Claire Tomalin thinks she was seven when she was hooked by Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. “Dickens has this extraordinary immediacy that children love,” she says.
“David Copperfield takes children seriously – their mentality, their imagination and their feelings.” Our greatest novelist has captivated the author of Dickens: a Life ever since. Now another generation can view Dickens afresh via Dickensian, a new 20-part BBC drama.
Written by Tony Jordan of EastEnders fame, it mixes up many of his characters and settings – but that isn’t actually a new idea. “People have brought together Dickens’s characters in their own imaginations before,” says Tomalin, now 82.
“There’s a painting, Dickens’s Dream, by Robert William Buss in which he’s in his study and all the characters are around him on the walls. Tolstoy said all Dickens’s characters were his friends; they lived in his mind together. I think Dickens would have liked this TV version. He was excited by new things and new ways of reaching people.”
Jordan has plenty of material to mix up – Dickens created 989 different named characters. “I think I know all of them,” says Tomalin. “From the marvellous humour of Mr and Mrs Micawber [David Copperfield] to the villains like Quilp [The Old Curiosity Shop]. Dickens is just as thrilled by his wicked characters, with Squeers [Nicholas Nickleby] and Mrs Gamp [Martin Chuzzlewit]. He puts something of himself into them, his own possible outrageousness. But the characters are the reason Dickens was so popular.”
In Britain, Dickens was read by Queen Victoria and the working class alike. In France and Germany, his translations were best-sellers, and across the United States thousands crammed into halls to hear him speak.
“Dickens’s popularity began with The Pickwick Papers. It was put out in monthly one-shilling instalments, as all his books were, and it just zoomed. Then came Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby,” says Tomalin.
Dickens, who was sent to work in a boot-blacking factory when he was 12, and whose father had been thrown in debtors’ prison, became rich on the thousands of shillings paid out by his infatuated public. “He wanted people to come back and buy the next issue – and they did. That’s why driving the plot is very important with Dickens,” says Tomalin.
“It’s not surprising that modern soaps use methods employed by Dickens – the intense interest in colourful characters and the violent or exciting interchange between them. If Dickens were around today he’d be interested in soaps as a platform for reaching as many people as possible.”
As contemporary soaps do, Dickens used social issues for dramatic effect, highlighting the parlous living conditions of the urban poor. He also campaigned for educational reform. “That’s why Dickens is very relevant at the moment in England. Because we are producing Dickensian conditions again.
“The need for food banks, the ending of children’s support from the state, the attack on the health services and the BBC, the universities being commercialised – so many of the things that Dickens fought for and stood for are being attacked. I think he was never so relevant. We miss him.”
Dickensian is on Boxing Day 7pm, 8.30pm; Sun 27 Dec 7.30pm, 8.30pm; New Year’s Day 8.30pm – all on BBC1