It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

I was introduced properly to Charles Dickens when I was twelve in a classroom directly beneath the sports hall cum theatre and which shared a corridor with two of my three favourite places in the school: the tiny one-room library and the stationery cupboard.

One of the original Arthur Rackham illustrations for A Christmas Carol

Our copies of A Christmas Carol were scrawny little hardbacks with elaborately illustrated covers. They were not the kind of hardbacks which come with a flapping flyleaf over cloth-binding, rather the artwork was attached directly onto the stiff backing. It was probably an Arthur Rackham illustration but all my memory has retained is a general blur of dark reds and browns.

I remember marking the pages in pencil, underlining instances of simile, symbol and hyperbole, but I can’t now honestly remember how it made me feel. Rereading it last Christmas, however, in a year bookended by Dickens (David Copperfield, January 2018), I was enchanted.

Dickens had such a way with words; a way with words that transcends generations. He understood and was able to articulate the human condition more acutely than so many writers before or since, so that reading just a paragraph of any one of his novels feels like spending time with a distant friend back for a brief visit, or like receiving a dispatch from the deepest depths of your own being.

Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”

from Great Expectations

I think what makes his writing so accessible and worthy of repeated readings is that they describe relatable settings, contexts and characters, while simultaneously being far enough removed from modernity that the stories – even those without ghosts – retain an element of fantasy. Any one of us can find a character and/or a storyline that we can relate to; characters who are, I think without exception, flawed in some way, forgiving us our own foibles and weaknesses, and showing us the way to hope.

Charles Dickens has, for me, opened up a language for expression, introduced a universe of characters, and made it possible to have problems but still to lead a good life.

Reflect upon your present blessings – of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

from A Christmas Carol
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