In scenes beyond even the imagination of Britain's greatest novelist, the life of Charles Dickens was celebrated yesterday at simultaneous events at his birthplace, Portsmouth, and at the site of his burial in Westminster Abbey.
Two centuries after the author’s birth, the Prince of Wales laid a wreath on his tombstone in Poets’ Corner while, at the house where he was born, schoolchildren acted out scenes from Oliver Twist and a group of penny-farthing riders called the Pickwick Bicycle Club paid tribute to The Pickwick Papers, the story that brought him to the attention of the British public in 1836.
The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave gifts of Dickens novels to his cabinet colleagues – David Cameron received Hard Times and Great Expectations, Nick Clegg was given Oliver Twist and George Osborne was handed a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. The celebrations were global: audiences in 24 countries participated in a Dickens read-a-thon which began with an excerpt from Dombey and Son in Australia and ended with a passage from The Mystery of Edwin Drood in the United Arab Emirates.
Prince Charles declared Dickens “one of the greatest writers in the English language” in a statement read out at a service at St Mary’s Church, Portsmouth, where the author was baptised. “Despite the many years that have passed, Charles Dickens remains one of the greatest writers of the English language, who used his creative genius to campaign passionately for social justice,” he said. “The word Dickensian instantly conjures up a vivid picture of Victorian life with all its contrasts and intrigue, and his characterisation is as fresh today as it was on the day it was written.”
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall yesterday visited the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, London, one of the writer’s former homes, where they listened to a reading by Gillian Anderson, who recently played Miss Havisham in a BBC production of Great Expectations.
Nearly 800 people attended the wreath-laying service in Westminster Abbey where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams spoke of Dickens’s unique ability to capture the human condition “by exaggeration, by caricature”. He said: “The figures we remember most readily from his works are the great grotesques.” The observation was confirmed by a Penguin poll of favourite Dickens characters yesterday, showing Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol as the public’s favourite, ahead of Miss Havisham, with seven villainous figures in the top ten.
But the Archbishop also highlighted the author’s great compassion and his empathy with the Victorian poor. “He loves the poor and destitute. Not from a sense of duty, but from a sense of outrage that their lives are being made flat and dead,” he said. “He wants them to live. He wants them to expand into the space that should be available for human beings to be what God meant them to be.”
He described Dickens as a “great religious writer” and cited Bleak House as the novelist’s “most profoundly theological” book. The actor Ralph Fiennes – who is to play Magwitch in a new film adaptation of Great Expectations - then gave an impassioned reading from that same work, describing the death of the homeless crossing sweeper Jo.
Dickens enjoyed his fame, as his biographer Claire Tomalin illustrated by reading from one of the author’s letters to his sister Fanny in which he told of the rapturous reception he received on a public reading trip to Birmingham and Liverpool in 1844. But Tomalin said the tour had been designed to raise funds for the education of the poor. “Dickens believed that education was one of the best ways to help the poorest in society,” she said. “His goodness was as great as his genius.”
The writer’s great-great grandson Mark Charles Dickens, president of the International Dickens Fellowship, read an extract from The Life of Our Lord, which was “completely different from anything else he wrote” and was intended for his own children. “Never be proud or unkind, my dears, to any poor man, woman, or child,” was part of his Christian teaching.
Charles Dickens never intended The Life of Our Lord to be a public work. Nor did he expect his grave to be in Westminster Abbey but close to his home in Rochester.
In words written on his insomniac night walks among the London homeless, Dickens described the building that would become his burial place as being “fine gloomy society” for quarter of an hour. Westminster Abbey suggested to him a procession of the dead with “each century more amazed by the century following it than by all the centuries going before”. Instead, 200 years after his birth, Charles Dickens continues to amaze those who have followed him with the enduring relevance of his observations.