A letter to Charles Dickens on his 200th birthday
The Guardian, Tuesday 7 February 2012
Charles Dickens – as much read and loved as ever. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
My dear Mr Dickens,
Happy 200th birthday! You yourself were not much given to celebrating anniversaries, but you did go to Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1864, with Robert Browning, Wilkie Collins and John Forster, to celebrate Shakespeare's 300th, "in peace and quiet". And on 30 January 1849, you celebrated the bicentenary of the execution of Charles I with your friend Walter Savage Landor. In so doing, you gave a clear message of how greatly you honoured Shakespeare's writing – "was there ever such a fellow!" – and how heartily you disliked bad government.
Just now, we are all reading and rereading your novels, your journalism, and your story A Christmas Carol, with its pointed message that a decent society depends on the rich learning to be generous and the poor being saved from ignorance and want.
We are talking about your heroes and your villains: Pecksniff, Squeers, Quilp, Murdstone, Headstone; your jokes and your pathos; your silly, pretty little women; your strong women – Betsey Trotwood, Peggotty – and your glorious comic women: Mrs Gamp, Mrs Todgers, Flora Finching.
We note your celebration of the strength and resilience of disabled people: Jenny Wren, whose body is twisted and painful and who makes her career as a dolls' dressmaker; Phil Squod, who can't walk straight and is disfigured, and who is hard-working, loyal and kind; Miss Flite, whose madness sees the truth; crazy Barnaby; hairless Maggie; Sloppy, whose head is too small.
We are enjoying the way you bring London to life before our eyes: streets, river, bridges, shops, dust heaps, markets, prisons. And we are reading your letters – more evidence of your unmatched reporter's eye – with their display of high spirits, enthusiasm, generosity and, it must be said, black temper at bad times.