It's right to mark Dickens's birthday but not to idolise him

Feb 7, 2012

Dickens was a great writer, but if children aren't reading him it's not the end of the world

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ON THE 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth, commentators are celebrating the Victorian novelist as a literary genius, even if children today don't have the attention span to read his works. But is all this hero-worship a bit much?

A literary genius

Dickens was not just an incomparably great novelist, says Simon Callow in The Daily Telegraph, he was an astute manager of his own genius. He had "a brilliance for self-promotion that made him the first truly modern literary celebrity". He craved the attention of an audience, and depended on the energy it gave him to work, while remaining a private man. Dickens is like no one else who ever lived, adds Callow. "Strange that he should also be the writer who has warmed more ordinary lives than any other."

Children are missing out

It's a pity that today's youngsters do not have the attention span to read Dickens's books, Claire Tomalin told the Press Association. This is because they are being reared on "dreadful television programmes". You have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel, but children are no longer being educated "to have prolonged attention spans".

But we should not despair

Hold on a minute. "It might be a good idea to look at one's own past and ask oneself: honestly, did I ever have the attention span for Dickens when I was a child?" writes Nicholas Lezard in The Independent. We shouldn't despair if children don't read Dickens any more: many do not discover the pleasure of reading Dickens until later in life. "It is not a sign that civilisation is collapsing."

Enough of the hero worship

Dickens here, Dickens there, Dickens bloody everywhere, says John Sutherland in The Guardian. Dickens was once regarded as a great entertainer - nothing more. Now he is incontrovertibly the "greatest". Enough of this hero worship. "I wouldn't deny him a place at the top of the table, but I have a problem with elevating him to the position of ‘champ'. "There are plenty of other Victorian writers who are just as good – "or better".

And, anyway, didn't he abuse women?

He might have been a great writer and a social campaigner, but he's unlikely to be a feminist icon, says Martin Chilton for The Telegraph. We've always known he was a bit of a cad. But in her book Dickens' Women, Miriam Margoyles accuses him of being cruel to women, including his wife. In a letter to a friend in 1842, he wrote: "Catherine is as near being a donkey as one of her sex can be."

Dickens could not depict a mature sexual and emotional female partner for his heroes, Margoyles argues, because "his own relations with women were all damaged, incomplete or destructive."

"And yet," says Chilton, "the flawed man left us the magnificent novels."

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