Charles Dickens – the great novelist – was also a journalist in love with the streets.
Born 200 years ago this month, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is arguably the greatest novelist in English and quite certainly the creator of more memorable characters than any writer since Shakespeare. Just recall a few names: Fagin, Miss Havisham, Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep, The Artful Dodger, Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller, The Fat Boy (“I wants to make your flesh creep”), Sairey Gamp, Madame Defarge, Mr. Gradgrind, Krook (who self-combusts), Little Nell, Scrooge—the list could go on and on. These bit players in the novels that run from "The Pickwick Papers" and "Oliver Twist" to "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" aren’t just alive, they’re immortal.
Yet if you glance over Dickens’s biography, you might almost conclude that he was primarily a journalist who wrote fiction on the side. Scholars estimate that during the roughly 35 years of his active career he produced more than a million words of nonfiction. By his early twenties Dickens was already acknowledged as the best Parliamentary reporter in England. His first book, "Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People" (1836) collects a series of “you-are-there” newspaper reports on “shabby genteel” London in the mid 1830s. Nothing escapes Dickens’ street-smart eye and ear, as he visits the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall, the second-hand clothes shops of Monmouth Street, the city’s pawnshops and theaters and gin joints.
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