Charles Dickens is widely considered to be the greatest novelist in the English language. Born in Portsmouth in 1812, he made his literary mark in 1836 with The Pickwick Papers, before going on to win worldwide fame with novels and stories such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol. A keen social reformer, he was engaged in numerous good causes, while his public readings were hugely popular. He was married with ten children.
When did you first hear about Charles Dickens?
At school. I had a teacher who used to read out passages of The Pickwick Papers in class, mimicking the characters’ voices. It was hilarious and we just laughed and laughed – in doing so, that teacher sowed the seeds of a lifelong love for Dickens on my part.
What kind of person was he?
I think Dickens was a complex man, who was forever scarred by his experiences as a boy, when his father was sent to a debtors’ jail, and he was employed in a London blacking factory. But in a way, those experiences were also the making of him – for they resulted in him showing a lifelong interest in ‘the common man’, and his novels show a sympathy and understanding of ‘the underdog’ that was rare at the time.
What made him a hero?
The thing I love about his novels is that on the one hand, they can be very humorous – and feature some of the most memorable characters in literature. But at the same time, they had a strong social message. They showed just how grim life was for most people, and cast a welcome light on many of society’s ills. Indeed, his novels were instrumental in the passing of progressive laws. I also admire the way his novels feature so many working-class characters.
What was your hero’s finest hour?
I think it has to be the strength of feeling aroused in his novels like Oliver Twist, which so shocked the nation and exposed how things like the Poor Law affected children. He was a radical with a keen social conscience who spent his life fighting social injustice.
Is there anything you don’t admire about Dickens?
His attitude to women left a bit to be desired. His poor wife, Catherine, gave birth to ten children, leaving her exhausted and not the woman she was. After growing bored with her, he then effectively left her for a younger woman.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
A couple. A bit like him, I’ve always sought to inject my books with humour while at the same time making social commentary. Secondly, like him, I’ve written about ordinary, working-class people.
If you could meet Dickens what would you ask him?
The truth is I’d rather not meet him. They say you should never meet your heroes because it can be a disappointment. It’s true. I met a couple of mine, and it was a letdown. I’d rather admire him from afar.
Sue Townsend was talking to York Membery. She is a novelist and playwright, best known for her Adrian Mole books. The Leicester-based writer’s latest book, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, has recently been published by Michael Joseph. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Adrian Mole, all eight books in the series have been reissued.