Charles Dickens died in 1870, but his cliff-hanging tales of poverty tempered by hope are more in demand than ever. Peter Ross explores their enduring appeal in the 21st century...
THE novels of Charles Dickens are not on sale in supermarkets, they have not been endorsed by Richard and Judy, and – having been dead since 1870 – Dickens does not share the golden Edinburgh postcode of JK Rowling, Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith.
Yet despite this failure to adopt any of these tested strategies for becoming a bestseller, Dickens remains one of Britain's most loved authors, and his nourishing books make much contemporary writing seem very thin gruel.
Books by Dickens were borrowed from British libraries 128,000 times in 2007. They also continue to sell steadily, boosted by frequent screen versions. Andrew Davies's take on Bleak House, which attracted 8.8 million viewers to the BBC two years ago, caused UK sales of that novel to rise by nearly 300%, and no doubt the same thing will happen with telly adaptations this Christmas of Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop.
The former stars Timothy Spall as Fagin and Sophie Okonedo as Nancy. The cast list of Curiosity Shop, meanwhile, is led by Derek Jacobi but also has a brilliant turn by Toby Jones as the horrid money-lender Quilp. Look out, also, for BBC Four's serialisation of the epic 1981 RSC staging of Nicholas Nickleby, directed by Trevor Nunn, and featuring a young David Threlfall (Frank in Shameless) as Smike. There will be plenty of Dickens next year too, when Davies adapts Little Dorrit for BBC1. As readers and viewers, it seems we simply cannot get enough Dickens. In our constant quest for more, he makes Oliver Twists of us all.
"Charles Dickens is a very effective brand," says Matt Haig, a marketing expert turned novelist. "Authors through the ages would have hated to be thought of as such, but he would have embraced the idea. He was a shameless publicist, and if he was alive, he'd be on MySpace flogging David Copperfield. He's a very strong brand because he has shaped the way we think about things like Britishness, the Victorian age and Christmas."
Of course, Dickens was popular in his own day. He became famous in his mid-twenties with the serialisation of The Pickwick Papers, and by the time of his death at 58 was an international celebrity. But why has his reputation endured? Why is it that 24,000 people visit his former home in London's Doughty Street each year? Why did a Dickens theme park open in Kent this summer? And why in the name of Tiny Tim do 100,000 people attend the annual Dickens festival in Deventer, Holland?
"I think the reason his work has lasted is firstly to do with his genius for inventing characters," says actor and writer Simon Callow, who toured the world with a one-man show, The Mystery Of Charles Dickens. "Secondly, because of his extraordinary playfulness and eloquence with language. But somewhere at the root of it all is Dickens' unswerving commitment to social justice. On every page is some sense of his making common cause with the unprivileged and his assertion of the right of everybody to pleasure, fulfilment, happiness and a decent deal out of life."
Dickens suffered hardship as a child. His father was imprisoned for debt and, from the age of 12, Dickens worked long days in a warehouse by the Thames. His concern for the plight of the poor is most obvious in Oliver Twist, but it's in all his work.
Jo Clifford, an Edinburgh-based playwright who has adapted several works by Dickens, believes that we can still learn from his outraged morality.
"Great Expectations, for instance, is imbued with a sense of the damage that the class system does to people, and that system, sadly, is alive and well in Britain at the moment," says Clifford. "Dickens wants people to work together to create a just society. He doesn't suffer from compassion-fatigue, and I think his sense of purpose is incredibly important to us now when it's all to easy to feel helpless and despairing about the state of the world."
But isn't it the case that, despite his agenda for social change, we think of Dickens as being a feelgood writer? Surely a big part of the reason we enjoy him is to do with nostalgia? Clifford says: "Because we're living in a time of such profound and frightening change it can be comforting to look back at a past where things seemed much more secure. Television in particular seems to regard it as its duty to entertain in a very soft-edged way, so the more uncomfortable and angry aspects of Dickens tend to get erased."
Since the silent era there have been almost 250 films and television programmes based on works by Dickens. On ITV1 this Boxing Day we will see the latest, The Old Curiosity Shop, which tells the story of Little Nell, who flees London with her grandfather to escape debts he has run up during card games. "People take from Dickens what's relevant to their times," says Martyn Hesford, who has adapted the novel. "I thought, reading the book again, that the whole thing with gambling addiction was really about today. We are a nation addicted to everything from shopping to booze to drugs to love to sex."
Dickens is suited to being adapted for the screen because his books were, mostly, written in weekly and monthly instalments for magazines. He thought a great deal about audience reaction and cliffhangers were an important part of his structure. As a result, it's often said that had Dickens been alive now, he would have been writing for a soap opera. Sarah Phelps, who has adapted the new Oliver Twist for BBC1, writes for EastEnders. So can she imagine Dickens pitching ideas at one of their story conferences?
"I can," she says, "and then getting drunk in the bar afterwards. You think of something like Great Expectations and you can imagine him turning up and saying, 'This woman, she's jilted at the altar, and from then on she just stays at home. Her wedding breakfast is laid out and covered in spiders, her wedding dress is falling to bits but she won't take it off, the house is shuttered, and she finds this foundling girl and teaches her how to hate men and how to take revenge on them.' Now, what a great story."
Hesford isn't so sure. "People forget about the depth in Dickens," he says. "Soaps can only scratch the surface of the themes they're dealing with. I don't think the powers that be would employ him to write for a soap because depth isn't what's required."
In the 21st century, Dickens certainly continues to leave inky fingerprints on the national psyche. But will he remain such a huge figure many years from now? Will we be talking about Wackford Squeers when Britney Spears is but a distant memory?
"Oh yes," says Simon Callow. "A couple of years ago I played Dickens in an episode of Doctor Who. At the end, as the Doctor is getting back into the Tardis, Dickens says, almost with embarrassment, 'I have a question to ask about the future. Will my books be read?' And the Doctor says, 'Oh yes.' Dickens says, 'How long for?' And the Doctor says, 'Forever.' I think it's true that his writing will last. I cannot foresee a time when that huge resource of humanity will cease to matter to us. If it does, we're done for."
WHAT THE DICKENS
10: The number of children Dickens had between 1837 and 1852, to his one wife, Catherine.
12: The age at which Dickens was forced to leave school and work in a factory after his father was thrown in jail for outstanding debts.
20: The years he kept his wife housed after their separation.
22: Novels written, some amalgamated from newspaper serials.
400: The amount of public readings Dickens reportedly gave of his work, combining his love of words with his love of performance.
1834: The year in which Dickens the young newspaper reporter wrote his first sketches under the pen name 'Boz'.
8,000,000: The number of viewers who switched on to watch the opening episode of BBC1's adaptation of Oliver! last week.
The Old Curiosity Shop is on STV on Boxing Day at 9pm. Oliver Twist is repeated in its entirety tonight on BBC1 from 1.25am. The Life and Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby is on BBC Four, tonight, Boxing Day and December 28 at 7pm