Dickens was one of the great literary geniuses of all time and one of the most popular. It has been estimated that one out of ten Britons who could read read his works, and then read them aloud to many others! He was, as he was nicknamed, "The Inimitable" (although innumerable attempts were made to imitate him) and it can be argued that in all of English literature, his creativity is rivaled only by Shakespeare's. He was an enormously complex man, a fact seen by many of the important literary figures of his day who were acquainted with him. Ralph Waldo Emerson attended one of Dickens's public readings in Boston during Dickens's American tour. Emerson laughed, he said, "as if he must crumble to pieces," but afterward he commented that he was afraid that Dickens possessed

too much talent for his genius; it is a fearful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from it nor set to rest. . . . He daunts me! I have not the key.

Dickens's genius, his obsession with work, his life-long love affair with his public, and his deep humanity all helped to make him a literary phenomenon. Because his works appealed to people of all conditions, and because he could take advantage of new technological developments, he reached, from the publication of the Pickwick Papers on, an audience of unprecedented size — an audience which he was able to influence emotionally to an extent never equalled. He was not merely a writer but also a public figure. He was, for example, widely regarded as the best after-dinner speaker, as well the best amateur actor, of his day, and during his own lifetime he became a mythic figure: when he died, a (perhaps apocryphal) little girl cried "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?"

He was a great comic artist and a great entertainer, but his influence over his public was strongest, perhaps, when he struck a vein of sentiment which ran deep in Victorian society. Carlyle, quite seriously, recounted the "strange profane story" of a "solemn clergyman" who had called to comfort a sick man who was, perhaps, on his death-bed. As the clergyman left the room, having, as he thought, accomplished his task, he heard the invalid say "Well, thank God, Pickwick will be out in ten days anyway!"

When The Old Curiosity Shop was approaching its emotional climax — the death of Little Nell — Dickens was inundated with letters imploring him to spare her, and felt, as he said, "the anguish unspeakable," but proceeded with the artistically necessary event. Readers were desolated. The famous actor William Macready wrote in his diary that "I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain. . . . I could not weep for some time. Sensations, sufferings have returned to me, that are terrible to awaken." Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish member of Parliament, read the account of Nell's death while he was riding on a train, burst into tears, cried "He should not have killed her," and threw the novel out of the window in despair. Even Carlyle, who had not previously succumbed to Dickens's emotional manipulation, was overcome with grief, and crowds in New York awaited a vessel newly arriving from England with shouts of "Is Little Nell dead?" Tastes change, however: Oscar Wilde, that sardonic iconoclast, would later remark (though he might not, even in the saying, have believed it) that no one could read the death-scene of Little Nell without dissolving into tears — of laughter. Today, perhaps, we do not find it so mawkishly sentimental, but we cannot read it, obviously, as the Victorians did.

[To get some idea of Dicken's popularity, take a look at the gallery of memorial caricatures that appeared after the novelist's death; be sure to click on the images to read some of extravagant tributes. GPL]


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens

Last modified 1988

Last modified 8 June 2007