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The Enduring Legacy of Charles Dickens

  • A guided tour around Dickens’ Birthplace in Portsmouth, Hampshire with the author’s great-great-great granddaughter, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley. (2012, Telegraph.co.uk/Video)

There are many reasons to love Dickens, but I particularly love him because he’s such a magnificently capacious and versatile writer — gripping storyteller, gorgeous stylist, with such a vibrant command of metaphor and character. As a novelist, in terms of technique, there’s nothing he doesn’t do well. He’s got great intelligence but also has great heart. He’s unruly, predictable, chaotic, exciting. And in that sense he’s inexhaustibly new and inspiring, like Shakespeare. His worlds are big and all-encompassing; he always has something new and surprising to tell us.

(American writer and author Donna Tartt, ‘Dickens’ Influence Lingers With Passage Of Time’ by Kevin Nance, Chicago Tribune, 27.11.2013)

  • Charles Dickens’s great-great grandson, Ian Dickens, introduces this short film about the author’s connections with Portsmouth, Hampshire. (2012, BBC South Today)

Dickens In Portsmouth, Hampshire

New Charles Dickens statue in Portsmouth's Guildhall Square. Sculptor Martin Jenning's made the bronze. ©Come Step Back in Time.
Recently unveiled bronze statue of Charles Dickens by Sculptor Martin Jennings located  in Portsmouth’s Guildhall Square. ©Come Step Back in Time.

By the steps of Portsmouth’s Guildhall, on Friday 7th February, 2014, a life-size bronze statue of author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was unveiled.

© Come Step Back in Time.
© Come Step Back in Time.

Surprisingly, this is Britain’s first ever statue of Dickens and worldwide only two others are known to exist, one in West Philadelphia’s Clark Park and another in Sydney’s Centennial Park.

Oliver Dickens, the 9 year-old great, great, great, grandson of Charles Dickens. Jane Monk (on right) is Dickens' great, great, granddaughter. Jane has been photographed with all three statues of her ancestor. © Come Step Back in Time.
Oliver Dickens, the 9 year-old great, great, great, grandson of Charles Dickens. Jane Monk (on right) is Dickens’ great, great, granddaughter. Jane has been photographed with all three statues of her ancestor. © Come Step Back in Time.

It is a fitting tribute to Dickens that a statue has now been erected in the city where he was born 202 years ago. The bronze has been created by sculptor Martin Jennings, whose previous subjects include John Betjeman at St Pancras Station in London and Philip Larkin in Hull.

Oliver Dickens with his great, great, great, grandfather. © Come Step Back in Time.
Oliver Dickens with his great, great, great, grandfather. © Come Step Back in Time.

The event was a tremendous success and the stormy weather that has blighted the British Isles recently, stayed away. Clouds parted, television crews gathered and thankfully the sun shone. Perhaps an approving sign sent from above by Dickens himself.

The Pickwick Cycle Club on their Penny Farthings posing for photographs alongside Charles Dickens. © Come Step in Time.
The Pickwick Cycle Club on their Penny Farthings posing for photographs alongside Charles Dickens. © Come Step Back in Time.

Actor Edward Fox and his wife Joanna David gave a wonderful tribute to Dickens which included the reading of extracts from some of his better known novels. Fox played Mr Brownlow in the 2007 BBC television adaptation of Oliver Twist.

Edward Fox and his wife Joanna David who gave a wonderful tribute to Dickens including reading aloud extracts from some of his novels. © Come Step Back in Time.
Edward Fox and his wife Joanna David both gave a wonderful tribute to Dickens including reading aloud extracts from some of his novels. © Come Step Back in Time.

Following an initial ‘rally call’ by Portsmouth’s branch of the Dickens Fellowship, it has taken five years of fundraising, spearheaded by Professor Tony Pointon and the Charles Dickens Statue Fund, to collect all necessary monies. Actress Gillian Anderson, who played Miss Havisham in a BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, is a patron of the Statue Fund.

Perhaps one of the reasons why it has taken so long to immortalise Dickens in bronze, could relate to a clause in his Will stipulating no statues or monuments of him should be built. However, his great great grandson, Ian Dickens, defends the decision to proceed:

It’s no secret that Charles Dickens stipulated in his Will that he didn’t want his friends to erect a lavish monument in the aftermath of his death. But the fact that his work remains so loved and remains so relevant two centuries on, a statue that celebrates that achievement is both fully justified and not a little overdue.

It is not only a tribute to his creative talent, but also reminds us of his passion for reform in social welfare and a desire to see a fairer society. And with it located in the Guildhall Square, thousands of people will be reminded of that essential legacy – and for some, perhaps it will encourage them to read Dickens for the first time.

The house in Landport, Southsea (as it appeared in 1871) where Charles Dickens was born, 7th February 2012.Now the Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum. Image source: The Victorian Web.
The house in Landport, Southsea (as it appeared in 1871) where Charles Dickens was born, 7th February, 1812. Now the Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum. Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.

Charles Dickens was born on the 7th February, 1812 at 387 Mile End Terrace, Landport, Portsea (now known as 393 Old Commercial Road, Portsmouth) and lived in the area for the first three years of his life. The Dickens family also lived at 16 Hawke Street in Portsea (from June 1812) and 39 Wish Street, Southsea (from December 1813).  In 1904, the former family home at Mile End Terrace became Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum.

His father, John Dickens (1785-1851), managed the Dockyard’s Navy Pay Office from Christmas 1807 until January 1815 (his family left  during the Winter of 1814). This was a turbulent and expensive time to be living in Portsmouth, Britain’s Navy was still at war with Napoleonic France (1799-1815). Rents across the city, particularly for properties located near the Dockyard, were very high. Landlords seized the opportunity to profiteer from the increased demand for rental property, particularly among military personnel.

John Dickens earned a reasonable living for the time, which in 1809 amounted to a salary of £110 per annum, rising to £220 by the time he left in 1815. However, the rent book for Mile End Terrace does show that John Dickens allowed himself to get into difficulties with the rent and arrears were not uncommon. All this being an early indication of Dickens Sr’s inability to manage the household finances properly.  A pattern of behaviour that would, in later years, lead to some very difficult times for the Dickens family.

Having left Portsmouth as a child, Charles did not return until 1838 when he undertook a three week visit  researching characters for Nicholas Nickleby (1838). In 2012, inspired by the tale of Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens’s great-great-grandsons Ian and Gerald, walked from London to Portsmouth wearing top hats and tracing the same route taken in the novel by Nicholas and his companion Smike. However, there was one small difference, Nicholas and Smike completed their journey in two and a half days, Ian and Gerald took five. The aim of the walk was to raise £50,000 for the Dickens Statue Fund.

Charles Dickens made two further visits to the city as part of a reading tour. In 1858, he recited extracts from A Christmas Carol (1843) at the Music Warehouse in Portsea and in 1866, performed a reading recital which was made-up of passages from Pickwick Papers (1836) and David Copperfield (1849). He gave this recital at St. George’s Hall in Portsea. In 1866, a Portsmouth journalist wrote:

As the greatest novelist of his day and as one who has laboured long and earnestly in his profession, not merely to amuse and gratify his readers, but to instruct and direct them, he has been wonderfully successful and done an immense amount of good.

Dickens was an enthusiastic, amateur actor and prone to over-acting when reading aloud. He loved the theatre and often performed in a company that he himself had set-up.  On the 4th July, 1856, his company entertained Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and her court, also present in the audience were Hans Christian Anderson (1805-1875) and W. M. Thackeray (1811-1863).

  • The Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum will be open on Friday 7th February, 2014, 10-5pm. Free admission on this day. At 10.30am on the 7th, the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth and a representative from the Dickens Fellowship will be toasting Charles Dickens’ and giving a few words in honour of the author’s birthday. Additionally, the Museum will be open on Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th February as well as between Sunday 16th and Wednesday 19th February. On these days, normal admission charges will apply:
  • If you want to find-out more about Charles Dickens, his family and their lives and work in Portsmouth, there is an illustrated talk taking place at The City Museum on Sunday 9th February (2.30pm, £3 per adult). For more information on this event, click here.

After their early years in Portsmouth, the Dickens family moved house fairly frequently and financially, times were tough.  It is not for us to say whether or not young Charles had an unhappy childhood but what we can say is that it was far from settled and certainly full of adventure, both good and bad. In 1815, John Dickens moved his family to a house at No. 10 Norfolk Street (now 22 Cleveland Street), St. Pancras, London. In 1817, he uprooted his family once more so that he could take-up a post as clerk in the Navy Pay Office at Chatham Dockyard. The family lived initially at No. 2 Ordnance Terrace in Sheerness then moved to The Brook, 18 St. Mary’s Place, Chatham in 1821.

  • A tour around Charles Dickens’s London with actor Simon Callow. (2012, Guardian.co.uk).

Dickens – From Boy To Man

In the Summer of 1822, the Dickens family moved to No. 16 Bayham Street, Camden Town, London. Initially, everything went well for the Dickens family until they fell upon hard times as a result of living beyond their means. Charles Dickens’s father was arrested for debt on February 20th, 1824 and his family (with the exception of Charles) were consigned by creditors to the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. Charles was sent to work ten hour days at Warren’s blacking-warehouse (3 Chandos Street, Hungerford Market) where he earned six shillings a week pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. During this period, he boarded with a family friend at 112 College Place, Camden and later a garret in Lant Street, Southwark. The income Charles earned helped his family keep their heads above water. John Dickens was released from Marshalsea on 28th May, 1824. The family was reunited at 29 Johnson Street, Somers Town.

Between 1824 and 1827, Dickens attended Wellington House Academy, North London. The Academy fell short of providing young Dickens with a solid educational foundation. In his view it was poorly managed, chaotic and standards of teaching were below what one would expect from such an establishment. Dickens began his professional career in May 1827 when he began work as a junior clerk at law firm Ellis & Blackmore of Holborn Court, Gray’s Inn where he remained until November 1828.

  • Charles Dickens: Literature’s Great Rock Star. (2013, CBS Sunday Morning).
Charles Dickens, 25th June, 1870. Featured in The Tomahawk (London). Image source: The Victorian Web
Charles Dickens, 25th June, 1870. Featured in The Tomahawk (London). Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text by George P. Landow.

Dickens The Writer And Journalist

Between 1829 and 1831, Dickens worked as a shorthand court reporter on Mirror of Parliament (a rival publication to Hansard) and True Sun. He also enjoyed a successful career as an editor and journalist on the Morning Chronicle and Bentley’s Miscellany. His experiences working for these publications led him to establish his own journals: The Daily News (from October 1845 until March 1846);  Household Words  (from March 1850 until June 1859) and All Year Round (from May 1859 until 1895).

In 1846, Dickens founded another important publication, The Daily News, which continued in print until 1870. Scottish musicologist George Hogarth (1783-1870), whom Dickens had met whilst working on the Morning Chronicle in 1834, was the publication’s music critic until 1866. Dickens went on to marry Hogarth’s daughter, Catherine (1815-1879), on the 3rd April, 1836. The couple had ten children together and set-up home in Bloomsbury.

Between 1837 and 1839 the newlyweds lived at 48 Doughty Street, a residence that Dickens described as ‘my house in town’. Doughty Street has been a Museum dedicated to the life and work of Charles Dickens since it opened in 1925. A number of key events happened to Dickens at the Doughty Street residence. His seventeen year old sister-in-law Mary, died in his arms in one of the upstairs bedrooms, two of his daughters were born here (Mary and Kate) and he wrote Oliver Twist (1837) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838) whilst living there.

  • Presenter Paul Martin takes a tour of Dickens’s Kent including a visit to Gad’s Hill Place, Higham. (2011)

Dickens divided his adult life between London and Kent. He purchased Gad’s Hill Place, Higham, Kent in March 1856 and his family moved there in June 1857. Dickens did not move permanently to Gad’s Hill until he sold his London residence in 1860. Dickens first saw Gad’s Hill as a nine year old boy whilst out walking with his father who apparently turned to the young Dickens and said: ‘If you work hard, you might some day come to live in it.’ The Grade I listed Georgian property became a school from 1924 until quite recently when they moved into new premises.  In 2012, work began on turning Gad’s Hill Place into an international heritage centre.

Dickens's Study at Gad's Hill, Higham, Kent. Image Source: The Victorian Web.
Dickens’s Study at Gad’s Hill, Higham, Kent. Image Source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.

Dickens And His ‘Invisible Woman’

Dickens marriage to Catherine was, for many years, a happy union. Unfortunately, over time it deteriorated, leading to their eventual separation in June, 1858. In Victorian England, separating from your wife was an unusual course of action, particularly if you lived your life in the public eye such as Dickens did. On Saturday, 12th June, 1858, Dickens took the unusual step of publishing a statement about the separation. The statement appeared in both the London Times and his own journal, Household Words. The notice puts forward his reasons for separating. The original article, as it appeared in Household Words, is reprinted below:

Three and twenty years have passed since I entered on my present relations with the Public. They began when I was so young, that I find them to have existed for nearly a quarter of a century. Through all that time I have tried to be as faithful to the Public, as they have been to me. It was my duty never to trifle with them, or deceive them, or presume upon their favor, or do any thing with it but work hard to justify it. I have always endeavoured to discharge that duty. My conspicuous position has often made me the subject of fabulous stories and unaccountable statements. Occasionally, such things have chafed me, or even wounded me; but, I have always accepted them as the shadows inseparable from the light of my notoriety and success. I have never obtruded any such personal uneasiness of mine, upon the generous aggregate of my audience. For the first time in my life, and I believe for the last, I now deviate from the principle I have so long observed, by presenting myself in my own Journal in my own private character, and entreating all my brethren (as they deem that they have reason to think well of me, and to know that I am a man who has ever been unaffectedly true to our common calling), to lend their aid to the dissemination of my present words. Some domestic trouble of mine, of long-standing, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected, as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement, which involves no anger or ill-will of any kind, and the whole origin, progress, and surrounding circumstances of which have been, throughout, within the knowledge of my children. It is amicably composed, and its details have now but to be forgotten by those concerned in it. By some means, arising out of wickedness, or out of folly, or out of inconceivable wild chance, or out of all three, this trouble has been made the occasion of misrepresentations, most grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel—involving, not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart, and innocent persons of whom I have no knowledge, if, indeed, they have any existence—and so widely spread, that I doubt if one reader in a thousand will peruse these lines, by whom some touch of the breath of these slanders will not have passed, like an unwholesome air. Those who know me and my nature, need no assurance under my hand that such calumnies are as irreconcilable with me, as they are, in their frantic incoherence, with one another. But, there is a great multitude who know me through my writings, and who do not know me otherwise; and I cannot bear that one of them should be left in doubt, or hazard of doubt, through my poorly shrinking from taking the unusual means to which I now resort, of circulating the Truth. I most solemnly declare, then—and this I do, both in my own name and in my wife’s name—that all the lately whispered rumours touching the trouble at which I have glanced, are abominably false. And that whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as wilfully and as foully as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before Heaven and earth.

Dickens met Rochester-born actress Ellen ‘Nelly’ Wharton Robinson (née Ternan) (1839-1914) in 1857, a year before officially separating from Catherine.  Both Ellen and her mother were engaged as actresses in the play The Frozen Deep which Dickens was producing for his good friend Wilkie Collins (1824-1889).  It is possible that Ellen was the inspiration for Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Ellen became Dickens’s mistress for the last thirteen years of his life. She outlived him by forty-two years and during this time married George Wharton Robinson in 1876. Throughout her life, Ellen remained loyal and discrete about her relationship with Dickens. Even when the Birthplace Museum opened its doors to the public in 1904, Ellen did not associate herself with the event. She remained very much ‘the invisible woman’. Dickens left Ellen a legacy in his Will and his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth (1827-1917), gave Ellen the pen with which Dickens had been writing on the last day of his life.

A new film, The Invisible Woman,  based on British biographer Claire Tomalin’s 1990 book of the same name, has been adapted for the screen by Abi Morgan and is directed by Ralph Fiennes who also plays Dickens in the film. Fiennes comments about the Dickens/Ternan relationship:

Everyone wags their finger of judgment at Dickens. And yes, he didn’t behave so well, especially in defending himself. You rather wish he’d just shut up about it. But his public self-justification was probably the most uncomfortable thing about it, not that he fell in love with a young girl. My sense is he was flailing around and he felt a bit lost. He sees this girl and he projects so much on to her.

 The thing that led me to make the film was to look at what made this young girl contemplate a relationship with Dickens, a much older man, and come to a point of finally saying, “I’m in this, I’m with you”.

(‘The Invisible Woman: Behind The Scenes’ by David Gritten, The Telegraph, 19.01.2014)

  • The Invisible Woman (2013) – Official UK Trailer. Film is released in UK cinemas on Friday 7th February, 2014.

Dickens died of a stroke (‘Apoplexy’), aged 58, on the evening of 9th June, 1870 at Gad’s Hill Place, Kent. There are two versions of the events leading up to his death. One is that he was taken ill during dinner on the 8th June and placed his favourite couch (which is now in the Birthplace Museum in Southsea, Portsmouth) to reduce the risk to his health from carrying him upstairs to the bedroom. The second version of events suggests that he was visiting Ellen in Peckham and was taken ill. Ellen hired a carriage and accompanied, the now unconscious Dickens, to Gad’s Hill where he was placed on his favourite couch and died surrounded by his family.

'Mr Bumble and Oliver Twist' from Oliver Twist (1837). Colour lithography by Harold Copping (1924). Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham.
‘Mr Bumble and Oliver Twist’ (1924) from Oliver Twist (1837). Colour lithography by Harold Copping (1863-1932). Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham.

Dickens – The Social Commentator

In his writing, Dickens displays great dexterity of skill, combining social commentary with keenly observed characters. He drew upon his own life experiences which ensured believability in his written word. Dickens was also influenced by social researcher and journalist Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) who published London Labour and the London Poor in 1851. Mayhew’s writing had originally been printed as a series of newspaper articles in the Morning Chronicle, the same publication that Dickens had once worked as a reporter on.  Mayhew’s book comprises a collection of  his own detailed data and first-hand accounts, of a wide-range of London’s poor and disenfranchised, from costermongers and street-sellers to sewer-scavengers and chimney-sweeps. The following is an extract from the chapter, ‘Crossing-Sweepers’:

People take to crossing-sweeping either on account of their bodily afflictions, depriving them of the power of performing ruder work, or because the occupation is the last resource left open to them of earning a living, and they considered even the scanty subsistence it yields preferable to that of the workhouse. The greater proportion of crossing-sweepers are those who, from some bodily infirmity or injury, are prevented from a more laborious mode of obtaining their living. Among the bodily infirmities the chief are old age, asthma, and rheumatism; and the injuries mostly consist of loss of limbs. Many of the rheumatic sweepers have been bricklayers’ labourers. The classification of crossing-sweepers is not very complex. They may be divided into the ‘casual’ and the ‘regular’. The regular crossing-sweepers are those who have taken-up their posts at the corner of streets or squares; and I have met with some who have kept to the same spot for more than forty years.

(Mayhew, H. (2010) [1851], London Labour and The London Poor, Oxford University Press, pp. 208-9)

In Bleak House (1853) Dickens presents us with Jo the crossing sweeper a character thought to have been inspired by a real-life crossing-sweep called George Ruby. Chapter 47 of Bleak House, ‘Jo’s Will’, includes a touching account by Dickens of a dying, young, homeless crossing-sweep called Jo.

  • Extract (1 min 40 secs) from Household Words Narrative (1st January, 1850) relates to young crossing-sweep George Ruby who is giving evidence in an assault case against a Police Officer.  Read by Editor of Come Step Back in Time, Emma.
Joe The Crossing-sweep and Mr Snagsby. Photographic reproduction of a line drawing from Dickens' Dream Children, p.221. Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
Jo the crossing sweeper and Mr Snagsby. Photographic reproduction of a line drawing from Dickens’ Dream Children, p.221. Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
  • Extract (6 mins 41 secs) from Bleak House (1853), Chapter 47 (XLVII), ‘Jo’s Will’. Jo’s final moments. Read by Editor of Come Step Back in Time, Emma.
'Pip waits on Miss Havisham'. Great Expectations. Wood-engraving by Marcus Stone (1862). Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
‘Pip waits on Miss Havisham’. Great Expectations. Wood-engraving by Marcus Stone (1862). Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
  • Extract (18 mins 47 secs.) from Household Words, January 1st, 1853, Volume 6.  ‘Where We Stopped Growing’ by Charles Dickens. Dickens part-based the character of Miss Havisham on his childhood recollections of the ‘White Woman’ of Berners Street, London. He wrote about the ‘White Woman’ in this article. Read by Editor of Come Step Back in Time, Emma.
  • Extract (2 mins 58 secs.) from Household Narrative the monthly supplement for Household Words, January 1st, 1850.  Another source of inspiration for the character of Miss Havisham was the real life death of recluse Martha Joachim. Her death was reported in his monthly journal, Household Narrative. Read by Editor of Come Step Back in Time, Emma.
  • Extract (2 mins 39 secs.) from the ‘Household and Disaster’ section of Household Narrative, the monthly supplement for Household Words, January 1st, 1850. Another possible source of inspiration for the character of Miss Havisham.  A young lady, Miss Gordon, experiences the unfortunate incident of her ‘light gauze over-dress’ catching fire as a result of leaning too close to the candles on a Christmas tree. Read by Editor of Come Step Back in Time, Emma
'On The Marshes by the Lime-kiln'. Pip visits the Marshes. Great Expectations.  A wood engraving by Marcus Stone (1862). Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
‘On The Marshes by the Lime-kiln’. Pip visits the Marshes. Great Expectations (1861). A wood engraving by Marcus Stone (1862). Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.

Dickens And Serialisation

Dickens is still one of Britain’s best-loved novelists . His body of work has inspired countless adaptations across a wide range of genres. These numerous re-workings help to ensure his writing remains vibrant to successive generations of readers. For many writers of fiction, he is still thought of as the quintessential authors’ author. His works are popular with film-makers, variously drawn to his flare for characterisation as well as his full-bodied plotlines which translate well from page-to-screen. His writing also has an innate sense of theatricality which makes it attractive to a dramatist.

American author Donna Tartt believes that readers are attracted to him because of his versatility as a writer, he shows great intelligence and heart but can also be unruly, predictable, chaotic and exciting. Journalist and writer, Philip Womack, also observes, that:

Dickens’s books are forever metamorphosing into plays, films, musicals; his  characters have permeated the collective imagination. His reputation as a craftsman, as opposed to a hack, has slowly expanded, as critics have begun to appreciate the fictional ground he broke. His influence is paramount.  Mervyn Peake wouldn’t exist without him, nor Iris Murdoch.  Any novel today that has an ensemble cast and concerns itself with social matters is labelled “Dickensian”.

(‘Why Dickens Speaks To Us Now’ by Philip Womack, The Telegraph, 07.02.2012)

It is as well to note here, detailed illustrations created by several artists (notably Hablot Knight Browne (1815-1882), also known as ‘Phiz’), appeared alongside the original novels. Browne produced etchings for ten of the author’s novels and remained one of Dickens main illustrators for over two decades. These illustrations helped bring the characters to life for the Victorian reader and also provide us today with a visual record of the author’s imaginings.

'The Wine-Shop' by Hablot K. Browne ('Phiz'). Illustration from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Book II, Chapter 6, published in All Year Round, September 1859, (issued 6th August). Image source: The Victorian Web. Image scan and text by Philip V. Allingham. Formatting and image correction by George P. Landow.
‘The Wine-Shop’ by Hablot K. Browne (‘Phiz’). Illustration from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Book II, Chapter 6, published in All Year Round, September 1859, (issued 6th August). Image source: The Victorian Web. Image scan and text by Philip V. Allingham. Formatting and image correction by George P. Landow.

Many of his major novels were originally written to be serialised in journals. This could be one reason why Dickens is so popular with scriptwriters. The narrative structure of each episode has already been established, cliff-hangers and page turners are in abundance. These particular novels appeared in weekly or monthly instalments in publications such as Household Words and All Year Round.  Serialisation creates a unique relationship between writer and reader, expectations are high on the author to deliver thrilling instalment after thrilling instalment. The popularity of television and radio soap operas today proves that serialisation is still a powerful literary device.

'The Terrible Stranger in the Churchyard'. Pip meets Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations. Etching is by F. W. Pailthorpe (c1900). Image Source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text George P. Landow.
‘The terrible stranger in the churchyard’. Pip meets Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations (1861). Etching is by F. W. Pailthorpe (c.1900). Image Source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text George P. Landow.

Dickens was a shrewd businessman and clever self-promoter. He created storylines that excited and intrigued his readers. His writing made good business sense too, if the reader liked the story than they would purchase the publication on a regular basis, producing healthy circulation figures and a loyal readership for the journals. Hard Times (1854) boosted the circulated of Household Words and when Great Expectations was serialised, weekly, in All Year Round’, (between December 1860 and August 1861), readers loved it so much that sales skyrocketed. Shortly after the final instalment of  Great Expectations was published, it appeared in three volumes in hardback form to an already established readership.

Volume one of Great Expectations focussing upon Pip’s childhood in Kent and his dissatisfactions set-up by Satis House. Volume two moves forward in time to Pip’s life as a young gentleman in and around Little Britain in London. The final volume features the arrival of the convict, Abel Magwitch, Pip’s attempt to save him and also his desire to forgive Miss Havisham and be forgiven by his brother-in-law, Joe Gargery.

Great Expectations had originally begun as an idea for a short essay written from the perspective of a semi-fictional adult narrator who would recount his experiences in town and country. The material for the story would be inspired by Dickens own childhood in Kent and London. He told his friend and biographer, John Forster:

..a very fine, new, and grotesque idea…I begin to doubt whether I had not better cancel the little paper, and reserve the notion for a new book.. I can see the whole of a serial revolving on it, in a most singular and comic manner.

(Forster, J. (1928), Life of Charles Dickens, Cecil Palmer, p. 733)

The original planned ending for Great Expectations did not result in Pip and Estella ending-up together. However, on the advice of his good friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), Dickens altered book’s conclusion to ensure a happy reunion between the two young protagonists.

Dickens On Screen

Each one of Dickens fifteen novels has been filmed at least once and well over four hundred film and TV adaptations have been made so far.  The earliest surviving example of a film adaptation is one inspired by A Christmas Carol (1843) called Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901). This British production was directed by R.W. Paul and had a running time of approximately five minutes. According to early film historian, Graham Petrie, he estimates that during the silent-era, (1897-1927), approximately one hundreds film adaptations were made of novels by Dickens. These ranged from three minutes in length to ninety minutes or longer:

The most frequently filmed titles in the silent-era were A Christmas Carol, The Old Curiosity Shop, The Pickwick Papers, and especially, Oliver Twist, with The Cricket on the Hearth making a surprisingly strong showing – titles that reflect quite accurately the popular preferences of the early years of this century. David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities were filmed some half a dozen times each, while works highly regarded nowadays, such as Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, appear at most only three or four times.

(Petrie, G. (2001), ‘Silent Film Adaptations of Dickens’, The Dickensian, No. 455)

Unfortunately, only about thirty or so of these early silent film adaptations are known to have survived.  A Dickens novel adapted for the silent screen works surprisingly well. I have recently re-watched my BFI DVD 2-disc set ‘Dickens Before Sound’. Three hours of rare silent dramatisations produced between 1880 and 1929, accompanied by Neil Brand’s  evocative scoring. It is remarkable how the complexities of main plots and subplots, that run throughout a Dickens novel, translate perfectly well from page-to-screen, without the aid of any spoken dialogue. Professional dramatist and Dickens expert, Michael Eaton, observes that Dickens’ prose has inherent cinematic qualities that make it popular with film-makers:

American film director D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) continually cited Dickens’ prose as the paramount inspiration for his cinematic style – in particular the ‘cut-back’, parallel cross-cutting between simultaneous spheres of action. Lillian Gish declared that Dickens was her mentor’s ‘idol’ and Griffith’s wife, Linda Arvidson, famously remembered an argument with Griffith’s Biograph bosses over the editing of his 1911 film, Enoch Arden, based on a poem by Tennyson. When Mr Griffith suggested a scene showing Annie Lee waiting for her husband’s return followed by a scene of Enoch cast away on a desert island, it was altogether too distracting.

“How can you tell a story jumping about like that? The people won’t know what it’s about.”

“Well,” said Mr Griffith, “doesn’t Dickens write that way?”

“Yes, but that’s Dickens; that’s novel writing; that’s different.”

“Oh, not so much, these are picture stories; not so different.’

(Eaton, M. (2011), ‘Old Curiosity Shots’, Dickens Before Sound, BFI, pp. 2-3)

Film historian Michael Pointer believes that the popularity on-screen of Dickens’s novels is attributable to the style in which he wrote:

..[it] does not seem to date, like that of many of his contemporaries…as a great artist, Dickens made his serious social messages more widely known by enclosing them within the context of his stories to make them more palatable, although he risked a mixed reception at the time of first publication.

..the playwright or film-maker is engaged in translating the story into a totally different medium, and within that medium, different rules apply as to form and content…provided the end result is a good dramatic piece that captures and conveys the real spirit of the original, such amputations are frequently justified. Where a novelist can afford to spend several pages describing the thoughts of a character and his mental responses to a particular set of circumstances, a film has to abbreviate such matters and portray many of them usually, using the subtleties of camera angle, frame composition, sound effects, music, and cutting. All such aids need to be skilfully incorporated in the screenplay. In some instances, there are features of the author’s treatment of a story that prove to be almost unfilmable and test the skill of the adapter.

(Pointer, M. (1996), Charles Dickens On The Screen: The Film, Television and Video Adaptations, Scarecrow Press, pp. 1-2 & p.4)

  • Olivia Twist (2013), Trailer

In 2012, to mark the bicentenary of his birth, an initiative was launched to inspire emerging and established film-makers to create new, distinctive and original short films based on the life and/or work of Charles Dickens, ‘The Film London Dickens 2012 Short Production Scheme.’ One production that particularly caught my eye was a contemporary re-telling of Oliver Twist (1838) set in Stoke-on-Trent, Olivia Twist (2013), directed by Arno Hazebroek. The main protagonist has been recast as an eighteen year old orphan from Afghanistan, Olivia (Ellie Mahyoub). She is on the run and finds shelter with Bob Fagin (Martin Alcock) and his gang of mercenary metal thieves. The film is set against a background of the 2011 riots.

Pip tends to his parents grave at the Church on the Marsh. Magwitch (2013), Dir. Samuel Supple. Image courtesy of Viola Films.
‘Pip tends to his parents grave at the Church on the Marsh’. Pip (Benjamin Barnard). Film still from Magwitch (2012). Dir. Samuel Supple. Producer, Debra McGee. Filmed entirely on location in Kent. Image courtesy of Viola Films.

In 2011, award-winning Kent-based production company, Violafilms, made Magwitch (2012). A period film that acts as a prequel to Great Expectations (1860). Shot entirely on location in Kent, this slick and stylish production sets-out to explore further, the relationship between convict Abel Magwitch (Samuel Edward-Cook) and Molly (Candis Nergaard), lawyer Jaggers’s (David Verrey) feisty housemaid.

The film’s writer and Director, Samuel Supple, grew-up in a village just outside of Rochester, Kent.  He remembers visiting St. James’ Church in Cooling as a young boy. In the churchyard there are thirteen, lozenge-shaped gravestones of young children, belonging to two families, who died in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dickens used the setting as inspiration for his opening chapter of Great Expectations:

..to five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle…My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard..

(Dickens, C. (1998) [1860], Great Expectations, Oxford University Press, p.3)

Samuel recalls to me his earliest experiences of Dickens’s writing: ‘I first starting reading his books as a teenager. But for quite a number of years I actually thought that his stories were based on real-life events, people and places. I had been taken to various locations across Kent as a boy and my family would point-out places mentioned in some of the novels, so for me, the world of Dickens was a very real place and it began to spark my imagination. His writing now inspires my work as a film-maker.’

Abel
‘Abel Magwitch (Samuel Edward-Cook) in the black-hole of the prison hulk’. Film still from Magwitch (2012). Image courtesy of Violafilms.

I asked Samuel why he had chosen to delve further into the backstory of Magwitch?: ‘I was working on a short documentary about prison hulks for BBC’s Inside Out. I remembered from reading Great Expectations that Magwitch had been imprisoned for fourteen years on the Medway hulks . I decided to revisit the novel. As a film-maker I thought I just had to tell Magwitch’s story. There are many questions that Dickens has left unanswered. Also, a character’s backstory often gets left-out when a novel is adapted for screen. This has happened with previous adaptations of Great Expectations. I once read a quote by David Lean about what inspired him to adapt the novel for cinema, “I am first and foremost interested in the characters.”‘

Magwitch
‘Abel Magwitch (Samuel Edward-Cook) first meets Pip (Benjamin Barnard) in the churchyard.’ Film still from Magwitch (2012). Image courtesy of Violafilms.

David Lean’s (1908-1991) 1946 version of Great Expectations, is acknowledged to be one of the finest, feature-length, adaptations of a Dickens novel. One of the earliest known film versions of Great Expectations, is The Boy and the Convict (1909). A British, one reel, twelve-minute silent film, directed by David Aylott and produced by Williamson Kinematograph Company. Magwitch and Pip feature prominently in this production and key scenes such as the churchyard meeting and Magwitch’s escape to the colonies to seek his fortune, are all included. In 2012, Mike Newell’s version of Great Expectations met with a mixed reception from the critics, some claiming that it lacked the passion of Dickens’s original text.

  • Great Expectations (2012) featurette in which Mike Newell talks about bringing Dickens’s novel to the big screen.

One of the difficulties with adapting Great Expectations for screen, is that it relies heavily upon dialogue and narration to carry the action along. Lean describes some of the literary hurdles he had to overcome in translating the book from page-to-screen:

I imagined Great Expectations as a fairy tale, just not quite true… In writing the script, we read and re-read the novels and made a one-line summary of the actual incidents in each chapter, ignoring all conversation and descriptive matter. Any duplication or similarity of scenes was cut-out. Actual scenes for the film were built-up from this summary. Dickens’s dialogue is perfect for the screen, and almost all of it was taken from the book. Occasionally, an incident has been altered to suit the demands of the cinema. In some cases the actual sequence of events has been interchanged to make for a better balance and dramatic value. Technically, I would say that Oliver Twist was more difficult to adapt for the screen than Great Expectations. The main problem was that of making fantastic, larger than life characters fit into a starkly real setting.

(Pointer, M. (1996), Charles Dickens On The Screen: The Film, Television and Video Adaptations, Scarecrow Press,  pp. 67-8)

I asked Samuel about his own approaches to working with Dickens’s text when developing the script for Magwitch?: ‘I enjoy the process of storytelling. I also think that it is important to explore different ways of adapting a story for screen. I decided to use the book’s original opening scene, where Pip visits the graveyard and meets Magwitch for the first time, as the last scene in my film. I have always felt that Great Expectations is a sequel to a better story. I just explored the text in order to discover what that original story might have been. I used Dickens’s original story to expand the story arc in my own film. For example, I wanted to see lawyer Mr Jaggers (David Verrey) in action, so I wrote a courtroom scene to show that.’

Jaggers
‘Mr Jaggers (David Verrey) in action at Molly’s murder Trial’. Film still from Magwitch (2012). Image courtesy of Violafilms.

‘I think more emerging film-makers should not be afraid of tackling big authors like Dickens. There are so many great works of literature, long since out of copyright, that would make fantastic screenplays. Don’t be afraid to interact and experiment with the text either.’

Abel Magwitch and Molly. Film still from Magwitch (2013). Image courtesy of Violafilms.
‘Abel Magwitch (Samuel Edward-Cook) and Molly (Candis Nergaard)’. Film still from Magwitch (2012). Image courtesy of Violafilms.

‘For example, Dickens’s Molly is not exactly similar to my version of her. No other film-maker has ever tackled the issue of Molly being a Romany gypsy either. I was lucky when it came to casting the role of Molly, actress Candis Nergaard, who plays her in the film, is herself of Romany origin. I wanted Molly to be a forest and field nymph who when she first appears onscreen is filled with passion. In Great Expectations, Dickens describes her as “a wild beast tamed.”‘

Molly (Candis Nergaard). Film still from Magwitch (2013). Image courtesy of Violafilms.
Molly (Candis Nergaard). Film still from Magwitch (2012). Image courtesy of Violafilms.

‘However, through a sequence of events leading up to and throughout standing trial for the murder of Bessie Watts, Molly’s fire within has burned out, by the time the verdict has been read, she has been tamed. In my film, the colour of her costumes reflect her changes of mood. As she goes into a darker world and her journey goes on, her clothes become a darker hue, they go from red to black.’

Molly standing trial for the murder of Bessie Watts. Film still from
‘Molly (Candis Nergaard) standing trial for the murder of Bessie Watts (Lucinda Ryan)’. Judge (Clyde Young). Film still from Magwitch (2012). Image courtesy of Violafilms.

Growing-up and living in Kent, meant that Samuel was able to utilise his extensive knowledge of the region when it came to choosing suitable locations for Magwitch. I was interested to find-out find out from him about these choices of location?: ‘Rochester is a very unique place with a strong Dickensian feel. Walking around the city, I feel as though I have been transported back to Victorian England. I filmed during the Indian Summer of September 2011 and were fortunate enough to have excellent shooting conditions which was just as well, there were many exterior shots. I visited lots of different locations across to Kent before settling on my final choices. I was very lucky, everything came together well. In the opening sequence of the film, I used the same Marshlands in Kent that Lean had used in his adaptation. I chose The Guildhall in Sandwich as the courtroom scene location. I later found-out that its interior had in fact been modelled on the Old Bailey. In the courtroom scene there is a moment when Jaggers is silent and you can faintly hear a bell chiming. This is in fact Sandwich’s famous old clock which has a lot of history and strong nautical connections. It is not difficult to find good locations for filming in Kent. If you do your research you will find somewhere suitable.’

Magwitch.
Magwitch (2012)- Filming on location in Kent. Image courtesy of Violafilms.

  • Watch the full version of Magwitch (2012), written and directed by Samuel Supple produced by Debra McGee (Violafilms – exciting new website will be launching soon featuring new projects in development);
  • You can follow Violafilms on Twitter @ViolaFilms and Facebook.
Charles Dickens surrounded by his characters by J. R. Brown. Pen and pencil drawing. 1889-90. Image source: The Victorian Web.
Charles Dickens surrounded by his characters by J. R. Brown. Pen and pencil drawing. 1889-90. Image source: The Victorian Web. Scanned image and text by George P. Landow.
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