Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Dickens!

Charles Dickens, born Feb. 7, 1812

   Charles Dickens has brought more pleasure into my life than any other author.
   I feel a great debt to Charles Dickens for all the memorable characters he created. I’m especially fond of Mr. Pancks in Little Dorrit, Wilkins Macawber in David Copperfield, Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist,  and Sam Weller in Pickwick Papers.

Mr Bumble with Oliver Twist in tow

Wilkins Macawber, the eternal optimist “Something will turn up!”

Eddie Marson as Pancks in BBC’s production of Little Dorrit












Yes, I definitely have a thing for Dickens’s quirky minor characters.

    My love for Dickens goes back to my time as an English major at UCSB, the University of California at Santa Barbara.
    I know what you’re thinking: party school! That UCSB stands for U Can Study Bombed. I’ve heard that “party school” crap for 40 years.

You are all  just jealous. UCSB has one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, on a peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. When the coral trees scattered all over campus bloom, on days the sun blindingly sparkles off the ocean, when the 61-bell carillon tower at Storke Plaza fills the air on a lazy Sunday afternoon, life is absolutely perfect.

University of California at Santa Barbara.   “If there’s a more beautiful campus than this one at the edge of the Pacific, we haven’t seen it,” says Newsweek magazine.

    Did the dorms at your college have racks to stow your surfboard? Was there an elective course of similar caliber to UCSB’s Running On The Beach? On Halloween did people trick-or-treat for drugs? Was your school’s entire football team busted for possession of hashish?
    Wait a minute, that does sound like a party school. Never mind. Let’s get back to Dickens.
   One of my favorite classes at UCSB was Victorian Literature with Dr David Aitken. When Dr Aitken read aloud from one of Dickens’ classics, I was spellbound. He brought the characters to life.
    When I visited London after graduating from UCSB in 1971, I went to the Dickens House & Museum.
   I still have The Dickens House Guide and Illustrated Souvenir pamphlet I purchased for 5 pence. I’m looking at it now. If you go to London, go to 48 Doughty Street.
    I sent Dr Aitken a postcard I bought at the Dickens House.
    I told Dr Aitken that when I knocked on the door of the Dickens House, a mousey, timid young woman dressed as a nineteenth-century chambermaid answered.
   She gave me surprised look, her eyes opening wide — a facial expression Dr Aitken could have imitated perfectly if the scene were in a Dickens novel. A tall, tan American hippie on the doorstep, fresh off the plane from some California party school. She recovered and invited me in. Maybe it was all an act for the tourists.
   I was the only visitor. I wandered around the house, saw Dickens’ writing desk (he wrote standing up), saw where his beloved sister-in-law Mary died, and broke his heart. A warm, comfortable home, though not much room. (During the few years Dickens lived at Doughty St., two children were born, and he moved his growing family into a larger house).
   I stood alone in the room where Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
   No, the  ghost of Dickens gave me no encouragement to become a novelist, to tell my own stories, create my own characters. Nor did Dickens’ spirit warn me, as Marley’s ghost did Scrooge, to mend my ways. Nothing.
   But my experience at the Dickens House has always stuck with me.
   I remember signing the postcard to Dr. Aitken, “A Grateful Former Student.” I hope Dr. Aitken got a kick out of that postcard. Of course, both Dr. Aitken and Dickens are in the Great Eternity.
   Most Dickens characters are good, decent, and eminently likable, such as the benevolent if accident-prone Mr. Pickwick; the fiercely independent, irascible, but immensely generous Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield; and just plain good guy Arthur Clennams in Little Dorrit.
   Dickens loved people, especially “common” people.
   Reading Dickens reaffirms my hope in the human race. That even the worst of us, like Ebenezer Scrooge, can change for the better. That even the worst of times, such as Oliver Twist experienced, eventually pass to a new day, and long-suffering, good people in the end find happiness and fulfillment.
   As the congenital optimist Wilkins Macawber, though buffeted by an endless series of setbacks and catastrophes, is fond of saying, “Something will turn up.” Things will get better. Success is right around the corner.
   Hope. That’s what Dickens gives me. Hope.

Pickwick Papers’ cockney father and son, Tony and Sam Weller. The former a jolly coachman, the latter the quick-witted, smart-tongued boots (bootblack) of the White Hart Inn. (lithograph by Harold Copping, from the book Character Sketches from Dickens)

3 thoughts on “Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Dickens!

  1. Steve says:

    I’m proud to see UC Santa Barbara retains its status as one of America’s top party schools.

    The 2013 edition of “The Best 377 Colleges,” published Aug. 21, has 62 ranking lists based on surveys of 122,000 students during the last school year. Students answered 80 questions about academics, administration, campus life, student body and themselves.

    These are their picks for the top 10 party campuses in the US:

    1. West Virginia University, Morgantown
    2. University of Iowa, Iowa City
    3. Ohio University, Athens
    4. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    5. University of Georgia, Athens
    6. University of Florida, Gainesville
    7. University of California-Santa Barbara
    8. Florida State University, Tallahassee
    9. Miami University of Ohio, Oxford
    10. Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y.

    Now, if the rankings were based on the quality of the parties, I’m sure UCSB would rank first. I defer to a current UCSB student, “Essentially every school is a party school – we just happen to do it better.”

  2. kakramer says:

    I too was forever affected/infected by Dickens, and all of Victorian literature, by Dr. David Aitken at UCSB. I studied with him 1972-76, after which he left and I lost track of him. But I have never forgotten him and always wished to thank him. May I ask what you know of his later whereabouts and move to “the Great Eternity”? — Kathy

    • Steve says:

      Kathy, I’ve tried to track down Professor Aitken without success. There’s nothing.
      Since I’m sure over the years someone of Dr Aitken’s talent, passion, and charming, outsize personality would have won numerous awards for distinguished teaching, I long ago concluded he must have died.
      You have encouraged me to search again. I’ll let you know if I find anything. I’ve contacted UCSB.
      Your mention of “…and all of Victorian literature” reminds me of another author whose work Professor Aitken brought to life: Tobias George Smollett. I remember his dramatic readings from The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. I still have that book, with my notes and passages underlined from Dr Aitken’s lecture.

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