Years ago John Lennon declared the Beatles "more popular than Jesus"; he could have more accurately expressed their impact had he said they were more popular than Charles Dickens. The Inimitable, as he called himself, was the original multi-media superstar: writer, lecturer, essayist, editor, philanthropist, social critic, and actor who read his own works to packed theaters. Popularity on the Dickens/Beatles level means to be loved by virtually everyone in one's own and subsequent eras with heartfelt admiration and respect.
I've loved Charles Dickens since reading Oliver Twist in the sixth grade. My family had a 1881 set of his novels with torn leather backs and broken spines which seemed ancient to me. In high school I read A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, in college Dombey and Son, and in the decades since have read and re-read nearly his entire oeuvre. Dickens for me is what mysteries and Tolkien are to others; the months when I'm reading Dickens have a unique and pleasurable flavor.
Why do readers love Dickens? Most obviously: the breathtaking beauty of his writing. His pen, as uninhibited as quicksilver, could romp through passages of full-blown rhapsody or etch dreary scenes with severe economy:
Into this shop…I went with a palpitating heart, which was not relieved when an ugly old man, with the lower part of his face all covered with stubbly grey beard, rushed out of a dirty den behind it, and seized me by the hair of my head. He was a dreadful old man to look at, in a filthy flannel waistcoat, and smelling terribly of rum. His bedstead, covered with a tumbled and ragged piece of patchwork, was in the den he had come from, where another little window showed the prospect of more stinging nettles and a lame donkey.
Yet what makes Dickens' prose Dickensian is not stark realism but vivid animism. His writing is more than lively: everything in it is alive. For Dickens, tables, chairs, coaches, fires, trees, stones, and streets move and act. Read this description of an evening wind that opens Martin Chuzzlewit:
It was small tyranny for a respectable wind to go wreaking its vengeance on such poor creatures as fallen leaves, but this wind happening to come up with a great heap of them just after venting its humour on the insulted Dragon, did so disperse and scatter them that they fled away, pell-mell, some here, some there, rolling over each other, whirling round and round upon their thin edges, taking frantic flights into the air, and playing all manner of extraordinary gambols in the extremity of their distress.
—and compare it with Daniel Defoe's description of a storm in Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain:
The next day the wind began to freshen...and the sea to be disturbed, and very hard it blew at night, but all was well for that time; but the night after it blew a dreadful storm, not much inferior, for the time it lasted, to the storm mentioned above, which blew down the lighthouse on the Eddy Stone; about midnight the noise was very dreadful, what with the roaring of the sea, and of the wind, intermixed with the firing of guns for help from the ships.
Defoe's wind is an impersonal force of nature; Dickens' wind is a character, a conscious spirit who can wreak vengeance, insult a dragon, and hunt down leaves with "malicious fury." If we take out the animism and rewrite the passage:
this wind happening to come up with a great heap of leaves just after blowing on the Dragon sign, did so disperse and scatter them that they flew away, pell-mell, some here, some there, rolling over each other, whirling round and round upon their thin edges, taking flights into the air, and taking all manner of extraordinary spins in the air.
—we see how much Dickens' lively prose depends on the life he gives to the natural world.
Dickens paints his characters with the same animism. Anthony Trollope, a dedicated realist, introduces Ferdinand Lopez, the villain of The Prime Minister, with a neutral description:
He was nearly six-feet tall, very dark and very thin, with regular well-cut features indicating little to the physiognomist unless it be the great gift of self-possession. His hair was cut short, and he wore no beard beyond an absolutely black moustache. His teeth were perfect in form and whiteness...
Dickens introduces Dombey and Son's villainous Carker the Manager with a Trollopian sketch, down to the perfect teeth:
Mr. Carker was a gentleman thirty-eight or forty years old, of a florid complexion, and with two unbroken rows of glistening teeth, whose regularity was quite distressing.
But, instead of leaving Carker's teeth a visual dab as Trollope does, Dickens goes on to describe their pearly sharpness from a dozen angles and builds an image of Carker's emotional life from his catlike grin:
...feline from sole to crown was Mr. Carker the Manager as he basked in the strip of sunlight and warmth that shone upon his table....with long nails, nicely pared and sharpened; with a natural antipathy to any speck of dirt....Mr. Carker the Manager, sly of manner, sharp of foot, watchful of eye, oily of tongue, cruel of heart, nice of habit, sat with a dainty steadfastness and patience at his work, as if he were waiting at a mouse's hole.
Likewise, Dickens paints the coming of the railroad to London in Dombey and Son as a natural disaster:
The first shock of a great earthquake had...rent the whole neighborhood to its centre. Traces of its courses were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets were broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped up by great beams of wood.
In contrast, Trollope patiently shows that the railroad came to London not as a cataclysm but as the prosaic work of civil engineers like Theodore Burton. Tearing down London is what Burton does "at the shop," but otherwise obtrudes only when it forces a change in family plans:
On that day her husband was very fully engaged,-having to meet a synod of contractors, surveyors, and engineers, to discuss which of the remaining thoroughfares of London should be knocked down by the coming railroad,-and he could not absent himself from the Adelphi. It was therefore arranged that Mrs. Burton should go to Paddington Station to meet her sister-in-law.
The railroad train that crushes the Carker in Dombey is a "firey devil." The wine that gushes from the broken cask asA Tale of Two Cities begins is the blood of the aristocracy lapped up by the groveling mob. The waistcoat of a corrupt company's porter in Chuzzlewit "speaks respectability." Admissions of powerlessness to distinguish reality and fantasy dot the novels, here from Bleak House:
At the same time I remember, that the poor girl seemed to be yet telling her story audibly and plainly in my hearing; that I could feel her resting on my arm; that the stained house fronts put on human shapes and looked at me; that great water gates seemed to be opening and closing in my head, or in the air; and that the unreal things were more substantial than the real.
Dickens' animated vision wafts us into his world as Lewis Carroll wafts us into Alice into Wonderland. Trollope, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thackeray, and Hardy word-painted as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hals, and Van Eyck pigment-painted; Dickens word-painted as Edvard Munch pigment-painted. His mind, wrote one critic, "existed at a pitch of intensity that the rest of us only attain in nightmare or in fever." Dickens knew something odd was going on in his writing, he knew there was little he could do about it. Once asked about his inexhaustible imagination, he replied, "I don't invent, really do not. I see and write down what I see."