Tag Archives: England

The Dickensian Element

The literary world celebrated the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens this week to much fanfare.  But what would Mr. Dickens think if he were still with us today?

My contention is that Dickens would be very active in the public sphere.  It was always a trademark of his during his lifetime.  Dickens was well-known for engagement with his readership, even going so far as to alter episodes of his serial manuscripts based on audience feedback.  He traveled to promote his work as well, and conducted dramatic readings of his work that paved the way for the literary book tour.  The field of literary scholarship would soon grow as well as public conversations about his works ensued.

For all of his contributions to the fields of literary business, literary scholarship, and the development of the novel itself as an art form, Dickens stands head and shoulders above other studied authors.  Yet these are not even among his most lasting accomplishments.  Charles Dickens changed the culture of Western society in unexpected ways.  His A Christmas Carol is credited with prompting the evolution of that holiday into the public consciousness.  Meanwhile, his countless works chronicling the poverty and social iniquity present in Victorian society helped to evolve the public conscience as well.

With his identity as an author so wrapped up in the age which he lived, can Dickens still be considered relevant today?  Of course, is the straightforward answer to an obviously leading question.  I would argue that a writer captivated by the social effects of the Industrial Revolution would be equally enamored of capturing the spirit of the Digital Age.  He would clearly relish new ways of interacting with his audience such as e-readers and iBooks.  The idea of putting more text in the hands of more readers would be viewed by Dickens as a tremendous positive for society.  I’m certain that Dickens would be on sites like Twitter and Facebook, and that he would use these social media platforms to garner feedback from his audiences.  I have no doubt that were Dickens alive today, he would quickly alert readers through Foursquare that he was at the local bookstore signing copies of the long-awaited conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  [He might even confirm to anxious readers that, yes, it was Jasper all along!]

Yet I believe that the “Inimitable” Charles Dickens would have plenty of social criticism to dispense to that dynamic audience.  Dickens, who grew up in poverty, would have grave concerns about the Digital Divide present in today’s Western culture.  The idea that the ever-widening gap between rich and poor enables some schools to have 1:1 classrooms and others scrape by with chalk and outdated textbooks would be anathema to Dickens.

I can see in my mind’s eye a new 2012 novel from Mr. Dickens:  A young man grows up at the turn of the century (the 21st) and goes through his schooling at a poor urban school.  He and his street urchin friends would provide indirect commentary from the author on a society that has turned education into a test-score factory.  Perhaps this young man would have an unexpected turn of fortune that would land him in the midst of wealthy society.  Just as deftly, Dickens would then skewer the positions of those who argue that technology would be the salvation of these issues.  Reimagined characters like Superintendent M’Choakumchild and Associate Superintendent Thomas Gradgrind [they’ve been promoted since their appearances in Hard Times] would thrive in today’s NCLB environment!  Then Dickens would make his emotional appeal… Unless the stratification of society is made more flexible – and unless the disadvantaged from birth are provided more opportunities to become upwardly mobile – we remain a “tale of two classes.”

We sure could use a little of that Dickensian element today… Happy birthday, Chuck.

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Of Kings and Consequence

One of my signature courses is British Literature.  So I don’t mind deviating from the normal focus of this blog to dabble in a little Anglophilia.

The British monarch’s first-born child, whether a girl or a boy, will ascend the throne under new succession rules approved Friday by Commonwealth nations, reversing centuries of tradition.

Commonwealth national leaders also agreed […] to lift a ban on monarchs marrying Roman Catholics, British Prime Minister David Cameron said.

[…]

“Attitudes have changed fundamentally over the centuries and some of the outdated rules — like some of the rules of succession — just don’t make sense to us any more,” Cameron told reporters in Perth.

“The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic — this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become,” he added.

Commonwealth Nations Change Royal Succession Rules – NYTimes.com

For those of us that pay attention to these matters, the historical significance is rather shocking!  Generations upon generations of warfare and political intrigue have impacted British history – and world history! – because of the rules of succession in England.  The three big restrictions – divorces, women, and Catholics – have all now been lifted!

Just think about how different things could have been in the reign of King Henry VIII if even ONE of those three weren’t at issue!  The entire course of human history has pivoted on hairpin turns related to these issues, and in one understated swoop, Queen Elizabeth II has finally turned the page of the Commonwealth to the modern era.  Her namesake would have ascended to the throne earlier under these new rules, avoiding Bloody Mary and heaven only knows how much violence.  Charles I might never have been executed, avoiding the Interregnum and the excess of Oliver Cromwell.  Indeed, Elizabeth II might not even be the monarch, since her uncle Edward VII could have remained king alongside Queen Wallis Simpson!

But then we never would have been able to watch The King’s Speech, and where’s the fun in all that?

Certainly we are long past time as a human society where certain institutions, even largely ceremonial ones like the British monarchy, need to be updated for the modern age.  It’s just amazing to me that these monumental shifts take place with such little fanfare.  What resulted in an abdication crisis a generation or two ago has now yielded first to Charles & Camilla (divorcées) and now Wills & Kate (commoner).

Winston Churchill said “It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead.  The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.”  He lived in interesting times.  I believe that we still do.

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