By Caitlin Hedgcock
My family and I traveled to Kent a few weekends ago and stumbled across the little seaside town of Broadstairs. On picking ourselves up, we found it full of associations with the author Charles Dickens—the hotels in which he wrote parts of David Copperfield and other novels, the place that supposedly inspired the title Bleak House, and the home of the real Betsey Trotwood (called "Dickens House" and pictured below).
I have been thinking a lot about classical authors, trying to pinpoint the qualities that have made their popularity so long-lived. What made Mr. Dickens such a sensation in his lifetime as well as two hundred years after his birth? What can we learn from him?
Disclaimer: It is not my intention to discuss authors' personal lives or actions here; rather I want to learn from the skills they developed and the enduring principles they used to write effectively.
What I Appreciate About Dickens
1. The characters
When you read a Dickens novel, it is hard (virtually impossible) not to picture in vivid Technicolor the false humility of Uriah Heep or the indifferent laziness of Eugene Wrayburn, the wittiness of Jenny Wren or the staunch loyalty of Miss Pross. Dickens based his characters on real people, and it shows.
The real Betsey Trotwood, a fearsome spinster named Miss Strong, believed she had the right to chase away the donkey-boys who tried to drive their animals in front of her cottage . . . and if my memory serves me correctly, she eventually got in trouble with the law for it. As the Dickens House museum curator said, “You couldn't make this stuff up!”
2. The setting.
2. The setting.
Often centering in the dingy quarters of towns, the dwellings of the poor, the work-house, or boarding school, the setting is presented so realistically that one cannot help feeling exactly the way the author intends—sorry for the characters, disgusted, trapped, or yearning for something better. Setting is a tool that can almost be made into a character. Paris, in A Tale of Two Cities, is enough of a personage to represent the villains themselves and make you shudder.
- The plot.
Yes, the plots are not always edifying and there are Dickens titles that I'm not interested in reading. The few that I have encountered, however, have a remarkable way of starting out slowly and with many scattered threads. The story continues, the characters and setting are developed, there are many unexpected turns, until—crunch! The climax comes and the threads tie together in the most unusual ways. The characters that seemed redundant at the beginning suddenly become very useful.
While all that is happening, I have noticed a strange thing—plot points that are supposed to be secret are very predictable, and on purpose. In Our Mutual Friend, there is hardly any doubt about the real identity of John Rokesmith. In A Tale of Two Cities, I was able to guess Sydney Carton's final act within the first chapters of meeting him. Was this an "authorly" mistake? I doubt it. As Dickens himself says in the notes of Our Mutual Friend, publishing three chapters at a time was not conducive to keeping up certain secrets. Readers had to have a strong feeling about Rokesmith or they would get bored.
Strangely, the predictability doesn't kill his stories. Why not? We know the secrets, but the other characters don't, and we keep reading to see how they will find out. Plus, there are always some extra mysteries up Dickens' sleeve that we hardly suspect.
Did I mention that he wrote long and complex stories in monthly installments (click here for Mrs. Rossano's post about serials) and tied up all the loose ends as he went along? That's just remarkable.
Is there anything I missed out? Do you like or dislike Dickens' novels and writing techniques? Who's your favourite classic author? Would you like to explore the places in which other authors found inspiration?
Caitlin R. Hedgcock is a Christian author who aspires to use storytelling for God’s glory. She lives with her family in England's picturesque county of Hertfordshire. Visit her blog or Facebook page to find out more.