Dickens at 200

A life in letters.

Today, it is 200 years since Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Portsea to John and Elizabeth Dickens. The second of their eight children, Charles would go on to become not merely a novelist but the paradigmatic Victorian man of letters - journalist, essayist and prolific correspondent as well as novelistof his day.

As Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, author of Becoming Dickens, noted in an essay in the New Statesman in October, Dickens allows himself cameo roles in his novels, but without their turning into autobiography:

The best-known example is David Copperfield, whose initials reflect Dickens's in reverse, like somebody looking into a mirror, and who, over the course of the novel, encounters a mad second-hand clothes dealer named Charley, an ineffectual flute-playing schoolteacher, also named Charley, and Mr Dick, who is writing a "memorial" of Charles I. Similarly, A Tale of Two Cities revolves around physical doubles whom Dickens originally wanted to call Charles Darnay and Dick Carton, so that even their initials would reflect each other.

Dickens's "relationship" with his characters was also noted by Dostoevsky, as A N Wilson observed in a joint review for the NS of Douglas-Fairhurst's book and Claire Tomalin's biography:

"The person the writer sees most of is himself," the Russian wrote. "There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters . . ."

The Dickens bicentenary has garnered truly international attention. Here are just a few of the events and publications commemorating the man and his accomplishments:

  • The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall visit the Charles Dickens Museum and attend wreath laying Ceremony at Westminster Abbey which features readings from Ralph Fiennes & Claire Tomalin
  • The British Council's 24 hour Global Dickens Read-a-thon will take place in 24 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe beginning in Australia with a reading from Dombey and Son.
  • The BFI Southbank hosts the London leg of the Global Dickens Read-a-thon.
  • Dickens in London, an innovative cross-platform project, transmitted on Radio 4 and online throughout the week of the bicentenary

Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers will be publishing The Library of a Dickensian, a collection of Dickens material that will be offered for sale in this bicentennial year. Items include first editions of Dickens's novels, letters, manuscripts and portraits of the novelist. The full catalogue can be viewed online here.

Charles Dickens - A life in letters

1812 Born to John and Elizabeth Dickens
1827 Works as the clerk to an attorney
1834 Begins using the pseudonym "Boz"
1836 The first chapters of The Pickwick Papers are published. Marries Catherine Hogarth
1837 The first of his ten children, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, is born
1839 His daughter, Kate, is born
1842 Charles and Catherine travel to America
1846 The Dickens family travels to Switzerland
1853 Dickens gives his first public reading
1856 Dickens works with Wilkie Collins on The Frozen Deep
1857 Hans Christian Anderson is entertained at Gad's Hill Place, Dickens's country home in Kent
1858 Dickens separates from Catherine
1869 Dickens discontinues public readings. Begins writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood
1870 Dickens gives his final public reading, and dies at Gad's Hill Place on 9 June

The novels

The Pickwick Papers (1836)

Oliver Twist (1837)

Nicholas Nickleby (1838)

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840)

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Martin Chuzzlewit (1843)

Dombey and Son (1846)

David Copperfield (1849)

Bleak House (1852)

Hard Times (1854)

Little Dorrit (1855)

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Great Expectations (1860)

Our Mutual Friend (1864)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.