~ Posted by Emma Hogan, January 31st 2012
As Claire Tomalin's new biography points out, Charles Dickens loved birthdays. Next Tuesday, he has a significant one of his own. To mark his bicentenary, there's a service at Westminster Abbey (where a wreath will be laid). There's also a new £2 coin from the Royal Mint (with his profile made up from his book titles), along with exhibitions in the British Library, the Museum of London and the Morgan Library in New York.
Online, Penguin Classics is running a poll to see which of his characters is the most loved. The list of the 40 names you can vote for leans heavily towards the best known ones from the movies, with five from "Great Expectations" and four from "Oliver Twist". There's another four from "David Copperfield" (but not David himself) and two from "A Christmas Carol". The Artful Dodger, Fagin, Miss Havisham, Uriah Heep, Mr Micawber, Madame Defarge and Lady Dedlock—they're all here. But, surprisingly, not the "timid, broken-spirited" Smike from "Nicholas Nickleby" or the dangerously attractive Steerforth from "David Copperfield".
Many of Dickens's best characters are not household names. One of my favourites is the long-suffering Mr Jellyby in “Bleak House”, whose wife’s philanthropic fervour (for children who aren’t her own) causes him constantly to lean his weary head against any wall he can find. Another is the kindly moneylender Mr Riah in “Our Mutual Friend”, "long of skirt and wide of pocket", who was created in response to criticism of Dickens's portrayal of Fagin.
There’s something loveable too about the spurned Biddy in “Great Expectations”, whose "hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel". No-one who reads "Bleak House" forgets the young homeless street-sweeper Jo, whose movements from place to place are accompanied by the plangent refrain "I'm a-moving on, sir". The talent for minor characters was there from Dickens's first novel, "The Pickwick Papers", which is lit up, for instance, by the travelling actor with the staccato delivery, Alfred Jingle, who woos with steely determination a spinster aunt whom he suspects has money. "Hesitation formed no part of Mr. Alfred Jingle's character." They deserve to have a Top 40 of their own.
Emma Hogan wrote the Notes on a Voice for T.S. Eliot