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)

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era