My history hero: Charles Dickens

"Like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens wrote for all time and his characters are as vivid now as when he first put pen to paper more than 150 years ago": actor Miriam Margolyes nominates Charles Dickens as her history hero

A portrait of Charles Dickens. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Charles Dickens is widely regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. He wrote a string of bestselling novels and short stories including The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations and invented some of literature’s best-known characters. His books are still in print and have been adapted for stage and screen. He was buried at London’s Westminster Abbey.

When did you first hear about Charles Dickens?

When I read Oliver Twist at school aged 11. As soon as I entered Dickens’s world I was hooked. I went on to read all his books and I think they stand the test of time. They’re certainly the best depiction of life in Victorian England that I know.

What kind of person was he?

He was self-made, starting off in poverty and ending up with great wealth, which he earned himself. He was a charming companion and a cruel and adulterous husband. First and foremost a reporter – how he originally earned his living – he was the greatest prose writer England ever produced, holding up a mirror to his times. I think our visual, emotional and philosophical picture of Dickens’s England comes to a considerable extent from reading his work.

What made Dickens a hero?

He’s my passion for several reasons. First, because his personality was so complex, layered and interesting. Second, because of the excellence of his prose and the vividness of his imagination, which allowed him to invent more than 2,000 characters. Like Shakespeare, he wrote for all time and his characters are as vivid now as when he first put pen to paper more than 150 years ago. He wrote with real fervour and burned to be able to write; he was unstoppable.

What was his finest hour?

His great books are his finest hour. I particularly love Little Dorrit, my favourite novel. It’s a very accomplished work and I admire the way he was able to use the extraordinary events of his life, incorporating them into a critique of English society from top to the bottom – from high society to a lowly prison – at the time that he lived. I’m always reading bits of Little Dorrit. Some people say his books are now hard to read, but they’re just a bit lazy!

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I don’t like the way he treated his wife, Catherine. He was unfaithful, and cruel to her because he couldn’t bear her after his love for her had died. He blamed her for the breakdown of the marriage, which was completely unfair.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Not really, although we’re both performers and he wanted to be an actor before becoming a writer – I suppose I share the instinct of the performer with him. I think we also share a love of words, and like him I believe in fairness.

What do you think he would have gone on to do had he lived longer?

Charles Dickens died aged just 58 and would have gone on to write many more novels – he had a lot more books in him. I also wonder if he would have gone on to have more children with his mistress, Ellen. He was an engine of a man, and sadly the engine was turned off far too early.

If you could meet Dickens, what would you ask him?

Oh goodness, I’d just listen to anything he said. I’d be the archetypal gobsmacked fan with my eyes on stalks!

Miriam Margolyes was talking to York Membery.

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Miriam Margolyes’ acting credits include starring in the original West End production of Wicked and playing Professor Sprout in two Harry Potter films. She will be appearing at the Malton Dickensian Festival, Yorkshire, on 16 and 17 December.