Charles Dickens at 200: Books on the great writer’s life and surroundings

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth. Today we take a look at a selection of Yale books and author events that delve deep into the great writer’s life, work and surroundings.

Make no mistake, you will be hearing a lot about Charles Dickens this year. From glossy TV adaptations to high-minded documentaries, 2012 has already been a Dickens feast. And with the BFI’s Dickens on Screen season opening today, a programme of new theatre productions touring the country and the UK’s myriad literature festivals all hosting Dickens-inspired events, this year promises to be a true Dickens fiesta.

Proudly throwing our hat into the ring, Yale have published a number of fascinating books that shed light on Dickens’s work, his life and the society in which he lived (and confronted).

The Life of Dickens…

Charles Dickens by Michael Slater

Charles Dickens by Michael Slater

Dickens’s literature speaks for itself, but what does it reveal about Dickens the man? Michael Slater’s long-awaited biography Charles Dickens, published in paperback last year, uncovers the life of Dickens through the profession in which he excelled.

Drawing on a lifetime’s study of this prodigiously brilliant figure, Slater (the world’s foremost expert on Dickens) explores the personal and emotional life, the high-profile public activities, the relentless travel, the charitable works, the amateur theatricals and the astonishing productivity. But the core focus is Dickens’ career as a writer and professional author, covering not only his big novels but also his phenomenal output of other writing – letters, journalism, shorter fiction, plays, verses, essays, writings for children, travel books, speeches, and scripts for his public readings, and the relationships among them.

Slater’s book, rooted in deep research but written with affection, clarity and economy, illuminates the context of each of the great novels while locating the life of the author within the imagination that created them. It highlights Dickens’ boundless energy, his passion for order and fascination with disorder, his organizational genius, his deep concern for the poor and outrage at indifference towards them, his susceptibility towards young women, his love of Christmas and fairy tales, and his hatred of tyranny.

“No living person is a greater authority on the life and works of Charles Dickens than Michael Slater.” –Claire Tomalin

Michael Slater has a busy year ahead speaking on his beloved subject at literary festivals and events across the country. A few events to look out for: On 16 February, in celebration of the bicentenary, the Waterstones Bookshop in Hampstead is hosting a fascinating discussion between Michael Slater and Craig Taylor (author of Londoners) on Dickens’s relationship with London. On 4 March, as part of the ‘Celebrating Dickens’ strand of the Words by the Water Festival in Keswick, Slater will be focusing on Dickens’ journalism.

Dickens and Art…

Dickens and the Artists

Dickens and the Artists

A remarkably visual writer, Dickens emerged from a tradition where illustrations formed a significant part of both serial and book publishing. Indeed, Dickens engaged with the art of the Old Masters, commenting forthrightly on the latest changes at the National Gallery, and recording his visits to museums during his tours of Europe. His tastes are also manifest in his novels, his magazine Household Words and his journalism. Dickens and the Artists (published later this year) explores these artistic opinions and connections.

As well as exploring Dickens’ own views, the distinguished contributors of Dickens and the Artists reveal his influence on Victorian artists. He had long and close friendships with some of the leading artists of his time, including Clarkson Stanfield, Daniel Maclise, Frank Stone and William Powell Frith. These and other artists depicted scenes from his novels or drew inspiration from his subjects and characterizations that continue to influence our image of Dickensian England today.

Dickens and London…

City of Gold and Mud

City of Gold and Mud

London was the quintessential modern city of the 19th century, and its artists were the first to rise to the challenge of depicting the many facets of this new world. From the 1850s to 1900, the city underwent vast changes, resulting in rapid urbanization, a dramatic increase in population, and the creation of dramatic contrasts between the “gold” of its wealth and splendour and the “mud” of its squalor and poverty. Artists sought to make sense of this novel and exciting – but often bewildering – environment in images not only of the pageantry, parks, and rituals of the city but also of its newly visible street types: minstrels and chimney sweeps, street urchins, shoe-black boys, and flower girls.

City of Gold and Mud by Nancy Rose Marshal should appeal to those interested in Dickens’s portrayal of 19th century Britain, as it raises questions about the Victorian metropole in terms of how popular paintings of modern life portrayed national and imperial identities; relationships of race, class, and gender; and the values, desires, and fears of their makers and users. Marshall draws on artists’ writings, arts criticism, popular poetry, news reports, cartoons, tourist guides, religious tracts, and more to paint a vivid and multifaceted picture of London during this critical time in its economic and artistic development.

Victorian Society

A Genius for Money

A Genius for Money

The spectacular rags-to-riches story of James Morrison (1789-1857), who began life humbly but through hard work and entrepreneurial brilliance acquired a fortune unequalled in nineteenth-century England, has a disctinctly Dickensian feel to it. This is probably because Dickens himself was influenced by this self-made ‘genius for money’ (Dickens himself  reported on Morrison’s political campaigning in Ipswich and was well aware of his power and influence in society).

There is a peculiar link between Dickens and Morrison that sheds some fascinating light on Dickens’ character. The previous owner of Basildon Park (Morrison’s opulent residence) was one Sir Francis William Sykes. Sykes was a spend-thrift who, whilst residing at Basildon Park, squandered his family’s fortune, eventually selling the estate to Morrison. During this time his wife started an affair with Dickens’s friend the painter Daniel Maclise. Sykes disowned her and publicly humiliated her and Maclise. This was a mistake. Dickens was writing ‘Oliver Twist’ at the time, and the villainous character Bill Sikes was Dickens’s revenge on Sykes.

Using the extensive Morrison archive, Caroline Dakers’s new book A Genius for Money presents the first substantial biography of James Morrison, the richest commoner in England, recounting the details of Morrison’s personal life while also placing him in the Victorian age of enterprise that made his success possible. An affectionate husband and father of ten, Morrison made his first fortune in textiles, then a second in international finance. He invested in North American railways, was involved in global trade from Canton to Valparaiso, created hundreds of jobs, and relished the challenges of ‘the science of business’. His success enabled him to acquire land, houses, and works of art on a scale to rival the grandest of aristocrats.

We will be publishing an extract from A Genius for Money later this week.

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  • February 7, 2012

    Stephen Bamford

    Very flatered and interested to know that Americans and in particular fantastic American university find Dickens and 19th C London appealing. The books loom super and are a certain must read.
    It will be interesting to see the Anerican perspective on Dickens and Victorian England. Almost like the recent Elizebeth the First series of films that were directed by a foreign director, that gave a certain alien aspect to the history.

    Kind regards

    Stephen Bamford BSc (hons) MRICS


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