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'Dickens' makes author's life an open book

Virginia Woolf wrote that the works of Charles Dickens are not books, but rather "stories communicated by word of mouth in those tender years when fact and fiction merge, and thus belong to the memories and myths of life, and not to its esthetic experience."

 

No one can remember reading "David Copperfield" for the first time, she added. It just happens.

Indeed, Charles Dickens is simply part of our literary muscle memory. And if he at times swamps us, he also offers unmatched senses of place and character -- as with the marshes and Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations" -- that reside within us long after the essay questions on their meaning are forgotten.

Or should reside. Dickens is not in vogue these days. He is no longer the staple in humanities courses on this side of the Atlantic that he once was. And yet, asserts Peter Ackroyd, the distinguished British author and Dickens specialist, "Charles Dickens is the greatest novelist in the English language."

Big words. Fighting words. Henry James addicts will moan -- maybe the odd Faulkner fanatic, too -- but Ackroyd is on solid ground. At the very least, Dickens is the greatest storyteller in the English language, if not its greatest stylist. His command of his time, early Victorian England, is peerless from top to bottom. His eye for its cruelties is acute. His themes of lost innocence and struggle -- "The Battle of Life," in his own words -- are timeless.

In a three-hour BBC/Pro Arte production that airs tonight on PBS (8 p.m., Channel 2), Ackroyd gives us an early Christmas present. He wrote and narrates "Dickens," a rich look at the man's life, which, we learn, was one long bipolar experience -- suffused with a darkness and turbulence that informed his art. It would behoove Dickens lovers, as well as the hordes of people of all ages who are less familiar with him than they should be, to learn about the man behind "A Christmas Carol."

And then read his books.

Ackroyd is a doughy figure in good clothes with thinning hair who gives his smart judgments directly and through the voices of a strong roster of Brit actors who play the key figures in Dickens's life. Anton Lesser, as the great man himself, is superb; Geoffrey Palmer, as the pompous William Makepeace Thackeray, is a treat. Also, in clips from earlier BBC productions of Dickens's work, we see glimpses of Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins, Tom Wilkinson, and Charlotte Rampling.

Charles Dickens was the first rock star. His dramatic readings from his books were sensations on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a born showman who slipped seamlessly into one character and accent after another before sold-out houses. Onstage, he fed off the applause; offstage, he wallowed in depression and loneliness, despite -- or perhaps because of -- a wife and brood of nine children. (A 10th died.)

At 30, he was the most famous novelist in the world, and yet, says Ackroyd, "happiness eluded him."

Dickens was born in 1812, died of a stroke in 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey with the other gods of Albion. His early childhood in the country was sublime, but he never recovered from the horror of working at a London boot-blacking factory, at the age of 12, to help make ends meet as the family fortunes declined. At one point, his father was sequestered as a debtor in a workhouse, where Dickens's mother joined him. Dickens lived alone in a rooming house, left to fend for himself.

This experience shattered forever his sense of security and bred an exquisite sensitivity to the horrific treatment of poor children in Victorian England, memorialized in works such as "Oliver Twist." This was the first book in the English language, notes Ackroyd, in which a child was the central character. (Thackeray snorts, "He traded in lost innocence.") Ackroyd notes that in 1839, half of the funerals held in London were for children under age 10. "The great secret of the 19th century," he tells us, "is that children had to die."

At 19, Dickens became a reporter (stenographer) at Parliament. In 1836, at 24, he finished "The Pickwick Papers," which, like so many of his works, appeared serially. It secured his fame. Desperate for family and a sense of home, in the same year he married Catherine Hogarth, a woman whom, 22 years later, he would banish from his house for her passivity and depression. His restlessness was constant; he would walk miles at a time alone as he battled demons and dreamed up new characters. And his temper worsened. Catherine, his daughter, talks of "the danger lamp" when a storm was brewing in his head.

Dickens traveled in 1842 to America, where he was initially lionized. After he teed off on American publishers for their utter disregard for copyrights, though, he was castigated. (He would respond by lampooning the United States in "Martin Chuzzlewit.")

At 45, Dickens found his only respite from torment: Ellen Lawless Ternan, an 18-year-old struggling actress he met while touring in an amateur theatrical production. (Dickens loved to act in and direct these things.) He spent much of the rest of his life with her, both in England and in France.

There is great mystery around this relationship, which he hid from the public throughout his life. He used assumed names to rent houses for them, yet hotly denied any sexual relationship. He was with her in 1865 when they were in a serious train accident. Dickens demanded of the authorities that neither he nor she be deposed in the ensuing inquiry.

But first (after extricating Ternan, her mother, and himself from the wreck) Dickens -- ever the working pro -- returned to the scene to retrieve the latest installment of "Our Mutual Friend" for publication. Says Ackroyd, "Charles Dickens never missed a deadline."

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