Dickens, from "The Illustrated London News" (1870)

Today is Charles Dickens’ 199th birthday – I’m selfishly disappointed it’s not two days later to coincide with my own, but I got J.M. Coetzee. I call that cold comfort.

I’m too far removed from them to say anything really interesting now, but David Edgar’s two-part theatrical adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which we saw early last year at Playmaker’s Rep in Chapel Hill, is one of the best things I’ve seen on stage. I haven’t read the book, but my girlfriend, who has, told me that it managed to fit almost everything in from its 900 pages. Funny and dark, sweet and disturbing, engagingly melodramatic, for me it was like Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays in that it triggered an unexpected range of emotions and made almost seven hours of theater pass swiftly.* Also, Bleak House was the most satisfying book I read in 2009 – a definite challenge at nearly 1000 pages, it made for surprisingly relevant reading in the thick of the Great Recession, one society’s decaying infrastructure reflecting that of the other. It’s very funny and unendingly empathic, but Dickens’ empathy is fueled by anger, pessimism and a social clairvoyance that allows the novel to ascend and descend hierarchies at will, to be compassionate and unsparing at the same time. Not to spoil anything, but in the end only those who are ungenerous – with money, but mainly of spirit – remain unforgiven.

So, on his birthday, I mostly feel gratitude toward Dickens, who was generous to the point of excess. Here are a couple of Dickens links to poke around on his birthday:

– A New York Review of Books podcast with Robert Gottlieb, former editor of the New Yorker, speaking with fondness about a really complicated man. It’s based on his review of seven (!) Dickens biographies in the NYRB from last summer; his analysis is maybe a little old-fashioned, bandying about terms like “great novels” and “great man” with Victorian enthusiasm, but still an engaging read.

– From Rose Wild (yes, that’s her name, and her Twitter feed is wonderful), the Archives Editor of The Times, an item from that newspaper on September 4, 1867, in which Dickens writes to assure the public that rumors of his death were unfounded. According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography, Dickens had been suffering from a swollen and painful left foot and was diagnosed by an eminent physician with erysipelas (a nasty skin inflammation) in an example, according to Ackroyd, “of a doctor telling the patient precisely what the patient most wants to hear” (p. 1000-1). He was laid up for a week, but still worked feverishly on No Thoroughfare, a story and later play he and Wilkie Collins were writing, and on arrangements for what would be his final reading tour of America in the winter of 1868. That Dickens felt the need to write to The Times shows his central position to mid-Victorian society – and, since he assures his public that “I was never better in my life,” that the doctor’s possibly trumped-up diagnosis had done the trick.

– A Librivox audiobook of Dickens’ ghost story “The Signalman,” only a half-hour long and genuinely creepy. It’s the third-to-last story in the “Ghost Story Collection #4” (some of the others, especially J.S. Le Fanu’s “Green Tea,” are also really good).

* = In another Shakespearean link with Nickleby (aside from one in the play itself, in which a dying Smike repeats the Apothecary’s line to Romeo, “Who knocks so loud?” to haunting effect, my favorite modern Shakespearean appropriation after the lines from Richard III in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night), last year I also saw the actor who played Nicholas, Justin Adams, do Laertes in the Folger Theatre’s Hamlet, directed by Playmaker’s Joe Haj with the same athleticism and light touch he brought to Nickleby. As in a Dickens novel, everything in the small world of American Shakespearean theater is connected.

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