Two hundred years after he died, the English speaking world is still steeped in the literature of Charles Dickens.
This February 7 marks the bicentenary of his birth and the beginning of a career that would give us iconic books like Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol. Think you know your Dickens? Take the quiz and find out.
1. When Alannis Morisette sings ‘You must wonder why I’m so relentless and all strung out, I’m consumed by the chill of solitary...I like to reel it in and then spit it out,’ which character in Great Expectations is she comparing herself too?
2. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens created the character of Madame Defarge to represent one aspect of the Fates. Particularly chilling is how she sits by the guillotine always…
(a) Snacking on assorted nuts
(c) Playing a harp
3. Dickens’ depiction of Fagin in Oliver Twist lead to accusations against the author of
(b) Glorifying violence
(c) Defending child abuse
4. ‘Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child,’ wrote Dickens. What was the child’s name?
(a) Tiny Tim
(b) Little Nell
(c) David Copperfield
5. Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop left reader’s devastated. Oscar Wilde would later comment: “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...”
a) ...of laughter
b) … of despair
c) …of disbelief
1.b. ‘I’m like Estella,’ sings Alannis in ‘All I Really Want’ off her ‘Jagged Little Pil’ album. Raised from the age of three by Miss Havisham to torment men and “break their hearts,” Estalla is often cited as Dickens’ first truly convincing female character.
2.b. Madame Defarge never appears to leave her knitting behind – it’s because her weave is in fact a coded list of all the members of the French aristocracy the revolutionaries will target. It’s a clever variation on what Greek myth attributed to the Moirai or the Fates, who use yarn to measure out the life of a man, and cut it to end it.
3.a. Critics noted that Fagin is widely seen as one of the most grotesque Jews in English literature, and the most vivid of Dickens’s 989 characters. When it was brought to his attention, Dickens did what he could to make amends, changing the text for the parts of the book that had not been set, which is why Fagin is called ‘the Jew’ 257 times in the first 38 chapters, but barely at all in the next 179 references to him. In later years, Dickens’ attitudes evolved and he would create a sympathetic Jewish character - Riah in Our Mutual Friend.
4.c. As a novel, David Copperfield is often cited as the most autobiographical of all Dickens’ novels. Remembering his own childhood, Dickens said he saw ‘a very small and not over-particularly-taken-care-of boy.’ He would create fictional counterparts of his parents in Mr. and Mrs. Micawber
5.a. Wilde clearly had little patience with Victorian sentimentality but Dickens wrote of Little Nell’s death so movingly perhaps because he associated her with his much beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth. Mary’s death two year’s previously continued to grieve him. His readers seemed as involved, the most apt comparison would perhaps be to the reception of the last in the Harry Potter series. But where Rowling saved her character, Dickens let his die.
This despite “imploring letters” from readers “recommending poor little Nell to mercy” in the interval between installments. Dickens himself found it hard to write, saying to a friend, “I am breaking my heart over this story.”