True lovers of literature worldwide are rereading and discussing his finest works as part of celebrations to mark his bicentenary which falls on Tuesday next week.

Born in Portsmouth, England in 1812, Dickens is not only the best British writer of the 19th century, arguably, but is also among the world’s greatest novelists of all time.

Besides essays and short stories, he wrote 15 novels most of which have been adapted for radio and television, and whose popularity and relevance have not waned 142 years after his death. This popularity is not just linked to the fact that his novels were first serialised by magazines reaching a larger audience, but to the quality of writing and the resonation with which he examined universal concerns like hunger, poverty, exploitation, cruelty, and classicism.

As Edgar Johnson writes in Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952), Dickens sought to expose “the cruelty of the workhouse and the foundling asylum, the enslavement of human beings in mines and factories, the hideous evil of slums where crime simmered and proliferated, the injustices of the law, and the cynical corruption of the lawmakers…the great evil permeating every field of human endeavor: the entire structure of exploitation on which the social order was founded.”

Dickens achieved this through grave and hilarious characters and powerful imagery.
From two of his novels that have been taught widely in Ugandan schools, who can forget Pip’s first meeting with the frightening convict with the huge chain on his ankles or Miss Havisham trapped in time and love in her wedding dress, strewn with cobwebs, as depicted in Great Expectations (1861)? How the eponymous child hero, Oliver Twist, asking for more gruel to typify the hunger at the orphanage?

“Since we had to read him in school, I had no choice but to be influenced by his writing; his books were like the prototype of the novel,” says writer Doreen Baingana. “This is why students must read Ugandan literature in school; it influences you for life.”

A son of a poor clerk (his father was once arrested for failing to settle a debt), Dickens quit school at the age of 12 and got a job in a shoe-polish factory, and later as an errand boy in a law office. He taught himself short-hand and earned a better job as a court stenographer.

Inspired by courtroom drama, he started reporting for The Mirror of Parliament and the True Sun publications, and also submitted short sketches to obscure magazines. When A Dinner at Poplar Walk was published in The Monthly Magazine in 1833, Dickens cried for joy. Boz, the pen name under which he wrote, soon became famous.

The collected Sketches by Boz (1836) earned Dickens enough money to marry Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of his editor at The Evening Chronicle. But it was the immediate success of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837) that authenticated his reputation.

Dickens loved reading from an early age and was influenced by classic collection Arabian Nights, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones but it was the stage plays he watched as a boy that fired his imagination most and influenced his knack of combining humour with depth.

“Dickens’s novels rank among the funniest and most gripping ever written, among the most passionate and persuasive on the topic of social justice, and among the most psychologically telling and insightful works of fiction,” writes Prof. Laurie Langbauer. “They are also some of the most masterful works in terms of artistic form, including narrative structure, repeated motifs, consistent imagery, juxtaposition of symbols, stylization of characters and settings, and command of language.”

Nothing captures his mesmerising power as that day close to the end of the serialisation of The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) when a throng of his readers stormed New York to await a ship carrying the paper’s edition containing final part, anxious about the fate of the novel’s child heroine, Nell Trent. Trent’s death remains one of the most remembered scenes in 19th-century fiction.

In spite of his success, Dickens had his foibles. He left his wife of 22 years who had borne him 10 children, for a young actress, Ellen Ternan. But as a writer, he will always be celebrated not only for making the reader empathise with most of his troubled protagonists, but also for the lessons today’s writer can glean from his talent and focus.

“The way he took stock of the prevailing circumstances under which he wrote and tried to pose questions with a view of creating a new dispensation in society is something all writers should take seriously,” says Dr. Aaron Mushengyezi of Makerere University.
Julius Ocwinyo, whose novel, Fate of the Banished, is on the literature syllabus says he has learned two things: “One, a writer can have impact on society.

Two, it requires a phenomenal amount of talent, determination and perseverance to achieve as much as Dickens did. Writers can create awareness about injustice – social, economic, political – and trigger reform. You only need to look at what happens in the workhouse to which Oliver Twist is committed for you to be able to understand – and feel – the unfairness that pervaded British society then. This book, as well as some of the others of Dickens’s works, unleashed a public furore that eventually led to social reform.”

“He didn’t have an MFA or any of the literary qualifications that aspiring African writers think they need, but combined his genius with discipline to deliver great novels,” engineer cum novelist, Nick Twinamatsiko says of what he has learned from his icon.

For Rogers Atukunda, a short story writer and emerging novelist, Dickens reminds him of Uganda’s Julius Ocwinyo: “Both writers have inspired me to write simple but evaluative stories about childhood and facing the woes of growing up in a hostile environment…they have taught me that a writer must discover and expose the ills in society, ridicule the perpetrators and educate the masses to give them hope and avenues for molding a better world.”

By Dennis D. Muhumuza, Daily Monitor


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