Sunday, December 07, 2008

In Which We Speak with the Ghost of Author Past, or, An Interview With Charles Dickens

Charles John Huffam Dickens, (1812-1870), pen-name "Boz." One of the most popular English authors of the nineteenth century, with seventeen novels, several volumes of short stories, and numerous poems, plays and non-fiction works to his credit. His plots and characters are still among the most well known in English literature.

I'd like to thank you, Mr. Dickens, for taking the time to talk to us here on the Novel Journey blog.

I'm thoroughly delighted. I was not hitherto conversant with the curious term "blog," but the explanation you offered makes good sense. As you may know, I'm no stranger to journalism, which is what blogging is, in a very real sense. It's quite satisfying to get back into the business in even this peculiar way. The instantaneous distribution to a widespread audience, without the use of paper and ink, is quite a fascination to me. I'm loving it, as your generation might say.

I'm impressed. You're quite a progressive thinker, for a dead guy.

I like to think I was the same in life as well. Your Wikipedia – another intriguing conception, by the way – describes me as "a vigorous social campaigner" in addition to my authorial accomplishments. And I like that. It's gratifying to see my efforts were not unnoticed.

They received a great deal of notice, from what I've read. Your fictional works were remarkably effective in changing the public's opinions regarding class inequ

I don't wish to be immodest, but I cannot deny it. One instance, to illustrate: the shocking images of poverty and crime I depicted in my second novel, Oliver Twist, brought these injustices to light to such a degree that within a few years after its publication, the authorities cleared out the slum in London that served as my model for the story's "Jacob's Island" neighborhood. In most of my writings, I hoped to bring the plight of impoverished souls to light in the hope that those who were in a position to do something about it might b
e provoked to action.

I guess your scheme worked. Your vivid themes and graphic characterizations are legendary. Literally. But I'm curious. How biographical is your writing? Did your passion for the struggles of the poor come from personal experience? Are your characters
based on real people?

Somewhat. Yes. At times.

Would you care to elaborate?

Certainly, so long as you don't require me to answer your questions in the order you asked them. My short-term memory isn't what it once was.

Quite understandable. Just share with us whatever you'd like.

Thank you. As your inquiry suggested, my formative years did, in fact, influence my writing. I came from what you might call a middle-class
family, although that term doesn't quite convey the reality of the day. Our situation was a bit tenuous, as my father, a clerk in the Navy pay office, spent a great deal more money than he could afford in an effort to maintain his social position. When I was a boy of twelve, as a result of his fiscal irresponsibility, my private education came to a temporary halt due to his incarceration at Marshalsea debtor's prison.

My mother and the re
st of the family moved to Marshalsea to be near him, but I remained in London, boarding with a family friend and working at Warren's Blacking Warehouse in order to pay for my lodgings and send a few pence to my mother. A short while later I moved into a back attic at the house of an insolvent-court agent, a good-natured old gentleman with a quiet old wife and a lame and impaired grown son. Aspects of these kind people who shared their homes with me served as inspiration for people in my stories. I also borrowed the name of one of my co-workers at the blacking factory, Bob Fagin, for one of my characters.

After only a few months in prison, my father came into a modest inheritance, with which he
was able to pay off his creditors and secure his release from Marshalsea. Unfortunately, my mother had come to appreciate my contribution to the family income and insisted I remain at the factory. It was quite some months before she finally relented and allowed me to resume my formal education, and I confess I bore some resentment toward her many years thereafter. However, all these experiences, though horrifying, were as educational, in their own way, as the formal schooling I missed. They provided story lines, gave vividness and depth to my writing, and created within me a lifelong interest social reform.

Of all your writings, which is your favorite?

My personal favorite is probably David Copperfield, which is also, not coincidentally, the most autobiographical. But it seems my most popular, and, from what I see, most enduring work, is a story I called A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. The ti
tle was, admittedly, a bit cumbersome, and it quickly became known simply as A Christmas Carol. Perhaps you've heard of it?

Heard of it? Who hasn't? For many people, it defines what Christmas is all about. The characters of Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the Christmas ghosts have become archetypical figures in the cultural consciousness. I can't tell you how many plays, films, TV specials, parodies and sequels have been inspired by y
our story. In fact, my first introduction to the tale was in the form of a cartoon featuring Mr. Magoo.

As people in your electronic world would respond, "LOL." I'm not fond t
he Magoo version, but I must confess the Muppet adaptation amuses me.

You've seen it?

You might be surprised at what I've seen. I've always loved the theatre, you know. Incidentally, A Christmas Carol was the subject of my first-ever public re
ading, performed two days after Christmas in 1852. It was a great success all around, and I received so many requests for readings, I created a special version for just that purpose. I continued to read excerpts to audiences until shortly before my death. People just couldn't seem to get enough of it. And, quite frankly, I never tired of it myself.

What prompted you to write the story?

There was no particular premeditation
behind it. Christmas has always been a particular favorite of mine, and I wrote about things most dear to me. Moreover, I needed the money. Once I came up with the idea, I dashed it off in just a few weeks. With pen and ink, mind you, on good, crisp paper. None of this laptop computer nonsense you so-called writers use today. Delete key? Bah! There's nothing so satisfying as the scratching of a freshly sharpened quill across the page, the smell of the ink, the stains on the fingers…

Yeah, sure. Where'd you come up with the title?

A Carol? Whereas in your era the name refers to a Christmas hymn, in my day, i
t described a particular type of ballad. In keeping with the musical theme, instead of dividing the story into chapters, I called the sections staves. Just a fun little twist. It never pays to take ourselves too seriously.

You often injected humor into your work, but, as in most of your fiction, A Christmas Carol carried some serious themes. For instance, could you explain the plug you put in about keeping the bakeries open?

The bakeries? Oh, yes, that would be lost on modern audiences, wouldn't it? You se
e, the poor in London at that time had no home ovens. They'd prepare their dough, meats to be roasted, or what-have-you, in their own kitchens then take them to the bakery to be cooked in the commercial ovens. But in the 1830s, legislation was introduced in Parliament that would require the bakeries to close on Sundays and holidays. That was all fine and good for the bakery owners; but it would deprive the poor of their only means of a good meal, which they likely only had on Sundays and holidays anyway. I had already attacked these plans in a pamphlet published under a pseudonym, but couldn't resist slipping my opinions into my Christmas story as well. How could those self-righteous, short-sighted ministers deprive the common man of his Christmas goose in the name of religious observance? I don't think our Lord would have approved of that, do you?

I think you're quite right. But wasn't A Christmas Carol just the first of a number of Christmas stories you wrote over the years?

Indeed it was. The first and the best. In some people's minds, it came to define me. In fact, after I passed away, someone is quoted as saying, "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?" A bit silly, perhaps, but touching. Yes, I loved Christmas, and published a total of five Christmas books as well as something like sixteen Christmas stories that ap
peared in periodicals, though none achieved the acclaim of the first. I created the genre, by the way. No one had ever thought to do Christmas books until I started it.

So you don't mind being mocked by Muppets, parodied by Beavis and Butthead, or having your Scrooge character portrayed by a zucchini?

Beavis and who?

Let me rephrase that: it doesn't bother you to be so closely related to Christmas in the cultural mind?

Absolutely not. Why should it? I'm proud to leave such a legacy, and
it's my greatest wish to see everyone embrace the Carol philosophy. That is, that the Christmas spirit would prevail throughout the year. But I don't understand what you said just now. What's a zucchini?

Google "VeggieTales Easter Carol." You might be surprised at what you see.
I want to thank you again for speaking to us today. Do you have any parting words for us, Mr. Dickens?

Indeed I do. In this and every season, God bless us, every one!


Stina Rose said...

I really enjoyed this interview!

S. Dionne Moore said...

Is this like a visit from the ghost of Christmas past? Loved it, Y!

Domino said...

Loved the interview!

Too bad Mr. Dickens wasn't around in 1984 to watch George C Scott film his story. I watched that one again this weekend to review it today.

Carrie Turansky said...

what a fun and creative "interview". I loved learning more about A Christmas Carol and Dickens.

Jessica Dotta said...

Thank you, Yvonne, for such an entertaining interview.

Ummm. . . thank you Charles Dickens. If you happen to see Charlotte Bronte, would you let her know I'd be honored if she'd consider endorsing my book . . .

Gina Holmes said...

Yvonne, this is hysterical and very informative. Clever girl. I enjoyed this.

Ane Mulligan said...

Delightful and most creative, Y!!! You're giving Mr. Dickins a run for his money. ;)

Yvonne Anderson said...

Thanks, all. It was fun to do. And Jess, next time I see Mr. Dickens floating around, I'll ask him if Charlotte is doing endorsements.