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Norrie Epstein, The Friendly Dickens: Being a Good-Natured Guide to the Art and Adventures of the Man Who Invented Scrooge

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Reviewed by Mark Clark

More than any other author, Charles Dickens has defined how we view English society in the 19th century. A simple list of the characters he created - Mr. Pickwick, David Copperfield, Fagin, Mrs. Havisham, and of course Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and Ebenezer Scrooge - is enough to show that. Then there are those memorable lines: "Bah, Humbug," "The law is a ass," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," "God bless us every one" - and the list goes on.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the word itself - Dickensian. Other authors have had their names enter the language, as Norrie Epstein points out - Rabelaisian, Machiavelian, Kafkaesque - but those are words with precisely defined meanings. Rabelaisian refers to a robust bawdiness, Machiavellian to political cunning or corruption, and Kafkaesque to nightmarish absurdity. Dickensian, on the other hand is a word with multiple meanings. It can refer to a person, a humor, a social condition, a name. It refers to both a cozy evening spent with the family around the fireside, or a desolate orphanage. It is a vastly versatile word, simply because Dickens is such a great and versatile author.

Unfortunately for us, for the most part readers today encounter Dickens as one of the "great authors" forced down our throats during our school years. Much like Shakespeare, Dickens was an author who wrote for a popular audience, pitching his message to suit the masses. And, much like Shakespeare, Dickens is little read outside the classroom today. I myself remember homework assignments on David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Our Mutual Friend that left me cursing how long and complicated Dickens was (only Dostoyevsky was hated more in our English class).

This is a shame, because Dickens is one of the greatest of novelists, and certainly the greatest when it comes to realism and social commentary. Moreover, he is a master at the creation of memorable characters, both major and minor, and has a wonderful ear for dialogue and accent. All of these are skills that make for better roleplaying games and better character development within games. Dickens is an ideal author for gamers, and reading his novels will pay off in better game play.

How to start reading Dickens, then? He was a prolific author, after all - he wrote fourteen books and over five hundred other articles, short stories, and newspaper pieces - so where to start? That is exactly what Norrie Epstein's book The Friendly Dickens is all about - helping the reader get a handle on this vast oeuvre. There is little new in Epstein's book - she relies for the most part on the work of others - but she puts everything in one readable narrative in a pleasant and accessible style.

The book combines two things. First, a biography of Dickens, which describes his childhood, his early career as a journalist, and his life after he became a famous author. This material also includes more general descriptions of the nature of the literary world in Dickens' time. Second, there are a series of book reviews that discuss each of Dickens' novels. These appear interspersed in the chronological biographical material, giving the reader an excellent sense of how Dickens' life affected his art.

The autobiographical material is very interesting. Dickens' early life was very much like that of his fictional characters David Copperfield and Oliver Twist - large parts of those novels were based on Dickens' own experience. His father, John Dickens, was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office whose financial affairs were rather messy. The family did well when Charles was young, but at age fourteen his father was imprisoned for debt, and had to send his son to work pasting labels in a factory that made boot blacking. He spent somewhere between four and twelve months there, but to Dickens it felt like a lifetime. The brutality and monotony of life in the factory was something he never forgot. It also turned him forever against his mother, who, even after the family fortunes improved, wanted her son to continue his job there.

Fortunately for Dickens, and for us, his father was willing to let Charles go to school instead, and over the next three years he attended public school. He left prior to graduation (his father had financial problems again) and at fifteen went to serve an apprenticeship at the Inns of Court to become a lawyer. He found the work dull, however, and after teaching himself shorthand he became a freelance court reporter at the age of nineteen.

He eventually was hired by the newspaper Mirror of Parliament, where he used his knowledge of shorthand to record speeches and debates. There he perfected his writing skills, using the nom de plume "Boz". His series of sketches of London life were published in the Evening Chronicle and the Monthly Magazine between 1833 and 1834, and were collected in book form as Sketches By Boz. The book made Dickens' reputation, and from 1834 to the end of his life in 1870, he was a public figure, soon to become the most famous author in the world.

What accounts for the success of Dickens? In addition to his skills as a novelist, he was an excellent businessman. Not only was he able to write quickly under pressure, he made sure what he wrote was marketed and sold to the widest public possible. He also pursued changes in copyright law, particularly international copyright agreements. Dickens made almost no money outside the United Kingdom from his books - they were copied and reprinted by others or their own profit, and the law made it almost impossible for Dickens to recover any damages. Despite that, he became the first British author who became wealthy from his work.

Of course, Dickens was also fortunate in that he came of age as an author during a period of rapidly increasing literacy and increasingly cheap production of printed materials. The Industrial Revolution made basic literacy a widely distributed skill, and the steam-powered rotary press, wood-pulp paper, and the railroad made books cheap and widely distributed. The genius of Dickens was to take advantage of those changes by creating a body of literature that appealed to the new mass audience.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Dickens' life is how he created the modern structure of literary life. Prior to his career, authors did not make a living as authors - they were usually men of means, with independent incomes that allowed them the leisure to write. A few less wealthy individuals wrote in their spare time, but their earnings were meager - Jane Austen for example, earned only a few hundred pounds over her lifetime, despite the popularity of her novels. Dickens, on the other hand, always supported himself, as well as a large family and many of his relations.

Dickens also invented the book tour. He gave dramatic readings from his novels, in many years making more money from these performances than from sales of his books. He traveled widely, going to America and to the Continent, generating publicity and increased sales wherever he went.

Epstein also devotes considerable attention to Dickens' personal life. Dickens married young, and by his early 40s was no longer in love with his wife Catherine. She had become stout, in part due to the ten pregnancies she had endured, and with his increasing success he wanted a woman in his life of greater intellectual gifts. In 1856 he met the actress Nelly Ternan, and carried on an affair with her that lasted the rest of his life. When his life learned by accident of the affair the following year, Dickens at first reacted with rage, accusing his wife of "infernal jealousy" and forcing her to pay a social call on Nelly (one can only imagine the pain he caused them both with this strange demand). Catherine left Dickens soon after and never saw him again, although they remained married. Amazingly enough, Catherine's sister Georgina, who had lived in the Dickens household for years, remained there and ran Dickens' affairs (sic) after her sister left! All in all, Dickens was a complicated man, not at all a Victorian, and the details of his biography make for fascinating reading.

In addition to biographical material, Epstein provides the reader with brief descriptions of all of the Dickens novels. She provides just enough detail to tempt us to read them, along with scholarly commentary that will help ones understanding of the social, political, and personal context of each one. Her advice as to which Dickens novel to start with (David Copperfield or Great Expectations) is sound, though she does warn the reader that there is a great deal of difference between early novels (David Copperfield and before) and the later ones, which read almost as if they were written by different people. After all, in some ways they were - Dickens was in the process of separating himself from his wife (first emotionally, then physically) while writing his later works. By the way, if you have read A Tale of Two Cities and didn't like it, try another one - Tale is the least Dickensian novel of them all.

All in all, The Friendly Dickens is a wonderful book, with a great deal of material you can put to use in a roleplaying game set in the 19th century. Highly recommended.

Posted Monday, 04-May-2009 19:51:57 EDT

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