“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
That is what I call a sentence! Dickens knew that if a thing was worth saying, it was worth saying up to eight times, with building flourishes.
How to celebrate the man who gave us “Great Expectations” and “A Christmas Carol,” “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield” and that other book that isn’t “David Copperfield” that few people still read?
Run around the house in a wedding dress, lighting things on fire?
Have a horrible nightmare about your former business partner and wake up several days later with a totally altered personality?
Offer to be beheaded to save the life of your romantic rival?
None of these options being open to me, I’m opting to write a tribute of excessive length.
Dickens has come in for general calumny lately because everyone thinks that he was paid by the word. This is untrue. Still — “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the season of light. It was the season of darkness” is not quite how one writes if one is under any sort of word constraint. Consider Hemingway, whose masterpiece, “A Farewell to Arms,” is only eight words long. Six of the words are grunts, and the other two are the simple declarative sentence, “Goodbye, Arms.”
Dickens, by contrast, took an awfully long time to say whatever it was he was going to say. And he had an incentive to do it. He published his books in installments, in the pulp form of the serial — cheaper than full-bore novels, and far more addictive. On the bright side, this makes his books useful for stopping doors and ironing recalcitrant skirts. On the downside, you really feel, upon emerging, that you know everything that can possibly be said on the subject of allegorical knitting.
He had an ear for melodrama and for memorable, quirky characters who could stand reintroducing a few times with epithets. To call a work Dickensian is both praise and accusation. The word describes a whole range of things — awful workhouse conditions or sprawling, colorful, frequently melodramatic scenes of bustling life.
As writers go, some impress by their lucidity and precision, some by their sheer scale, some by their vivacity and color, some by their warts. Dickens was a warty writer. One has the sense, on reading him, that he could have weathered a serious edit without any readers taking notice. But that is half his charm. These days, some strive for clarity and brevity. Others write online fan-fiction about rabbits in the first person. Dickens wrote elastically — he could expand and contract time and space, prolong an evening for a chapter or skim through a whole revolution. He built people the old-fashioned way, by accumulation of sayings and epithets. Some of his characters can breathe off the page. Others thrive only in his peculiar atmosphere of angels and hobgoblins and repeated phrases.
To say that some of his books are cheap soap operas would be putting it mildly. Oscar Wilde noted that you would have to have a heart of stone to read of the death of Little Nell — without laughing. But they have vibrant, beating hearts and ample laughter, and if a Lucie Manette or an Estella is occasionally insufferable, there are more than enough Biddies and Herberts to compensate for her.
Dickens recognized and embodied the delight of taking the long way ’round. We live in the age of TL;DR — “Too long; didn’t read.” Try starting “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times” today and see where it gets you, unless of course you are Newt Gingrich, who has been doing this sort of thing for years.
One thing worries me about Dickens. When Victorian readers slummed it and put down their Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and whatever else it was they were expected to be reading, they picked up Charles Dickens in the grocery-store checkout aisle. If only we were so lucky. When I glance there nowadays, I see first the “Twilight” series and then something called the “Greek Millionaire’s Virgin Bride.”
Ogden Nash said he’d rather be a great bad poet than a bad good poet. That’s what Dickens was — a great bad poet.
The first time through, of course.
The Evelyn Waugh novel “A Handful of Dust” concludes with the book’s protagonist, Tony Last, trapped in the jungle forever reading the complete works of Dickens aloud to a psychopath.
That’s the other side.
Nothing more closely approximates my vision of Hell than being forced to read his works over and over again. “It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair.” By the thirty-fifth repetition or so, they might grow stale.
But until then, happy birthday to a man, like his work, received “in the superlative degree of comparison only.”