Thursday, 15 March 2012

Things I missed II

7 February this year was the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. He is regarded by many as the greatest English novelist. He was certainly one of the most widely read. The Old Curiosity Shop, first published in serial form, had a circulation of 100,000 in 1840-41. A Tale of Two Cities, first published as a serial in the weekly All the Year Round,  had an initial circulation of over 120,000 in 1859. Each copy sold was almost certainly read by more than one person, either in a family home or in the reading room of a Mechanics' Institute or other organisation.

Dickens' success as a novelist is the more remarkable given the variety of other roles or professions he  undertook - journalist, pamphleteer, editor, dramatist, producer, actor, public speaker.

Dickens could not have achieved all he did if he had lived at an earlier period. The railways and the postal service enabled the rapid distribution of his serials, and the railways also made it possible for Dickens himself to travel the country giving readings from his novels.

Levels of literacy were rising, even though there was not yet a national, compulsory system of education in England and Wales - that came in 1870, the year of Dickens' death. One estimate suggests that about 1860, about seventy per cent of the population could read  - although not necessarily well enough to read one of Dickens' novels.

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century there was a huge increase in reading material of all kinds aimed  at the middle and working classes - cheap fiction, weekly illustrated papers,  local newspapers.

For those who could not read for themselves, there was the Penny Reading. Dickens himself gave immensely popular public readings of his novels at which the admission fee was a penny. At the other end of the scale, the local schoolmaster or curate might give a reading in a hall or schoolroom. Some penny entertainments were held in theatres and had varied programmes including music. Books were published with chapters specifically intended for use at Penny Readings; shipwrecks and rescues were popular subjects.

If Dickens were to be transported to the present day, he would no doubt soon learn to use the internet and social media to his advantage. He would be much in demand as a commentator on social issues. And with his ability to create memorable characters and to write quickly and to a deadline, he would  no doubt have yet another successful career, as a writer of television drama and soap operas.