The world celebrates Dickens’ 200th birthday today

l by Pearl Thevanayagam

(February 09, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) I must have been about seven years of age when my father beckoned me one evening to the study room and asked, “What did Oliver Twist say to Mr Bumble?” I replied, “I want some more”. He was reading Oliver Twist to my eldest brother and he could not answer the question. This was my initiation into the world of Charles Dickens and even today his novels still fascinate me and take me inside Victorian England full of workhouses for orphaned and abandoned children born out of wedlock where they were virtually starved and existed on leftovers from the masters who were paid by the government to feed and clothe them.
He wrote about misery, starvation, squalid living conditions and women forced into prostitution through sheer poverty in London and its suburbs where rich folk lived cheek by jowl with the dirt-poor and who accepted this as a way of life. I often stood by my father when he helped my older siblings with their English homework and although I was not much good in other subjects English fascinated me.

His novels did make a change in social reforms, better education for children and the emergence of reformists and social thinkers which would propel Britain towards progress in equality for all. Dickens was a man for all seasons and it is a pity English Literature is still out of bounds for those studying in the vernacular in Sri Lanka.
Today marks the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Dickens who through his novels exposed the hypocrisy of the class system in Victorian England where the poor classes believed it was their destiny to remain poor and serve their wealthy masters. Celebrations are under way across the world from Albania to India and Zimbabwe. There are plans to erect a statue in his honour in his birthplace Portsmouth although Dickens had specified in his will that no monuments or statues be erected in his honour.
Nicholas Nickleby still gives me immense pleasure and I cannot resist reading it over and over again. Although most of my book collection over the years were burnt in the July 1983 riots I had a piece of luck when I migrated to UK again in 2001. The book shop down the road was closing down and English classics of Dickens, Hardy, J.B.Priestley, Charles Kingsley and a host of other authors were selling for as little as 35p each and I managed to come home with a box full of these treasures, all unabridged.
Although he hailed from a well-to-do family – his father was employed in the navy pay office – his family ended up in debtors’ prison and this interrupted his education. Wackford Squeers – the unscrupulous school master who ran Dotheby Hall- a private establishment in Yorkshire for children hailing mostly from noble families born out of wed-lock for whom he charged exorbitant rates to keep the dark secrets of their birth with promises of good sound eddication (sic) and healthy diet (leftovers from the family meals) in Nicholas Nickleby could easily be compared to our current government teachers while neglecting their students during school hours would charge phenomenal rates for their tuition classes. Dickens was highly perturbed at the neglect of education for those who could not afford it.
The characters in Nicholas Nickleby are the culmination of his time as parliamentary reporter and his description of the MPs debating on setting a ceiling on muffin prices to benefit the poor muffin boys who had to get up before dawn to deliver muffins and crumpets to bakeries and homes still makes me laugh. Who could resist his wry humour in his description of Mrs Nickleby who runs into hard times due to the untimely death of her husband who gambled away his family fortunes. Mrs Nickleby never came to terms with her changed circumstances and lived in a world of her own and in constant optimism. She often reflected on the family silver, the servants she had and the coach and horses she possessed in her days of prosperity and these reflections manifested themselves at the most inappropriate moments giving way to hilarity.
Dickens had plenty of humour to balance his often maudling novels. The Pickwick Papers and even Great Expectations with so much sadness and tragedy ensconced have their witty characters.
His novels did make a change in social reforms, better education for children and the emergence of reformists and social thinkers which would propel Britain towards progress in equality for all. Dickens was a man for all seasons and it is a pity English Literature is still out of bounds for those studying in the vernacular in Sri Lanka.
The writer is Asia Pacific Journalism Fellow at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, California and a print journalist for 21 years. She can be reached at pearltheva@hotmail.com).

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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