lebanon, Illinois.
It would be so nice of you to share!