I had an unexpected treat this Christmas. The BBC has produced a 20-part TV series that features some of the most vivid characters to be found in Charles Dickens’ writings. Appropriately, the Beeb chose to launch the new offering, “Dickensian” on January 26 – Boxing Day, which Londoners have adopted to celebrate the life of the great novelist. I imagine BBC is arranging worldwide distribution of this unusual series, in which memorable characters from Bill Sykes to Miss Haversham share a remodeled mid-Victorian universe.
Dickens was on my mind this Christmas when while writing to friends and relatives I was visited by a reflective mood. My elder son had married in October – a fine occasion – and I was thinking of all this would mean to them, and of the world that their children would inherit.
My end-2015 thinkathon centered on the human race and the planet, and the millennia that have created a truly unique creature that can exist happily in a natural environment of great beauty. I think of the great works of philosophy, art, and discovery that spring from our part of nature’s great tree. But wait. This happy view degenerates into a groan that our bipedal brethren are dismantling Eden. And I lament that news from the world’s trouble spots is grim indeed, especially when amplified by the hyperbole that comes from headline publicity and the rabble-babble of social media. I remember the time when a Russian acquaintance told me quite confidently that “war is a natural condition of mankind.”
The good thing is that when I turn away from the cacophony of guns, bombs, hate-rhetoric, white-collar crime, and technology gone wrong, I can visualize the many billions of people who are mostly interested in going about their business and trying to be good. The Baghdad shopkeeper, the native American sheepherder, the Londoncabbie, the war-zone medic, the rice-paddy worker, Mother Theresa. Such are the people who give me faith in the future. And they are the vast majority. I see them as the embodiment of humanity in its least contaminated form, folk of all nations and faiths that I like to think are the sweet fruit of social evolution. God bless ’em every one!
Then I feel better.
When I was a youngster my favorite fictional book was Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. My parents didn’t have a very big library but they did have a set of Dickens, who so effectively explored and made known what happens when humane values are trodden down and people problems combine to create misery. But he could also see brightness and cheer, even in whist he considered to be his own “degenerate times.” More than 150 years on, the world needs strong, positive vision in order to build a kinder and more understanding, peaceful planet.
Dickens’ Pickwick celebrates a Christmas that encourages “that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and alloyed delight — and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world – that the religious belief of the most civilized nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, number it among the firsT joys of a future condition of existence.”
And then: “Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; and can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home!”
Dickens was about 25 when he wrote this, and in the first, prolific surge of his writing genius. But he already knew of the “delusions of our childish days,” for they were already his own. They were romantic and utopian at times but high-minded, worthy, and necessary ideals nevertheless.
Maybe we need another Dickens.