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Episode
270

The Inimitable Charles Dickens

Jun 10, 2022
Arts & Culture
-
19
minutes

He was the Victorian era's most famous social writer, and his novels were loved by everyone from Queen Victoria to street children.

In this episode we'll learn about Charles Dickens shone a light on the injustices of 19th century Britain and invented the modern idea of Christmas.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Charles Dickens. 

[00:00:27] This is actually part two of a three-part mini-series on Great Victorian writers. 

[00:00:33] In part one we looked at Jane Austen, the author responsible for novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and next up we’ll be looking at the Brontë sisters. 

[00:00:45] OK then, The Inimitable Charles Dickens.

[00:00:51] If you’re wondering what this strange word “inimitable” means, it means unable to be imitated, unable to be copied. 

[00:00:59] Later on in his life, Dickens referred to himself, jokingly I should add, as inimitable, but his style certainly was unique.

[00:01:09] Indeed, alongside George Orwell, he is one of the few English authors whose surname has become an adjective, Dickensian.

[00:01:19] To get an understanding of how he reached this point, similar to the episodes on Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, in this episode we’ll go on a journey through four different areas: the novelist's life, their novels, the impact of those novels and finally their legacy.

[00:01:38] So, our first stop is a brief look at Dickens's life. 

[00:01:43] Although he was born in 1812 into what should have been a relatively secure middle-class life in the southern English port city of Portsmouth, his father had no control over the family’s spending and managed to put himself, and therefore his family, into considerable debt

[00:02:05] The shock of such a sudden change from relative plenty to the kind of grinding, real poverty, as experienced by the industrial working class, marked Dickens for life. 

[00:02:19] He was only 12 when this traumatic event occurred, he found himself suddenly taken out of the good school that he was in and sent to work in a factory which made black boot polish

[00:02:32] Here, for three gruelling years, the sensitive and bright young Charles worked long hours in a dismal factory near London's Charing Cross station, fixing labels onto jars of boot polish

[00:02:48] His father and the majority of his many brothers and sisters had all been imprisoned in what was known as a debtor’s prison until his father’s debts were all paid. 

[00:02:59] If you’re familiar with Charles Dickens, you’ll know that there is a recurrent theme of adults mistreating children, of adults treating children poorly. This theme clearly had its roots in this bruising early childhood experience. 

[00:03:16] Young Charles’s formal education was therefore short-lived, it didn't last for long. After the blacking factory and a short further spell, a short period, at school, he went to work as a legal clerk

[00:03:32] Rather than continuing to do his apprenticeship and become a lawyer, he quickly learnt a new form of shorthand writing, which, together with his very quick mind meant that he was soon expert at writing down accounts of criminal trials in court. 

[00:03:50] Before long, he was doing a similar thing in London's Houses of Parliament, where he became a famous reporter on parliamentary debates. 

[00:04:00] In the early days of railways, Dickens's ability to accurately record politicians' speeches and have those speeches written up in newspapers which were distributed all over Britain was an important part in the communications revolution which accompanied the growth of newspapers and rail travel. 

[00:04:20] His talent for reporting speeches extended to writing sketches about famous politicians. This then led to short stories and then novels. 

[00:04:31] Writing initially under what was a family nickname, Boz, his brilliance at creating memorable characters and satirising institutions, making fun of institutions, meant that he soon became a famous writer, and this fame would only increase. 

[00:04:50] When he was aged only 24, the publication of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, turned him into an international, literary celebrity

[00:05:01] It helped that he also became editor of two popular magazines in succession

[00:05:07] I mention this because the way in which the majority of his novels were published was in what's called serial form. 

[00:05:16] This meant that each week or month, you would have a few new chapters of the latest Dickens novel, each ending in moments of suspense

[00:05:26] So, the chapter would end on what’s called a “cliffhanger”, a point when the narrative or storyline is in the balance and we are desperate to know how a particular set of events is going to progress

[00:05:40] Cleverly, of course, it is organised so that the reader will surely buy the next instalment

[00:05:47] This style of serial publication was to become the dominant form of publication for the Victorian novel, and it’s obviously still a device that’s used even today in the latest TV series. 

[00:06:01] But how about Dickens's personal life, perhaps you are asking?

[00:06:05] Well, although for his adoring public and indeed for succeeding generations, the famous Boz was regarded as being very much a family man, with his long-term wife, Catherine and his 10 children, this was actually not the case. 

[00:06:23] Like many high-profile people, he had a complex personal life. 

[00:06:28] He had a passionate early love with a lady called Maria Beadnell, whom he did not marry. 

[00:06:34] He did not treat his wife, Catherine, particularly well, as he regarded her as very much below him intellectually. 

[00:06:43] Somewhat bizarrely, he had a very close relationship with Catherine's sister, Mary Hogarth, whose early death was a great source of sadness for Dickens. 

[00:06:54] After Dickens separated from his wife in 1858, he struck up a relationship with an actress 27 years younger than him, Ellen Ternan, and there is little doubt that she and he were lovers from the early 1860s until his death in 1870 aged 58. 

[00:07:14] Dickens was also a famously charismatic individual. 

[00:07:18] He was a powerful personality with great energy and spirit; he loved colourful clothes, such as waistcoats, along with dancing, theatricals and, above all charitable work on behalf of causes as wide-ranging as child poverty, prostitution, homelessness, educational reform and pollution. 

[00:07:40] We will return to some of these themes shortly when discussing his impact on Victorian society. 

[00:07:47] What about his work, his books? 

[00:07:49] Well, as you would expect of a man with such energy, idealism and genius, his productivity was prolific, he wrote a vast amount.

[00:07:59] He wrote 15 novels, mainly very long ones. 

[00:08:03] In addition, his output included five short novels, hundreds of short stories and many non-fiction articles which were published in his magazines. 

[00:08:14] As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, and let’s not forget that he also had 10 children, he was a conscientious editor of his two weekly magazines which he published over a period of 20 years and a similarly dutiful and careful contributor to charities, such as Urania Cottage, the home that he and a wealthy banking heiress, Angella Coutts, set up for prostitutes who were trying to free themselves from their lives as sex workers and start afresh

[00:08:47] As for his novels, which is what he is best known for, they cover a very broad range of topics. 

[00:08:54] The early ones are perhaps best known for their comedy, with The Pickwick Papers and the Old Curiosity Shop examples of this genre. 

[00:09:04] As he moved into his mature and late phase, he wrote powerfully critical novels about important social problems and failures, such as the educational system, which he covered in Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby. 

[00:09:19] He also experimented with historical novels, where the action is set someway in the past. 

[00:09:27] Most famously, this was the case with A Tale of Two Cities, which set the action in London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution. 

[00:09:37] His later work became yet more complex and uncompromising in its attacks on what he saw as the evils of the society that surrounded him. 

[00:09:48] For instance, In Bleak House, he attacks the way in which the legal system only serves lawyers and destroys young lives. 

[00:09:58] In Little Dorritt the target is the effect of the debtors’ prison, whilst one of his darkest novels, Dombey and Son, involves a brilliant dramatisation of how great wealth can eat out the heart of a family. 

[00:10:14] The sad but sincere question of the young Paul Dombey to his rich father sets the tone of the novel. He says: "What's money?" 

[00:10:25] In Dickens's last decade he extended his lifetime’s enjoyment of drama and became an adored reader of passages from his books. 

[00:10:35] In much the same way that today's best-known musicians make more money through going on tour than from selling music, Dickens would read to mass audiences, earning huge fees. 

[00:10:48] It would be an almost concert-like experience, with Dickens enjoying the rapturous applause and response of his audiences as he read favourite passages from his books, such as the arguments between Nancy and her lover, Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. 

[00:11:05] It is said that the emotion he put into one of these public readings was actually a major factor in bringing on the stroke that killed him when he was only 58. 

[00:11:17] As for the central ideas or themes in Dickens's work, it is difficult to summarise them adequately as the work covers such a broad canvas

[00:11:29] Few elements of Victorian society escape his penetrating and accurate gaze – not just the educational, banking and legal systems as I mentioned, but also bureaucracy, mess on public streets, horrible air quality and the inhumane treatment of children. 

[00:11:49] However, above all, running through all his work like a golden thread is his celebration of human kindness and generosity. 

[00:11:59] This, so his stories suggest, is much more likely to be found amongst the very poor than amongst the rich, although he is not so simplistic as to suggest that there cannot be mean-spirited poor people and generous-hearted wealthy ones. 

[00:12:17] Let's now move on to explore the impact that he had in his lifetime. 

[00:12:22] You will have gathered so far that he was a true national celebrity, recognised by people even in an age before photography. 

[00:12:30] Although he loved the response of an adoring crowd, he also valued his privacy and there are firsthand accounts of how, when he was, let's say, in the theatre watching a play, he would hope not to be noticed, but as word got round that the famous Boz was in the audience, it was highly likely that the whole theatre would erupt in applause as his fellow theatre-goers would stand up, clap and cheer him. 

[00:12:59] It's worth mentioning here that his fame was not confined to the literate and the wealthy, to those who could read and those who had lots of money. 

[00:13:08] Because instalments of his work could be bought cheaply in magazine form and his stories were so gripping, they would be read out loud by the literate members of a family or the street, so that others could enjoy them.

[00:13:24] Indeed, it’s estimated that every book sold was read aloud to 14 people.

[00:13:31] It is no exaggeration to say that his fans ranged from Queen Victoria to the poorest of street sweepers

[00:13:38] This, in itself, is a unique achievement for English novelists. 

[00:13:44] Perhaps the easiest and most universal of impacts that Dickens had was to do with Christmas. 

[00:13:51] Dickens, initially through his most famous Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, more or less invented the idea of the White, or snowy, Christmas. 

[00:14:01] He produced Christmas stories every year, although none would become as popular as the extraordinary A Christmas Carol. 

[00:14:09] But perhaps the most positive and long-lasting impact he had on his own age was that of his social activism. 

[00:14:18] His idealism, his anger at social injustice and his relish or enjoyment at putting his own expertise and money behind practical social reforms, such as that home set up for women trying to escape prostitution, meant that he set an example to others of social activism.

[00:14:38] He was someone who not only felt very passionately about social injustice but actually did a great deal in practical terms to improve things, he did more than just highlight these injustices through his books. 

[00:14:54] Moving on to his legacy – in other words things that have survived him and which we perhaps have some reason to be grateful for - there is once again much to say on this topic. 

[00:15:05] As I said at the start, he is one of the few writers whose name has become an adjective. There will not be many days when one of the British newspapers does not use the word Dickensian to describe unacceptable, out of date and poor working conditions or living conditions. 

[00:15:24] In terms of his artistic legacy, the attraction of Dickens's stories can be seen by the vast quantity of film and stage adaptations that have been made of them. 

[00:15:36] This has been the case right from the early days of cinema. 

[00:15:39] Even in the era of silent films, some 100 movies were made of his novels. 

[00:15:45] It is no exaggeration to say that his unique writing style, with his brilliant eye for human curiosities has been an inspiration to a vast number of subsequent writers, not just novelists but also playwrights and screenwriters. 

[00:16:00] Dickens's extraordinary genius at combining photographic realism with great sweeps of imagination means that he has an unusual power to sum up the nature of a place or an institution

[00:16:14] His near contemporary, the journalist Water Bagehot, described this back in 1858, saying that Dickens "describes London like a special correspondent for posterity.” 

[00:16:27] In other words, he summed it up definitively and forever. 

[00:16:32] Let's just finish with some of the specific linguistic Dickensian legacies, so you can get an idea of his talent for creating powerful images with words. 

[00:16:43] Like Shakespeare, he invented words which have gone into the language. 

[00:16:48] If someone keeps on dropping a ball or anything else, they are a butterfingers

[00:16:54] If you are put into a panic or a confusion by something you might be flummoxed

[00:17:01] If you come across someone on a dark night who talks to you in a nasty voice, you might say that they give you the creeps

[00:17:09] Like any great writer, Dickens has also become synonymous with particular sayings or images, so here are some to conclude: 

[00:17:19] You may know that the start of A Tale of Two Cities begins with the sentence, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times".

[00:17:28] In David Copperfield, he writes that "A loving heart is better and stronger than wisdom."

[00:17:35] And to conclude this episode, here is how he finished his last public reading, which he made three months before his death.

[00:17:43] Just on a language note, “ garish”, which is a word you’ll hear, means “very bright and dazzling”.

[00:17:52] He ended his speech, perhaps knowingly, with the sentence: “From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore.” 

[00:18:03] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Inimitable Charles Dickens.

[00:18:09] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that perhaps it might have inspired you to pick up a copy of one of his books and read one for yourself.

[00:18:19] If you have a Kindle or an e-reader, because they are all out of copyright, you can pick up these books for tiny amounts of money. 

[00:18:26] Indeed, I just checked and I've bought the entire works of Charles Dickens for €2, which I think must be the best value for money entertainment in the world right now.

[00:18:38] And if you have read any Charles Dickens, either in English or in your own language, I would love to know what you thought.

[00:18:45] Did you enjoy them? What do you think makes Dickens such an inimitable writer?

[00:18:51] Is there a writer in your language who you would compare Dickens to?

[00:18:55] I would love to know.

[00:18:56] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:05] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:06] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Charles Dickens. 

[00:00:27] This is actually part two of a three-part mini-series on Great Victorian writers. 

[00:00:33] In part one we looked at Jane Austen, the author responsible for novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and next up we’ll be looking at the Brontë sisters. 

[00:00:45] OK then, The Inimitable Charles Dickens.

[00:00:51] If you’re wondering what this strange word “inimitable” means, it means unable to be imitated, unable to be copied. 

[00:00:59] Later on in his life, Dickens referred to himself, jokingly I should add, as inimitable, but his style certainly was unique.

[00:01:09] Indeed, alongside George Orwell, he is one of the few English authors whose surname has become an adjective, Dickensian.

[00:01:19] To get an understanding of how he reached this point, similar to the episodes on Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, in this episode we’ll go on a journey through four different areas: the novelist's life, their novels, the impact of those novels and finally their legacy.

[00:01:38] So, our first stop is a brief look at Dickens's life. 

[00:01:43] Although he was born in 1812 into what should have been a relatively secure middle-class life in the southern English port city of Portsmouth, his father had no control over the family’s spending and managed to put himself, and therefore his family, into considerable debt

[00:02:05] The shock of such a sudden change from relative plenty to the kind of grinding, real poverty, as experienced by the industrial working class, marked Dickens for life. 

[00:02:19] He was only 12 when this traumatic event occurred, he found himself suddenly taken out of the good school that he was in and sent to work in a factory which made black boot polish

[00:02:32] Here, for three gruelling years, the sensitive and bright young Charles worked long hours in a dismal factory near London's Charing Cross station, fixing labels onto jars of boot polish

[00:02:48] His father and the majority of his many brothers and sisters had all been imprisoned in what was known as a debtor’s prison until his father’s debts were all paid. 

[00:02:59] If you’re familiar with Charles Dickens, you’ll know that there is a recurrent theme of adults mistreating children, of adults treating children poorly. This theme clearly had its roots in this bruising early childhood experience. 

[00:03:16] Young Charles’s formal education was therefore short-lived, it didn't last for long. After the blacking factory and a short further spell, a short period, at school, he went to work as a legal clerk

[00:03:32] Rather than continuing to do his apprenticeship and become a lawyer, he quickly learnt a new form of shorthand writing, which, together with his very quick mind meant that he was soon expert at writing down accounts of criminal trials in court. 

[00:03:50] Before long, he was doing a similar thing in London's Houses of Parliament, where he became a famous reporter on parliamentary debates. 

[00:04:00] In the early days of railways, Dickens's ability to accurately record politicians' speeches and have those speeches written up in newspapers which were distributed all over Britain was an important part in the communications revolution which accompanied the growth of newspapers and rail travel. 

[00:04:20] His talent for reporting speeches extended to writing sketches about famous politicians. This then led to short stories and then novels. 

[00:04:31] Writing initially under what was a family nickname, Boz, his brilliance at creating memorable characters and satirising institutions, making fun of institutions, meant that he soon became a famous writer, and this fame would only increase. 

[00:04:50] When he was aged only 24, the publication of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, turned him into an international, literary celebrity

[00:05:01] It helped that he also became editor of two popular magazines in succession

[00:05:07] I mention this because the way in which the majority of his novels were published was in what's called serial form. 

[00:05:16] This meant that each week or month, you would have a few new chapters of the latest Dickens novel, each ending in moments of suspense

[00:05:26] So, the chapter would end on what’s called a “cliffhanger”, a point when the narrative or storyline is in the balance and we are desperate to know how a particular set of events is going to progress

[00:05:40] Cleverly, of course, it is organised so that the reader will surely buy the next instalment

[00:05:47] This style of serial publication was to become the dominant form of publication for the Victorian novel, and it’s obviously still a device that’s used even today in the latest TV series. 

[00:06:01] But how about Dickens's personal life, perhaps you are asking?

[00:06:05] Well, although for his adoring public and indeed for succeeding generations, the famous Boz was regarded as being very much a family man, with his long-term wife, Catherine and his 10 children, this was actually not the case. 

[00:06:23] Like many high-profile people, he had a complex personal life. 

[00:06:28] He had a passionate early love with a lady called Maria Beadnell, whom he did not marry. 

[00:06:34] He did not treat his wife, Catherine, particularly well, as he regarded her as very much below him intellectually. 

[00:06:43] Somewhat bizarrely, he had a very close relationship with Catherine's sister, Mary Hogarth, whose early death was a great source of sadness for Dickens. 

[00:06:54] After Dickens separated from his wife in 1858, he struck up a relationship with an actress 27 years younger than him, Ellen Ternan, and there is little doubt that she and he were lovers from the early 1860s until his death in 1870 aged 58. 

[00:07:14] Dickens was also a famously charismatic individual. 

[00:07:18] He was a powerful personality with great energy and spirit; he loved colourful clothes, such as waistcoats, along with dancing, theatricals and, above all charitable work on behalf of causes as wide-ranging as child poverty, prostitution, homelessness, educational reform and pollution. 

[00:07:40] We will return to some of these themes shortly when discussing his impact on Victorian society. 

[00:07:47] What about his work, his books? 

[00:07:49] Well, as you would expect of a man with such energy, idealism and genius, his productivity was prolific, he wrote a vast amount.

[00:07:59] He wrote 15 novels, mainly very long ones. 

[00:08:03] In addition, his output included five short novels, hundreds of short stories and many non-fiction articles which were published in his magazines. 

[00:08:14] As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, and let’s not forget that he also had 10 children, he was a conscientious editor of his two weekly magazines which he published over a period of 20 years and a similarly dutiful and careful contributor to charities, such as Urania Cottage, the home that he and a wealthy banking heiress, Angella Coutts, set up for prostitutes who were trying to free themselves from their lives as sex workers and start afresh

[00:08:47] As for his novels, which is what he is best known for, they cover a very broad range of topics. 

[00:08:54] The early ones are perhaps best known for their comedy, with The Pickwick Papers and the Old Curiosity Shop examples of this genre. 

[00:09:04] As he moved into his mature and late phase, he wrote powerfully critical novels about important social problems and failures, such as the educational system, which he covered in Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby. 

[00:09:19] He also experimented with historical novels, where the action is set someway in the past. 

[00:09:27] Most famously, this was the case with A Tale of Two Cities, which set the action in London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution. 

[00:09:37] His later work became yet more complex and uncompromising in its attacks on what he saw as the evils of the society that surrounded him. 

[00:09:48] For instance, In Bleak House, he attacks the way in which the legal system only serves lawyers and destroys young lives. 

[00:09:58] In Little Dorritt the target is the effect of the debtors’ prison, whilst one of his darkest novels, Dombey and Son, involves a brilliant dramatisation of how great wealth can eat out the heart of a family. 

[00:10:14] The sad but sincere question of the young Paul Dombey to his rich father sets the tone of the novel. He says: "What's money?" 

[00:10:25] In Dickens's last decade he extended his lifetime’s enjoyment of drama and became an adored reader of passages from his books. 

[00:10:35] In much the same way that today's best-known musicians make more money through going on tour than from selling music, Dickens would read to mass audiences, earning huge fees. 

[00:10:48] It would be an almost concert-like experience, with Dickens enjoying the rapturous applause and response of his audiences as he read favourite passages from his books, such as the arguments between Nancy and her lover, Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. 

[00:11:05] It is said that the emotion he put into one of these public readings was actually a major factor in bringing on the stroke that killed him when he was only 58. 

[00:11:17] As for the central ideas or themes in Dickens's work, it is difficult to summarise them adequately as the work covers such a broad canvas

[00:11:29] Few elements of Victorian society escape his penetrating and accurate gaze – not just the educational, banking and legal systems as I mentioned, but also bureaucracy, mess on public streets, horrible air quality and the inhumane treatment of children. 

[00:11:49] However, above all, running through all his work like a golden thread is his celebration of human kindness and generosity. 

[00:11:59] This, so his stories suggest, is much more likely to be found amongst the very poor than amongst the rich, although he is not so simplistic as to suggest that there cannot be mean-spirited poor people and generous-hearted wealthy ones. 

[00:12:17] Let's now move on to explore the impact that he had in his lifetime. 

[00:12:22] You will have gathered so far that he was a true national celebrity, recognised by people even in an age before photography. 

[00:12:30] Although he loved the response of an adoring crowd, he also valued his privacy and there are firsthand accounts of how, when he was, let's say, in the theatre watching a play, he would hope not to be noticed, but as word got round that the famous Boz was in the audience, it was highly likely that the whole theatre would erupt in applause as his fellow theatre-goers would stand up, clap and cheer him. 

[00:12:59] It's worth mentioning here that his fame was not confined to the literate and the wealthy, to those who could read and those who had lots of money. 

[00:13:08] Because instalments of his work could be bought cheaply in magazine form and his stories were so gripping, they would be read out loud by the literate members of a family or the street, so that others could enjoy them.

[00:13:24] Indeed, it’s estimated that every book sold was read aloud to 14 people.

[00:13:31] It is no exaggeration to say that his fans ranged from Queen Victoria to the poorest of street sweepers

[00:13:38] This, in itself, is a unique achievement for English novelists. 

[00:13:44] Perhaps the easiest and most universal of impacts that Dickens had was to do with Christmas. 

[00:13:51] Dickens, initially through his most famous Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, more or less invented the idea of the White, or snowy, Christmas. 

[00:14:01] He produced Christmas stories every year, although none would become as popular as the extraordinary A Christmas Carol. 

[00:14:09] But perhaps the most positive and long-lasting impact he had on his own age was that of his social activism. 

[00:14:18] His idealism, his anger at social injustice and his relish or enjoyment at putting his own expertise and money behind practical social reforms, such as that home set up for women trying to escape prostitution, meant that he set an example to others of social activism.

[00:14:38] He was someone who not only felt very passionately about social injustice but actually did a great deal in practical terms to improve things, he did more than just highlight these injustices through his books. 

[00:14:54] Moving on to his legacy – in other words things that have survived him and which we perhaps have some reason to be grateful for - there is once again much to say on this topic. 

[00:15:05] As I said at the start, he is one of the few writers whose name has become an adjective. There will not be many days when one of the British newspapers does not use the word Dickensian to describe unacceptable, out of date and poor working conditions or living conditions. 

[00:15:24] In terms of his artistic legacy, the attraction of Dickens's stories can be seen by the vast quantity of film and stage adaptations that have been made of them. 

[00:15:36] This has been the case right from the early days of cinema. 

[00:15:39] Even in the era of silent films, some 100 movies were made of his novels. 

[00:15:45] It is no exaggeration to say that his unique writing style, with his brilliant eye for human curiosities has been an inspiration to a vast number of subsequent writers, not just novelists but also playwrights and screenwriters. 

[00:16:00] Dickens's extraordinary genius at combining photographic realism with great sweeps of imagination means that he has an unusual power to sum up the nature of a place or an institution

[00:16:14] His near contemporary, the journalist Water Bagehot, described this back in 1858, saying that Dickens "describes London like a special correspondent for posterity.” 

[00:16:27] In other words, he summed it up definitively and forever. 

[00:16:32] Let's just finish with some of the specific linguistic Dickensian legacies, so you can get an idea of his talent for creating powerful images with words. 

[00:16:43] Like Shakespeare, he invented words which have gone into the language. 

[00:16:48] If someone keeps on dropping a ball or anything else, they are a butterfingers

[00:16:54] If you are put into a panic or a confusion by something you might be flummoxed

[00:17:01] If you come across someone on a dark night who talks to you in a nasty voice, you might say that they give you the creeps

[00:17:09] Like any great writer, Dickens has also become synonymous with particular sayings or images, so here are some to conclude: 

[00:17:19] You may know that the start of A Tale of Two Cities begins with the sentence, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times".

[00:17:28] In David Copperfield, he writes that "A loving heart is better and stronger than wisdom."

[00:17:35] And to conclude this episode, here is how he finished his last public reading, which he made three months before his death.

[00:17:43] Just on a language note, “ garish”, which is a word you’ll hear, means “very bright and dazzling”.

[00:17:52] He ended his speech, perhaps knowingly, with the sentence: “From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore.” 

[00:18:03] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Inimitable Charles Dickens.

[00:18:09] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that perhaps it might have inspired you to pick up a copy of one of his books and read one for yourself.

[00:18:19] If you have a Kindle or an e-reader, because they are all out of copyright, you can pick up these books for tiny amounts of money. 

[00:18:26] Indeed, I just checked and I've bought the entire works of Charles Dickens for €2, which I think must be the best value for money entertainment in the world right now.

[00:18:38] And if you have read any Charles Dickens, either in English or in your own language, I would love to know what you thought.

[00:18:45] Did you enjoy them? What do you think makes Dickens such an inimitable writer?

[00:18:51] Is there a writer in your language who you would compare Dickens to?

[00:18:55] I would love to know.

[00:18:56] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:05] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:06] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Charles Dickens. 

[00:00:27] This is actually part two of a three-part mini-series on Great Victorian writers. 

[00:00:33] In part one we looked at Jane Austen, the author responsible for novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and next up we’ll be looking at the Brontë sisters. 

[00:00:45] OK then, The Inimitable Charles Dickens.

[00:00:51] If you’re wondering what this strange word “inimitable” means, it means unable to be imitated, unable to be copied. 

[00:00:59] Later on in his life, Dickens referred to himself, jokingly I should add, as inimitable, but his style certainly was unique.

[00:01:09] Indeed, alongside George Orwell, he is one of the few English authors whose surname has become an adjective, Dickensian.

[00:01:19] To get an understanding of how he reached this point, similar to the episodes on Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, in this episode we’ll go on a journey through four different areas: the novelist's life, their novels, the impact of those novels and finally their legacy.

[00:01:38] So, our first stop is a brief look at Dickens's life. 

[00:01:43] Although he was born in 1812 into what should have been a relatively secure middle-class life in the southern English port city of Portsmouth, his father had no control over the family’s spending and managed to put himself, and therefore his family, into considerable debt

[00:02:05] The shock of such a sudden change from relative plenty to the kind of grinding, real poverty, as experienced by the industrial working class, marked Dickens for life. 

[00:02:19] He was only 12 when this traumatic event occurred, he found himself suddenly taken out of the good school that he was in and sent to work in a factory which made black boot polish

[00:02:32] Here, for three gruelling years, the sensitive and bright young Charles worked long hours in a dismal factory near London's Charing Cross station, fixing labels onto jars of boot polish

[00:02:48] His father and the majority of his many brothers and sisters had all been imprisoned in what was known as a debtor’s prison until his father’s debts were all paid. 

[00:02:59] If you’re familiar with Charles Dickens, you’ll know that there is a recurrent theme of adults mistreating children, of adults treating children poorly. This theme clearly had its roots in this bruising early childhood experience. 

[00:03:16] Young Charles’s formal education was therefore short-lived, it didn't last for long. After the blacking factory and a short further spell, a short period, at school, he went to work as a legal clerk

[00:03:32] Rather than continuing to do his apprenticeship and become a lawyer, he quickly learnt a new form of shorthand writing, which, together with his very quick mind meant that he was soon expert at writing down accounts of criminal trials in court. 

[00:03:50] Before long, he was doing a similar thing in London's Houses of Parliament, where he became a famous reporter on parliamentary debates. 

[00:04:00] In the early days of railways, Dickens's ability to accurately record politicians' speeches and have those speeches written up in newspapers which were distributed all over Britain was an important part in the communications revolution which accompanied the growth of newspapers and rail travel. 

[00:04:20] His talent for reporting speeches extended to writing sketches about famous politicians. This then led to short stories and then novels. 

[00:04:31] Writing initially under what was a family nickname, Boz, his brilliance at creating memorable characters and satirising institutions, making fun of institutions, meant that he soon became a famous writer, and this fame would only increase. 

[00:04:50] When he was aged only 24, the publication of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, turned him into an international, literary celebrity

[00:05:01] It helped that he also became editor of two popular magazines in succession

[00:05:07] I mention this because the way in which the majority of his novels were published was in what's called serial form. 

[00:05:16] This meant that each week or month, you would have a few new chapters of the latest Dickens novel, each ending in moments of suspense

[00:05:26] So, the chapter would end on what’s called a “cliffhanger”, a point when the narrative or storyline is in the balance and we are desperate to know how a particular set of events is going to progress

[00:05:40] Cleverly, of course, it is organised so that the reader will surely buy the next instalment

[00:05:47] This style of serial publication was to become the dominant form of publication for the Victorian novel, and it’s obviously still a device that’s used even today in the latest TV series. 

[00:06:01] But how about Dickens's personal life, perhaps you are asking?

[00:06:05] Well, although for his adoring public and indeed for succeeding generations, the famous Boz was regarded as being very much a family man, with his long-term wife, Catherine and his 10 children, this was actually not the case. 

[00:06:23] Like many high-profile people, he had a complex personal life. 

[00:06:28] He had a passionate early love with a lady called Maria Beadnell, whom he did not marry. 

[00:06:34] He did not treat his wife, Catherine, particularly well, as he regarded her as very much below him intellectually. 

[00:06:43] Somewhat bizarrely, he had a very close relationship with Catherine's sister, Mary Hogarth, whose early death was a great source of sadness for Dickens. 

[00:06:54] After Dickens separated from his wife in 1858, he struck up a relationship with an actress 27 years younger than him, Ellen Ternan, and there is little doubt that she and he were lovers from the early 1860s until his death in 1870 aged 58. 

[00:07:14] Dickens was also a famously charismatic individual. 

[00:07:18] He was a powerful personality with great energy and spirit; he loved colourful clothes, such as waistcoats, along with dancing, theatricals and, above all charitable work on behalf of causes as wide-ranging as child poverty, prostitution, homelessness, educational reform and pollution. 

[00:07:40] We will return to some of these themes shortly when discussing his impact on Victorian society. 

[00:07:47] What about his work, his books? 

[00:07:49] Well, as you would expect of a man with such energy, idealism and genius, his productivity was prolific, he wrote a vast amount.

[00:07:59] He wrote 15 novels, mainly very long ones. 

[00:08:03] In addition, his output included five short novels, hundreds of short stories and many non-fiction articles which were published in his magazines. 

[00:08:14] As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, and let’s not forget that he also had 10 children, he was a conscientious editor of his two weekly magazines which he published over a period of 20 years and a similarly dutiful and careful contributor to charities, such as Urania Cottage, the home that he and a wealthy banking heiress, Angella Coutts, set up for prostitutes who were trying to free themselves from their lives as sex workers and start afresh

[00:08:47] As for his novels, which is what he is best known for, they cover a very broad range of topics. 

[00:08:54] The early ones are perhaps best known for their comedy, with The Pickwick Papers and the Old Curiosity Shop examples of this genre. 

[00:09:04] As he moved into his mature and late phase, he wrote powerfully critical novels about important social problems and failures, such as the educational system, which he covered in Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby. 

[00:09:19] He also experimented with historical novels, where the action is set someway in the past. 

[00:09:27] Most famously, this was the case with A Tale of Two Cities, which set the action in London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution. 

[00:09:37] His later work became yet more complex and uncompromising in its attacks on what he saw as the evils of the society that surrounded him. 

[00:09:48] For instance, In Bleak House, he attacks the way in which the legal system only serves lawyers and destroys young lives. 

[00:09:58] In Little Dorritt the target is the effect of the debtors’ prison, whilst one of his darkest novels, Dombey and Son, involves a brilliant dramatisation of how great wealth can eat out the heart of a family. 

[00:10:14] The sad but sincere question of the young Paul Dombey to his rich father sets the tone of the novel. He says: "What's money?" 

[00:10:25] In Dickens's last decade he extended his lifetime’s enjoyment of drama and became an adored reader of passages from his books. 

[00:10:35] In much the same way that today's best-known musicians make more money through going on tour than from selling music, Dickens would read to mass audiences, earning huge fees. 

[00:10:48] It would be an almost concert-like experience, with Dickens enjoying the rapturous applause and response of his audiences as he read favourite passages from his books, such as the arguments between Nancy and her lover, Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. 

[00:11:05] It is said that the emotion he put into one of these public readings was actually a major factor in bringing on the stroke that killed him when he was only 58. 

[00:11:17] As for the central ideas or themes in Dickens's work, it is difficult to summarise them adequately as the work covers such a broad canvas

[00:11:29] Few elements of Victorian society escape his penetrating and accurate gaze – not just the educational, banking and legal systems as I mentioned, but also bureaucracy, mess on public streets, horrible air quality and the inhumane treatment of children. 

[00:11:49] However, above all, running through all his work like a golden thread is his celebration of human kindness and generosity. 

[00:11:59] This, so his stories suggest, is much more likely to be found amongst the very poor than amongst the rich, although he is not so simplistic as to suggest that there cannot be mean-spirited poor people and generous-hearted wealthy ones. 

[00:12:17] Let's now move on to explore the impact that he had in his lifetime. 

[00:12:22] You will have gathered so far that he was a true national celebrity, recognised by people even in an age before photography. 

[00:12:30] Although he loved the response of an adoring crowd, he also valued his privacy and there are firsthand accounts of how, when he was, let's say, in the theatre watching a play, he would hope not to be noticed, but as word got round that the famous Boz was in the audience, it was highly likely that the whole theatre would erupt in applause as his fellow theatre-goers would stand up, clap and cheer him. 

[00:12:59] It's worth mentioning here that his fame was not confined to the literate and the wealthy, to those who could read and those who had lots of money. 

[00:13:08] Because instalments of his work could be bought cheaply in magazine form and his stories were so gripping, they would be read out loud by the literate members of a family or the street, so that others could enjoy them.

[00:13:24] Indeed, it’s estimated that every book sold was read aloud to 14 people.

[00:13:31] It is no exaggeration to say that his fans ranged from Queen Victoria to the poorest of street sweepers

[00:13:38] This, in itself, is a unique achievement for English novelists. 

[00:13:44] Perhaps the easiest and most universal of impacts that Dickens had was to do with Christmas. 

[00:13:51] Dickens, initially through his most famous Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, more or less invented the idea of the White, or snowy, Christmas. 

[00:14:01] He produced Christmas stories every year, although none would become as popular as the extraordinary A Christmas Carol. 

[00:14:09] But perhaps the most positive and long-lasting impact he had on his own age was that of his social activism. 

[00:14:18] His idealism, his anger at social injustice and his relish or enjoyment at putting his own expertise and money behind practical social reforms, such as that home set up for women trying to escape prostitution, meant that he set an example to others of social activism.

[00:14:38] He was someone who not only felt very passionately about social injustice but actually did a great deal in practical terms to improve things, he did more than just highlight these injustices through his books. 

[00:14:54] Moving on to his legacy – in other words things that have survived him and which we perhaps have some reason to be grateful for - there is once again much to say on this topic. 

[00:15:05] As I said at the start, he is one of the few writers whose name has become an adjective. There will not be many days when one of the British newspapers does not use the word Dickensian to describe unacceptable, out of date and poor working conditions or living conditions. 

[00:15:24] In terms of his artistic legacy, the attraction of Dickens's stories can be seen by the vast quantity of film and stage adaptations that have been made of them. 

[00:15:36] This has been the case right from the early days of cinema. 

[00:15:39] Even in the era of silent films, some 100 movies were made of his novels. 

[00:15:45] It is no exaggeration to say that his unique writing style, with his brilliant eye for human curiosities has been an inspiration to a vast number of subsequent writers, not just novelists but also playwrights and screenwriters. 

[00:16:00] Dickens's extraordinary genius at combining photographic realism with great sweeps of imagination means that he has an unusual power to sum up the nature of a place or an institution

[00:16:14] His near contemporary, the journalist Water Bagehot, described this back in 1858, saying that Dickens "describes London like a special correspondent for posterity.” 

[00:16:27] In other words, he summed it up definitively and forever. 

[00:16:32] Let's just finish with some of the specific linguistic Dickensian legacies, so you can get an idea of his talent for creating powerful images with words. 

[00:16:43] Like Shakespeare, he invented words which have gone into the language. 

[00:16:48] If someone keeps on dropping a ball or anything else, they are a butterfingers

[00:16:54] If you are put into a panic or a confusion by something you might be flummoxed

[00:17:01] If you come across someone on a dark night who talks to you in a nasty voice, you might say that they give you the creeps

[00:17:09] Like any great writer, Dickens has also become synonymous with particular sayings or images, so here are some to conclude: 

[00:17:19] You may know that the start of A Tale of Two Cities begins with the sentence, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times".

[00:17:28] In David Copperfield, he writes that "A loving heart is better and stronger than wisdom."

[00:17:35] And to conclude this episode, here is how he finished his last public reading, which he made three months before his death.

[00:17:43] Just on a language note, “ garish”, which is a word you’ll hear, means “very bright and dazzling”.

[00:17:52] He ended his speech, perhaps knowingly, with the sentence: “From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore.” 

[00:18:03] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Inimitable Charles Dickens.

[00:18:09] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that perhaps it might have inspired you to pick up a copy of one of his books and read one for yourself.

[00:18:19] If you have a Kindle or an e-reader, because they are all out of copyright, you can pick up these books for tiny amounts of money. 

[00:18:26] Indeed, I just checked and I've bought the entire works of Charles Dickens for €2, which I think must be the best value for money entertainment in the world right now.

[00:18:38] And if you have read any Charles Dickens, either in English or in your own language, I would love to know what you thought.

[00:18:45] Did you enjoy them? What do you think makes Dickens such an inimitable writer?

[00:18:51] Is there a writer in your language who you would compare Dickens to?

[00:18:55] I would love to know.

[00:18:56] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:05] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:06] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]