My first encounter with the world of Charles Dickens was not a pleasant one. Nicholas Nickelby, Dicken's third novel was a prescribed text book in school. I was probably twelve or thirteen when I trudged through what seemed like a dreary tale set partly in a grim boarding school. It was a clever move by the educational authorities since our own institution seemed like a haven of peace and happiness after reading about the terrible conditions at Dotheboy's Hall. The characters, especially Wackford Squeers, the headmaster and Uncle Ralph were savage, cruel or boring and even Nicholas himself did not stir me as the hero of a novel should.
I did not attempt to read any more depressing books and devoted myself to the enjoyable task of completing the Nancy Drew mystery series. It was about a year or two later, when browsing through the enormous bookshelf that used to be called my grandfather's library, that I came upon the novel that would take me back to Dickens. "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." The opening lines catapulted me into another world, a world that teemed with interesting characters and tumultuous events spanning the two cities of London and Paris. Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, it is not only a ringside account of the French Revolution but also a story of revenge, love and redemption. The Tale of Two cities continues to remain one of the most memorable books I have read.
Reading a novel by Charles Dickens is like stepping through a portal into a different world; the world of 19th century England. This was not the genteel world of the English countryside where the privileged members of the upper classes sipped tea and went for leisurely strolls in the woods. Apart from the Tale of two cities, Dicken's stories were set in the raw reality of the streets and factories of working class London and the gritty towns of an England that was in the early stages of the industrial revolution. Dickens drew from his own life and mined his varied experiences to create the settings and characters for his novels. The Blacking warehouse where he worked as a child, the prison at Marshalsea where his father was imprisoned, his experiences at the law office as a clerk, all feature in his books. There is a ring of authenticity about his works and his characters resonated with the reading public of his time. In fact, several of the characters were based on Dickens acquaintances, friends and family. It is the characters of his stories that make Dicken's novels relevant even today. As a reader comes across a character, there is an immediate stirring of memory, a glint of recognition, you pause and say to yourself, ' I know someone like that'.- A miser like Scrooge, a spendthrift like Micawber who is perennially indebted, a heart breaker like Estella or a cold metallic woman like Miss Murdstone.
Dickens is said to have created around 989 named characters across all his novels. Sometimes, the sheer number of his characters in the story made it difficult to keep track of the plot line. I confess to regrouping myself in the middle of David Copperfield or forgetting what happened to a minor character in another novel. Some critics have felt that many of his characters were flat and uni-dimensional. I have a personal quibble that the women in Dickens's books did not give a good account of themselves; they were mostly passive and decorative or whimsical and destructive. Yet, all characters left an impression that stayed long after the story was through. The writer Tolstoy once remarked "All his characters are my personal friends' They must have become friends of his readers too since Dickens was one of the most popular and successful authors of his time.
I have not read all of Dicken's books. There is Bleak House, Hard Times, Martin Chuzzlewit and a couple of others still on my reading list. At some point of time, I abandoned the pursuit of classics and moved onto to other genres, other authors. Yesterday, while traveling for work in Chennai, I noticed a sign on a building by the side of a road, ' The Old Curiosity Shop' it said. It was perhaps a sign that on the 200th anniversary of Chales Dicken's birth, it would be a good idea to return to some of his novels, to enter his world and make more friends.