It was the best of times, it was the best of times for stimulating literature discussions in the past few weeks at the Southbank, to rewrite that infamous opening line of A Tale of Two Cities. The spirit of the ubiquitous Charles Dickens has weaved in and out of literature talks, from Claire Tomalin discussing her excellent new Dickens biography, Dickens: A Life (published by Viking) to Greg Mosse invoking him syntactically in a recent thought-provoking Southbank Creative Writing class about writing from an assured third-person viewpoint: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” in a single line captures the exhilaration of the birth of two republics, yet the horror that they were born in so much bloodshed. A Tale of Two Cities has also made it on to the wonderful World Book Night list for 2012 released recently and featuring a treasure trove of titles past and present; it will be interesting to see whereabouts in cities around the country copies of the book are left next year (World Book Night, incidentally, is held on Shakespeare’s birthday).
The Booker Prize also raised the debate about ‘high’ versus ‘low’ in literature and the issue of ‘readability’, discussed by Chair of Judges Stella Rimington. The ghost of Dickens reminds us that it is indeed a false division since whilst being a heavyweight literary figure he is also hugely popular and was so in his time – showing how good writing can straddle divisions to reach a universality.
I recall Charles Dickens every time I return to my hometown of Manchester, since it was there that Dickens himself opened the country’s first free public lending library in 1852, built upon the philosophy and principle to “provide wisdom for all, regardless of background”. It was here that I would enjoy the benefits of such a library and find a quiet sanctuary in the midst of the chaos – but will future generations be able to say the same? Dickens believed that libraries should be available to all, “knowing no sect, no party, no distinction; nothing but the public want and the general good” – showing their fundamentally democratic nature.
The fantastic Dickens 2012 campaign run by the British Council further elucidates the author’s contemporary relevance, and the British Council Literature Director Susanna Nicklin points out that issues tackled by Dickens such as social inequality are still so resonant today, and not only to people in the UK but all around the world.
Dickens offers words of wisdom relevant to life as well as literature, showing how good books can provide us with a moral compass; a favourite quote from the writer himself: ”Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts”.