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Hard times never went away

March 27, 2012

“IT was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

There can’t be many better-known opening sentences in English literature than the one in which Charles Dickens establishes the mood for A Tale of Two Cities.

The writer, whose birth bicentenary is being observed this year, was well aware of the universality of his words: he concludes the extended sentence by acknowledging: “ short, the period was so like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on it being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Who could argue, for instance, that words such as “ was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” cannot be applied to the so-called Arab Spring as much as to the era of the French Revolution?

I recently heard someone comment that the social conditions that obtain in China today can best be understood by reading Dickens. And any number of commentators have noted that one of the primary reasons behind the Victorian author’s abiding popularity in the Indian subcontinent is that the circumstances he so poignantly delves into — child labour, the consequences of stark disparities of wealth, the callousness of officialdom — remain a part of everyday reality in this part of the world.

One of several interesting nuggets I picked up, however, from Ayeesha Menon’s documentary Mutual Friend, broadcast on BBC radio last month, was the fact that Dickens entered the curriculum in British India before he did so in his homeland — as part of an effort by the colonial power to establish an English-speaking elite.

His literary merit — very much acknowledged in the author’s lifetime — appears to have trumped any concerns that Dickens’ depictions of socioeconomic realities might somehow militate against notions of Britain as an ideal state.

He became something of a fixture in the curriculum: I recall encountering abridged versions of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist at school in the early 1970s, and being taken to the British Council in Lahore to view David Lean’s classic adaptation of Great Expectations. Some of us were sufficiently intrigued by the author to seek out other works by him — at least in the comic-book Classics Illustrated versions.

There was a degree of trepidation, however, when we were burdened with Dombey and Son in the final years of schooling. The title was unfamiliar, and in fact it was initially hard to track down copies of the novel.

A trip to a popular repository of second-hand books in Anarkali paid rich dividends, however. The solitary shopkeeper didn’t so much as blink at the title but disappeared into his dusty attic and returned just minutes later with not just a slightly moth-eaten hardback edition of the book in question but also a study guide or two.

It didn’t take long to get into the spirit of the book, with its typically Dickensian intricacies of plot and its vivid characterisations permeated on every page by the author’s satirical sense of humour. At the end of it, some of us were left wondering why Dombey and Son wasn’t as well known as most of Dickens’ other works. Although derided by some critics, Dickens’ ability to make readers weep and smile — if not laugh out loud — at more or less the same time is one of his most endearing traits.

As the writer Howard Jacobson, lamenting the latest BBC production of Great Expectations (which, he says, “didn’t reinterpret Dickens, it eviscerated him”), wrote in The Guardian earlier this year: “How Dickens was able to lower himself into these black depths of the soul and still make us laugh is one of literature’s great wonders. He took us where no novelist ever has. You don’t have to like him, but you’re impoverished if you don’t.”

It is not uncommon to refer to Dickens as the second greatest writer in the English language after William Shakespeare. It is less common to realise the extent to which he, like his great predecessor, enriched the language.

As The Guardian, citing Robert Douglas Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens, editorialised last December: “More than 200 words and phrases owe their first appearances in print to him, among them boredom, butter-fingers, crossfire, devil-may-care, dustbin fairy story, footlights, funky, sharp practice, slow coach, snobbish, unyielding and whoosh.”

Perhaps the words will endure longer, but it’s at least commendable an achievement to have created so many characters who have outlived the frameworks in which they were cast. One doesn’t come across a Lady Macbeth every day, but there couldn’t be too many workplaces in the world that aren’t haunted by a Uriah Heep or two.

More than anything else, though, what resonates is Dickens’ descriptions of common people’s circumstances.

And it’s not just in China or India or any other part of the world where societies are going through stages of capitalist industrialisation and human degradation comparable to the “squalid misery” that the author documented in Victorian England — there are even parts of London that would seem all too familiar to Dickens were he to stroll today the streets where he exercised his incredible powers of observation more than a century and a half ago.

For instance, over-indulgence in alcohol is a constant concern among commentators in Britain today. Dickens, in his capacity as a journalist, commented in 1835: “Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but wretchedness and dirt are a greater … If Temperance Societies would suggest an antidote against hunger, filth and foul air … gin-palaces would be numbered among the things that were.”

Perhaps a far, far better tribute to Dickens this year, instead of marvelling at the persisting relevance of his descriptive eloquence, would be to contemplate why some of the most deplorable aspects of the conditions he so inimitably elucidated should have endured so long.