I got into a debate over Dickens on a message board (as you do) some time ago. One of my fellow posters who is not a fan challenged me to explain what I love about Dickens. I promised to do a full blog post on the subject, and then I got busy doing other things and never got around to it.
But today we Dickensians celebrate our beloved author's 204th birthday. So, it occurred to me, what better way to celebrate than to answer the question: Why do I love Dickens?
There is so much I could say here, but I'll try to keep it relatively short!
I love Dickens because of his deep and fertile imagination, which could believe that almost anything could happen -- that a lawyer and a rent-collector could play leapfrog in a prison yard; that a drunken old hoarder could spontaneously combust; that ghostly visits could turn a miser into a philanthropist (or simply that a miser could be turned into a philanthropist!) -- and moreover, convince us to believe it too. I love that he loved words so much, and could play with them and make them dance like no one else could.
I love him because he wears his heart on his sleeve -- and what a heart it is, full of joy and mirth but quick to be moved to compassion for the needy or indignation at the unjust. I love that he couldn't hold back his emotions, but spilled them all over the page in ways that make them still feel fresh and raw 200 years later. I love him because, unlike so many in his day and our own, he didn't just pretend to care about those less fortunate. He truly cared. I love that he showed us a homeless, uneducated little street-sweeper, dying of disease and poverty, in a way that we can never dare to forget. And I love that he didn't just write about such characters, but went through life giving generously of his time, money, and energy to real sick children and destitute families and others in desperate need of help.
I love him because his characters are so real and human. While many of them are indeed as cartoonish or grotesque as critics accuse them of being, what the critics miss is that this is part of their great appeal. There are a lot of other Victorian writers I enjoy, but most of their characters feel to me like dolls or toy soldiers that are shut up in their box and put away when I'm done with their particular story, seldom to be thought of again. Dickens's characters live and breathe. They follow me around. They teach me things that I never would have learned without them. Sydney Carton has shored up my faith at moments when it's grown weak; Arthur Clennam gently reminds me not to indulge in envy and resentment; Bella Wilfer cured me of many petty little vanities and wrong ideas about what I "deserve" out of life.
I love Dickens because, as Simon Callow wrote, he is "both humbling and heart-warming, despite titanic flaws." I love him because he was both wise and foolish, strong and weak. He was wrong about many things, but he was deeply, irrevocably right about so many more.
To sum up: I love Dickens because he has magic. This is, of course, a quality almost impossible to define. I can only say that I feel it whenever I pick up one of my battered copies of Great Expecations or David Copperfield or Hard Times or (pick a title!), and am pulled back into one of his incredibly absorbing, multifaceted worlds. There is no other word for it but magic, and that one word says everything.
May we remember him and celebrate him for many hundreds of years more.