Charles John Huffam Dickens

Presented by Margaret Sparkes to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
March 19, 2019

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a prolific writer whose novels are still immensely popular today. He is a master of satire and irony, which he used to great effect in most of his works to take aim at the many social ills of his day.

The Victorian era in Great Britain was a time of discovery and ingenuity, social and industrial reform. But, for as many good things it brought to 19th century England, there were an equal number of terrible consequences. In his novels, Dickens shines a spotlight on poverty, the workhouses, debtors’ prisons, education, the law and justice, government bureaucracy and nepotism, industry and working conditions, public and private hypocrisy, and other woes that made life miserable for so many people. At the same time, he provided important information about society in those days for modern readers.

While doing so, Dickens entertains readers with a huge cast of unforgettable characters, drawn as vividly as portraits painted by one of the Old Masters. Who can forget Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist or Miss Haversham in Great Expectations? Not only can we visualize his characters, but often we can hear them thanks to Dickens’ skill in using local words and dialects. With great skill he weaves plots and subplots into a coherent whole.

Passionate as Dickens, a notable philanthropist, was about improving conditions for the ordinary man or woman, he was not a paragon of virtue in his own life. He had ten children with his wife, Catherine, but he basically kicked her out when he fell in love with a much younger woman. According to a recent article written by Projessor John Bowen of York Univiersity that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, he even tried to have his wife committed to an insane asylum (not terribly difficult in those days).

Nevertheless, I think that he accomplished much that was good through his writing and philanthropy. Certainly, the world would have been a poorer, drabber place without his genius.