Like the Victorian era he came to embody and define, Charles Dickens was a mass of contradictions. A human dynamo passionately at odds with the dehumanizing effects of what his friend Carlyle termed the Mechanical Age; a man of conservative middle-class morals, seen by some as a social radical and by others as a political reactionary; limitlessly charitable, he was also vainly conceited about his attire and coiffure; a self-appointed spokesperson for hearth and home and the unique blessings of domestic bliss, yet lived unhappily married for years with a wife he later spent 13 years in acrimonious separation from while secretly maintaining a mistress half his age; a Francophile with an acerbic view of the British who could nevertheless be doggedly John Bullish; a man inordinately fond of boundless scale, yet champion of the intimate and cozy; a proponent of the imagination who often simply mimicked the outward world and refused to entertain his character's inner lives; an author whose works are frequently sprawling and picaresque, yet was himself obsessively punctual and meticulously “neat”; a sympathetic Good Samaritan to “fallen” women, yet in ways a misogynist unable to countenance a mature independent woman; a gregarious man who constantly craved companionship, yet spent hours alone writing his novels and extended night walks which were commonly 10 or more miles at a stretch; a boy at heart who, by 50, had the withered body and face of a septuagenarian; a writer who never had a bad word for other writers of his time but read few of them, preferring instead Smollet, Fielding, Defoe, and Shakespeare; a novelist, journalist, essayist, playwright, historian, man of letters, and short story writer of whom it can be said he was the best of his times, he was the worst of his times.
Charles Dickens was the kind of man who wanted to do everything and do it all at once – write a novel while already writing one, produce a magazine in which every article in it is by him, devise a play in which he not only acts every part but directs and manages front of house too. His own personal energy mirrored the Industrial Revolution that fueled and accounted for the British Empire under Victoria. Yet Dickens' own manner was more in the mode of the Regency Period – the era in which many of Dickens' works are actually set - when “Farmer George” was on the throne, elegance reigned, and England had about it the dreamy feeling of a dew covered meadow in the morning. Echoing Dickens' own rise to wealth and fame, his era was one in which self-made men amassed huge fortunes and the middle-class ballooned to be more influential than the hereditary aristocracy. Just as he became more conservative and bourgeois himself, losing some of the immediate connection with the common man he once had at his fingertips, so Dickens' excoriation of bureaucratic systems grew more scathing and absolute. Yet, the franchise Dickens came to rail against in his later works did actually manage over time to raise the standard of living for the masses he claimed to represent. The daylight robbery, shoplifting, and pick-pocketing which were commonplace events at the time of his youth had been dramatically redressed with the formation of a unified police force. And while he wrote nostalgically of the stagecoaches he remembered as a boy, he far preferred the comfort and efficiency of steam trains running on time. Like the age, he embraced change, enjoyed its benefits, and wanted more – even as a deep part of him rejected this commercialism and pined for something simpler, more beautiful perhaps, more human. In short, the boundless optimism which filled him as a young man and affected all those who joyously devoured his early works, soured in its own success and devolved over time - as such high idealism often must, when confronted again and again with the vast grey areas of reality and, frankly, with the inherent inadequacy of its own attitude – into unchecked cynicism and abject pessimism. His saving grace was an unshakable love and faith in children - he instinctively shared their hopes and joys along with their sorrows. His sympathies were always with the underdog - even when the power that be whom he heretofore derided became the bottom dog.
The astounding popularity Charles Dickens enjoyed really was an unprecedented phenomenon, and remains so to this day. His celebrity and influence was not just a unique and monumental event in English literature but in English history - if not the history of the world. A Dickens novel provided escapism for the masses - an escape back into their everyday lives, making those lives in turn more comic, tragic, and alive. The marvelous and monstrous which easily overflowed from a Dickens novel was matched only by the outpouring of love and loyalty bestowed on him by his adoring public. His uncharted popularity was due to the fact he was a man of the people – not some scholarly intellectual or effete dandy, but a negligibly educated Everyman who relied on his hopes and wits and his honest to goodness ability, like most Englishmen, to muddle through. He was a man of literary genius with a taste in literature akin to that of the common man. He was an emotional thinker, which is why he never gave emotions much thought – rather, he felt them, and his adoring readers felt them along with him, for these feelings were in fact their own feelings – he just gave them word.
As such a natural man of the people, he shared their prejudices – even the ones, having internalized the Protestant work ethic and the British class system, the people held against themselves. The marginalized who demanded fair treatment, such as suffragettes or trade union labourors or the poor who took advantage of the charity offered them, were for Dickens deplorable, dishonourable, and otherwise beneath consideration. Those, on the other hand, who insisted on going it alone – such as Stephen Blackpool from Hard Times or Mrs. Betty Higden from Our Mutual Friend – were admirable characters who maintained their pride and probity. Dickens' railing against statisticians and utilitarians was a war he waged in himself - he had a predilection for regimentation, the uniform, rule-obeying. Every morning he inspected the drawers of his daughter's rooms and left notes regarding any untidiness he found there. A man of simple pleasures, the less than pleasurable aspects of his personality were simple enough too: sentimentality, complacency, hypocrisy, and facile cant. He was touched when the lowly classes retained their lowly appearance – indeed, he saw it as a test of their deserving – something of a contradiction in a man whom the rustic, solemnly dressed Americans considered just shy of a fop in dandified red velvet-lined waistcoat and meticulously maintained hair.
And as much as these are the weaknesses of any man of any era, he was also not impervious to the hardening of heart and retrenchment of thought that afflicts all men as they age, to where dignity grows hopeless and violence grows virtuous and evil can only be dealt with by summary means. In the Uncommercial Traveller, Dickens reports on a traipse through Liverpool with a superintendent of police and 3 officers. Together, they break into several households in hopes of finding evidence, indifferent to the disruption and invasion of privacy they are committing. When no evidence is found, Dickens' attitude is condescending and accusatory, as though these poor cretins were undoubtedly guilty and only luck enabled them to elude justice this time, rather than the indignity of the unwarranted invasion being unjust. This preoccupation with crime and justice endemic to the Victorian era - indeed, what in part made it the age of Social Criticism - is the flip side of a coin that may be hailed as Caesar's. That is to say, it was ballast to the unrestrained sentimentality it lavished on such idealized martyrs as Little Nell and Paul Dombey, fictitious lambs whose deaths served to mollify the Victorian conscience and absolve the era of its wrongdoings.
If there was one man who could exculpate and emancipate the Victorian era, it was probably Charles Dickens, for he contained within him so many other men's tears and laughter, and more than enough fictional personalities to go around. His vision of modern life is multifaceted and penetrating. The unifying thread of his output is a critical analysis and emotional lustration of the 19th Century, yet his vivacity of language and his audacity of character remain unsurpassed and every bit as germane to us today. Even though quintessentially English, he belongs to all the world. His real-life trajectory was as moving, dark, prodigious, and outstanding as anything in his books. Altogether, he was a testament to the colour and richness of life, whose work reflected not only the archetypes of human nature, but the astronomical multitude of niceties – and not so niceties – comprising humanity.