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Dickens at 200

by M. D. Aeschliman

Dickens was born in 1812, and there are celebrations and commemorative activities taking place in this bicentennial year all over the English-speaking world and beyond it. Along with the works of Shakespeare, his fictions now define what English-speaking people have come to mean by “classic” literary art, and although his critical reception has been variable over the 140 years since his death — it stands supremely high now — his popularity has never waned: The dozen great novels have never been out of print.

In the lowest period of critical opinion of Dickens, G. K. Chesterton wrote a great 1906 book on him and followed it with introductions to each of the novels in the Everyman edition. Chesterton saw something radically Christian and radically democratic in Dickens, in this regard unwittingly supporting Dostoevsky’s earlier view of him. In a 1965 reprint of Chesterton’s book on Dickens, the American literary critic Steven Marcus asserted that Chesterton was right to trace Dickens’s profound “feeling for” and sympathy with “common humanity . . . not only to the French Revolution and the radical humanitarianism of Dickens’s time, but to Dickens’s Christianity, his literal, his primitive Christianity. Dostoevsky, who called Dickens his master, also called him ‘the great Christian’ [and he] knew whereof he spoke.”

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