Leading article: A tale of two arguments

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The Independent Online

When a biography of a writer appears, the cry often goes up that what counts is the art not the life. And if the writer is living, then very often he or she will have objected to being written about, or at the very least refused to co-operate with the project.

Charles Dickens, it turns out, was a figure in this mould. Early to spot the rise of a personality cult, he wrote in his will that he wanted to be remembered for his novels alone, and that "no monument, memorial or testimonial whatever" should commemorate him.

Now, though, 138 years after his death, the last wishes of this great novelist are causing consternation in his home city of Rochester. Descendants of Dickens are among those who want to erect a statue to him; others feel that such a monument would, given his express rejection of such an idea, be inappropriate. A tale of two arguments, indeed.

The instinct to preserve and honour greatness is laudable, and only human. So much so that we are tempted to ask how it can be that Rochester does not have a statue of its most celebrated one-time resident?

Perhaps such requests made by writers in their last testaments should be treated like copyright – valid for a decent period of time, perhaps until the deaths of any relatives alive at the same time as the writer was – but not eternal.

At a time when many people feel that a sense of history is being lost, here is a chance to make a statement. Even if a statue did not get more people reading Great Expectations, it would acknowledge Dickens' unique place in the story of British life and literature. And after so long since his death, that is arguably for us to decide, not him.