BOOK NOTES - Celebrate! Feb. 7 was Charles Dickens' 200th birthday

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On Feb. 7, the world celebrated the Charles Dickens Bicentenary with festivities ranging from art exhibitions, performances of his work, and discussions of his writing in book clubs. Don't worry if you didn't participate on the seventh; the whole year will be devoted to this bicentenary celebration.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is remembered as one the greatest novelists of the Victorian era and one of the first literary celebrities to earn enough money to have a career as a writer and publisher. His writing was popular with the masses because readers felt he was speaking directly to them.

His early novels were rooted in problems specific to his time. The effects of the Poor Laws of 1834 were examined in "Oliver Twist" (1838) his second serial novel. He highlighted the abusive treatment of students in schools in Yorkshire in his third book, "Nicholas Nickelby" (1839.) "A Christmas Carol" (1843) which relates the story of sour and stingy Ebenezer Scrooge's ideological, ethical, and emotional transformation has been viewed by critics as an indictment of 19th-century industrial capitalism. His biography, "The Life of Charles Dickens" by John Forester, published two years after his death, revealed that many of the characters in his novels were based on his own life experiences.

Dickens wrote 15 novels during his lifetime that critics now consider "classics." Just what is a "classic" novel? Are you are thinking of a long, musty, out-of-date tome, written by a dead white guy that you were forced to read in high school or college? According to Wisegeek.com: "While there are many different definitions for what makes a classic novel, it is most commonly agreed that classic novels are novels of literary significance that have withstood the test of time and remained popular years after their publication. Generally, classic novels contain global themes that can be applied to any time period. A classic novel usually contains some kind of universal appeal that results in it being read and embraced by an audience of diverse people. Usually, it also contains some unique artistic quality, such as a brilliant storyline or an engaging writing style, which sets it apart from other works of literature." With this definition of "classic" in mind, let's look at some of Dickens' work to see if it meets these criteria.

"The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club" (also known as "The Pickwick Papers") is the first novel by Charles Dickens and was written for publication as a serial in 1836-1837. The novel is a sequence of loosely-related adventures. The novel's main character, Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, is a kind and wealthy old gentleman, and the founder and perpetual president of the Pickwick Club. To extend his research into the quaint and curious phenomena of life, he suggests that he and three other "Pickwickians" (Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, Mr. Augustus Snodgrass, and Mr. Tracy Tupman) should make journeys to remote places from London and report on their findings to the other members of the club. Their travels throughout the English countryside by coach provide the chief theme of this comic novel, still among Dickens' most popular works.

"David Copperfield" (1850) is based on the story of a young man struggling to find a place in the world of 19th century London. Scholars believe that Copperfield's careers, friendships, and love life were most likely influenced by Dickens' own experiences, as well as his time working as a child. The novel includes a cast of more than 50 characters including the unforgettable characters of Rosa Dartle, Dora, Steerforth, Uriah Heep, and Mr. Micawber, a portrait of Dickens's own father. The numerous television adaptations of the novel include a 1999 BBC version with Daniel Radcliffe (of the Harry Potter film series) playing the younger David.

"Bleak House" (1853) is the ninth novel by Charles Dickens, published in twenty monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853. At the novel's core is a long-running litigation in England's Court of Chancery. The case revolves around a testator who apparently made several wills, all of them seeking to bequeath money and land surrounding the Manor of Marr in South Yorkshire. The litigation, which already has consumed years and sixty to seventy thousand pounds sterling in court costs, is emblematic of the failure of Chancery. Dickens's assault on the flaws of the British judiciary system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk, and in part on his experiences as a Chancery litigant seeking to enforce his copyright on his earlier books. Memorable characters include the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn, the friendly John Jarndyce, disingenuous Harold Skimpole, and the likeable but imprudent Richard Carstone.

Dickens' bestselling novel, "A Tale of Two Cities" has sold over 200 million copies, since its publication in 1859. The opening sentence, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," is perhaps one of the most famous lines in literature. Set before and during the French Revolution in the cities of Paris and London, the novel tells the story of Dr. Manette's release from imprisonment in the Bastille and his reunion with daughter, Lucie. A French aristocrat, Darnay, and English lawyer, Carton, compete for Lucie's love and the ensuing tale plays out against the menacing backdrop of the French Revolution and the shadow of the guillotine.

"Great Expectations" (1861) was one of its author's greatest popular successes. The first-person narrative relates the coming-of-age of Pip (Philip Pirrip). A terrifying encounter with an escaped convict in a graveyard on the wild Kent marshes; a summons to meet the bitter Miss Havisham and her beautiful, cold-hearted ward Estella; the sudden generosity of a mysterious benefactor form a series of events that change the orphaned Pip's life forever. He eagerly abandons his humble origins to begin a new life as a gentleman. Dickens' novel depicts Pip's education and development through adversity as he discovers the true nature of his 'great expectations'.

Why not dust off and read a "classic" novel this year in honor of Dickens' Bicentenary?

Do you have a favorite book? Send your recommendations to bmoats@q.com.

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