The big day has arrived – today marks the official bicentenary of one of our greatest ever authors, the incomparable Charles Dickens. 200 years after his birth, his work lives and breathes as powerfully as ever; indeed many would say that his novels have more relevance now than at any other time, as we face great social upheavals as well as having to contend with our own individual trials and tribulations – and Dickens was the master of combining the public and the personal, creating stories that engaged the mind, heart and imagination.
To celebrate this momentous day and most of all, the man himself, we are showcasing the brilliance of his work and highlighting the very definite impact reading Dickens has on a wide range of people; writers and readers alike.
As a very special birthday treat, enjoy listening to two readings from the recent London Penny Readings – marvellous oral offerings from AS Byatt and Louis de Bernierès that truly capture the comedy, tragedy and true heart of Dickens’ writing.
Reading the first chapter of Great Expectations, AS Byatt reveals how she first read the book when she was the same age as its hero Pip and how, being utterly entranced by the book, became inspired to follow in the footsteps of Dickens and become an author herself.
Click to listen to AS Byatt reading Chapter 1 of Great Expectations – with a personal introduction
In complete contrast to the wit and dark humour of Magwitch and Pip’s first meeting comes one of Dickens’ most emotionally wrenching passages – the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. Here it is masterfully and poignantly read by Louis de Bernierès.
Click to listen to Louis de Bernierès reading from The Old Curiosity Shop
The reading of Dickens has also been taking place much closer to home in Get Into Reading groups in Wirral and Liverpool, where group members have been immensely enjoying the experience and embracing every dramatic twist, wonderfully descriptive sentence and deeply emotional juncture in his stories. Kate McDonnell takes us through how one Get Into Reading group in Wirral has been enjoying what is considered to be the most autobiographical of Dickens’ novels…
“My Friday morning group at The Lauries Community Centre in Birkenhead is reading David Copperfield at the moment – and we’re having a wonderful time of it! The last session was particularly good: we read Chapter 14 – My Aunt Makes Up Her Mind About Me, in which little runaway David finds out whether or not his formidable aunt will adopt him or send him back to his cruel stepfather, Mr Murdstone and his terrifying sister, Jane. The Murdstones arrive at the aunt’s house and there are some hilarious ‘King Kong meets Godzilla’ moments as the two women clash which made us laugh out loud. We cheered Aunt Betsy on with enormous relief when she finally opted to keep David and gave the odious brother and sister a piece of her mind! It was funny and entertaining, yet we also recognised that this was about deciding the fate of a small, frightened child and remembered children of today put up for adoption or waiting for foster parents, helpless to influence the result. How does Dickens do that?
Reading the book aloud together slowly over the weeks is like donning a pair of super-clear spectacles, enabling you to examine and wonder at every little detail – nothing is missed.
Here are some comments from the group on how they’re finding the experience of reading Dickens so far:
‘There’s lots of description in it, but it’s never boring.’ (A Dickens convert!)
‘I’m surprised at how much humour there is – I thought Dickens was all workhouses.’
‘It’s like Shameless – full of big characters’.
‘I didn’t think I would like it’
‘Dickens can make you laugh and make you cry in just a few pages’
‘He makes you feel like you’re in the room with them.’
‘It’s so colourful. You don’t read it in black and white, somehow.’
Emma Gibbons has also been reading some Dickens – the great Great Expectations – with a Get Into Reading group in Edge Hill Library. Reading the book has been quite a journey – the group read it with three different project workers over some months, but enthusiasm for it never waned. Indeed, it was enjoyed so much that the last three chapters were read twice over for the benefit of members who had missed previous sessions – the other members who had already read the ending were more than happy to hear it again, which shows just how much they appreciated the book.
Reading Dickens has proved to be a highly enjoyable experience for group members and project worker alike, as Emma herself testifies:
“Great Expectations is a wonderful book and reading it aloud has made me appreciate Dickens even more.”
The book has also encouraged greater participation amongst some members of the group:
“One group member, B, did not read aloud when starting the group, but does now, and seems to really enjoy it. B has also been very keen on reading the footnotes to the text when an arcane term or an unfamiliar reference crops up. In particular, the reading of Magwitch’s death had a powerful impact on B, who had tears in his eyes.”
The impact of Dickens has even stretched beyond the group; one group member’s carer has said that she will read more of his work as a result of the group member’s enjoyment of Great Expectations. The wonder of Dickens’ words knows no bounds!
This certainly shows how much influence Dickens has – and will continue to have for many more of his anniversaries to come – upon our reading experiences. We’ll leave with some wise words from the man himself…and wish him a very happy bicentenary indeed!
Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do it well; whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself completely; in great aims and in small I have always thoroughly been in earnest.