Feb. 7 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of celebrated British author Charles Dickens. If he’d still been alive today, well…he’d really be old!
Charles, or “Chuck” as he might be called by Peppermint Patty (who also uses that nickname for Charlie Brown), is known for literary classics like A Tale of Two Cities, which takes places before and during the French Revolution; Oliver Twist, the basis for the hit musical, “Oliver”; Great Expectations; and A Christmas Carol, which gave us the unforgettable line, “Bah! Humbug!” and from which many holiday films through the years have been based.
Being a writer that happened to grow up in a housing subdivision where the streets were named after legendary authors – (John Greenleaf) Whittier, (James Fenimore) Cooper and (Edgar Allan) Poe avenues, and (Nathaniel) Hawthorne Drive – I’ve embraced the rich heritage passed down from authors like Dickens.
|Charles Dickens, 1812-1870|
His opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities are among literature’s greatest: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”
The only better opening I can think of is, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Those 10 words hold volumes of meaning. But the introductory words of Dickens’ Tale also capture the essence of a wondrous, horrific time with relatively few words.
Today much of writing is reduced to the substance of cotton candy, good to the initial taste but not much to savor after a few moments. Who has time to read, right? But authors like Dickens transport us to times when words were treasured, when they were implemented as tools for transforming society.
One phrase Dickens did not create is, “What the dickens?” That comes from William Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” (Act III, Scene II), in which character Mrs. Page states, "I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…." In this instance, the term “dickens” is euphemism for “devil.” Those words were uttered more than 200 years before Dickens’s birth to John and Elizabeth Dickens in Landport, England.
The late Paul Harvey used to tell a story called “The Man and the Birds,” about a man who had an amazing spiritual awakening simply by observing the plight of a flock of birds desperately trying to find shelter from the cold. Some have said Charles Dickens’ own spiritual journey served as inspiration for this tale. In telling it, Harvey even uses the name “Scrooge.” (In case you’re interested, here’s a link to that story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_aeYN1CBt4)
Regardless, Dickens’s writings typically did convey a compassion, a rare sensitivity for “the least of these” that might have reflectee his personal convictions. I’d like to think his writings were undergirded not just by good intentions or warm sentiment, but a sincere desire to mirror through narrative the heartbeat of the Creator.
Perhaps his motives echoed the words I’ve adopted as my “career verse”: “My heart is overflowing with a good theme; I recite my composition concerning the king; my tongue is the pen of a ready writer” (Psalm 45:1).