As Britain celebrates Charles Dickens today, the 200th anniversary of his birth, it's not hard to see why his writing remains popular. Despite setting most of his novels in the 1800s, many of the themes in his work still resonate in Britain and worldwide.
“People who may not have read any of his novels know about Oliver Twist and 'Can I have some more?’ or Scrooge and his meanness. His characters have penetrated the English language and character," says Dickens expert Jon Mee of the University of Warwick's English and Comparative Literary Studies Department.
“But if you look at the subject areas, there are interesting parallels to today. Look at 'Little Dorrit,' which is about debt and the financial system. It’s about speculation and financial chaos – which isn’t too far off from what’s happened in recent years," Mr. Mee said. “Dickens was no saint and was quite vain but he never wanted to leave behind or let go social injustice and what he saw. He wanted to stay connected to issues and keep them alive."
Dickens has 207 descendants alive today, the oldest being 90 and the youngest being two months old. They will be joined at anniversary events by dignitaries and everyday fans. Prince Charles will lay a wreath at his grave in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, while services and events will take place in his birthplace, Portsmouth.
His great, great grandson Ian Dickens told The Christian Science Monitor, “I’m immensely proud to be related to Charles Dickens and I know all my family are. His work is very accessible because he grew up poor and knew it was important that all sections of society could read. That’s true today whether it’s Hollywood, a TV adaptation or a Christmas Carol with the Muppets. He knew what poverty meant and he never forgot that in his work.”
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Charles Dickens’ parents, John and Elizabeth, moved to Portsmouth when John's work in the Navy Pay Office required that he move there from London. The family returned to London two years after Charles was born, although according to Dom Kippin, literature development officer at Portsmouth Council, Dickens researched some of his books in the town, such as Nicholas Nickleby.
“We get visitors from around the world who want to make a pilgrimage to where Dickens was born," said Mr. Kippin. "Only yesterday I had a call from the Dickens Fellowship in Hollywood. He may be better known for his association with London but as his great, great grandson Ian says ‘You’re only born in one place'," Kippin said.
To mark the 200th birthday, the Royal Mail has issued two new stamps illustrating his work and a £150,000 ($237,200) statue will be unveiled in Portsmouth later this year, remarkably the first in the United Kingdom.
"There’s a statue in Philadelphia and one in Sydney, but none in England. That’s because there’s been confusion over his will in which he said he didn’t want a monument built to him after his death," Ian Dickens said. "As a family we don’t think he meant a statue so we’ve commissioned one and it should be unveiled in September.”
Meanwhile, Google commemorated the author by including Dickens characters in its Google doodle today. A Penguin Books poll coinciding with the anniversary found that Ebenezer Scrooge from "A Christmas Carol" is readers' favorite Dickens character, followed by Miss Havisham from "Great Expectations" and Sydney Carton in "A Tale Of Two Cities."
But Dickens's legacy is based on more than the quality of his writing, Mr. Kippin notes.
"Along with Shakespeare and Chaucer, he’s one of England’s greatest writers. But he wasn’t just a novelist. He was also a prolific journalist and shone a light on poverty and social deprivation when Victorian society would rather look the other way," Mr. Kippin said.