The Great Novelist's Grand Universe

This year is the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens — Dickens, who as time goes by emerges ever more conclusively as England’s greatest novelist and the literary figure who has come to govern our sense of the Victorian era; to embody it, really. And who also happens, in all likelihood, to be the most popular novelist who ever lived. (Apologies to Agatha Christie.)

After he died, in 1870, his reputation — though not his popularity — dipped. Yes, he was a supreme entertainer, but the author of “A Christmas Carol” and “A Tale of Two Cities” couldn’t really be considered a serious writer in a world of Hardy and Meredith and Conrad and James. And other popular writers had come along and won large readerships — Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and, of course, Kipling, the most talented of them all, whose reputation has fluctuated even more than Dickens’s, given his fatal identification with imperialism.

But, as these things happen, before the end of the century the tide had begun to turn. A reconsideration of Dickens by the impressive novelist and critic George Gissing, published in 1898, made large claims for his art, and then, in 1906, the prodigious young G. K. Chesterton (long before his “Father Brown” mysteries made him, too, a popular writer) published a reconsideration of such wit, sympathy and sheer brilliance that Dickens was back in play as a major literary force. Meanwhile, of course, the world had gone on reading him, happily ignorant that he was a has-been.

Chesterton celebrated him as the comic genius that he was, and as the creator of the greatest collection of unforgettable characters since Shakespeare. Pickwick (and his sidekick Sam Weller) and Fagin and Scrooge (boo!) and Miss Havisham and Little Nell (sob!) and Tiny Tim (more sobs) and Mr. Micawber and Mrs. Micawber — “Mr. Micawber (whom I will never desert)” — and creepy Uriah Heep and Sairey Gamp (and her imaginary friend, Mrs. Harris) and scores and scores of others were as familiar to a vast reading public around the world as, a decade post-Chesterton, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford would be: recognized and cherished everywhere. Dickens may have remained even more popular in America than in Britain — in countless households like mine when I was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, there was likely to be found a complete (inexpensive) set of his novels, alongside the inevitable Encyclopaedia Britannica. And he went on being widely read on the Continent, as well as in Russia, where he had exerted a profound influence on both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

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