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Charles Dickens: A life of writing - born 7 February 1812

To reflect on the life of Charles Dickens, and the influence he still has on modern thinking.

by Ronni Lamont

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)

Aims

To reflect on the life of Charles Dickens, and the influence he still has on modern thinking.

Preparation and materials

  • Rehearse the following seven readers (see section 1):
    Oliver Twist
    Fagin
    Bill Sikes
    Nancy
    Scrooge,
    Ghost of Christmas Present
    Narrator
  • Add any other extracts that you think your students would recognize – perhaps from this year’s syllabus?
  • Further information is available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/dickens_charles.shtml

Assembly

  1. Introduction

    Oliver
     Please, sir, I want some more!

    Fagin  You’ve got to pick a pocket or two (not actually in the original text).

    Bill Sikes  Nancy! Nancy! Where’s that boy? Bullseye [his dog], where’s Oliver then?

    Nancy  Oh please, Bill, no!

    (Pause)

    Scrooge  Aaagh! What are you?

    Ghost  I am the Ghost of Christmas Present.

    (Pause)

    Narrator  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
  2. I’m sure most of you can tell me where these quotations come from. (Take answers.)

    This year, we mark the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the most significant writers of the nineteenth century – Charles Dickens.
  3. Charles Dickens was born into a middle-class family, and had a happy childhood. But his family lived beyond their means. When he was nine, he went to school, but three years later, two days after his twelfth birthday, he had to start work. He worked in a filthy factory, overrun by rats, where blacking was made for boots. There he worked ten hours a day. A few days after he started his job, his father was arrested for debt. His father and mother and brothers and sisters ended up in a debtors’ prison in London, while Charles took lodgings nearby and continued to work in the factory.

    This experience can be seen in two of Dickens’ novels – Great Expectations and David Copperfield. His father was eventually able to leave prison, and Charles returned to school for years, but the mental trauma that he suffered during the time he worked in the factory never left him.

    When he was 15, Charles Dickens began work as a clerk in a law firm, but left after 18 months to embark upon a career as a journalist. While he was parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle he started writing articles, taking the pseudonym ‘Boz’.

    April 1836 was a hugely significant month – he got married, and his first novel, Pickwick Papers was released, to instant acclaim. He never looked back.

    The novels often came out as serials in magazines, so the public read just a chapter each month. If you look at many of his books, the end of a chapter has a cliff-hanger – a bit like watching a TV series – to keep the readers coming back.
  4. One of Dickens’ most influential books began life as a political pamphlet: it became A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote the book over just six weeks, in the autumn of 1843. He intended it to be a wake-up call to the middle classes. His purpose was to make his readers aware of the awfulness of many people’s lives, especially the lives of children. (Remember the blacking factory?)

    When The Christmas Carol was published, it was an instant success, with the first edition selling out in weeks. The title of the book refers to its structure – it has a chorus and verses, like a traditional Christmas carol.

    It is one of his shortest books – some of them are very long indeed! – and possibly the best known. There have been many public readings, stage and radio plays and films of this story, from the original reading of excerpts by Dickens himself in Birmingham Town Hall on 27 December 1852 to the black and white 1951 film starring Alastair Sim (shown on television this Christmas) to The Muppet Christmas Carol. Many schools put on productions of this story.

    ‘Bah! Humbug!’ entered the general vocabulary, but, more importantly, Christmas became a holiday for the poor as well as for the rich. The novel achieved what the pamphlet was designed to do, but with a far greater reach and penetration into the population at large.
  5. Why do you think Dickens was so successful? (Take a few answers.)

    Possibly it was because he was so good at presenting real lives to other people, so that the more well-off could enter the lives of the poorer in society, something that strict class barriers otherwise made impossible.

    Possibly it was because he proved to be something of a prophet in those Victorian days, calling people to change their ways, and bring about a more inclusive society.

    And possibly it was because he could tell a ripping yarn, writing books that are exciting and varied.
  6. Dickens can be challenging to read today as his language is essentially that of another era. He uses lots of words, and it can seem ages before a book really takes hold and becomes, essentially, a page turner.

    The books are hugely dramatic, sometimes convoluted, but much loved. If you’ve tried Dickens and found him hard work, watch one of the films or TV adaptations, and then read the book it is based on – or wait until you are older, when you may find him much more to your taste.

Time for reflection

Dickens has had a huge influence on our lives, but I wonder how his life looked for him when he was still a child and his family were in prison and he was working at the factory?

I wonder if some of you feel a bit as Charles must have done at that time – that life is out of control?

I wonder if you might be questioning how much change you can bring to our community, our society?

Let’s think about Dickens – how he used his great ability for writing and telling stories to change the world.

What talent do you have?

How could you change the world or, at least, the bit that you’re in at the moment?

Music

Download one of the songs from Oliver or a theme from one of the films.

Publication date: March 2012   (Vol.14 No.3)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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