England honours 200 years of Dickens

07 February 2012 - 18:24 By Reuters

Prince Charles led global celebrations on Tuesday marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, a titan of English literature whose vivid stories confronted the injustices of Victorian life.  

Britain’s heir-to-the-throne visited the Charles Dickens Museum in London where US actress Gillian Anderson, who played Miss Havisham in a BBC adaptation of “Great Expectations”, read from the novelist’s work.  

The prince went to Westminster Abbey to lay a wreath at the grave of a writer whose stories from Nicholas Nickleby to Oliver Twist and characters from Samuel Pickwick to Ebenezer Scrooge live on in countless stage and screen adaptations.  

Ralph Fiennes, Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin and the author’s great-great grandson Mark Dickens appeared at a special ceremony in Poets’ Corner, where Dickens was buried in 1870 alongside Geoffrey Chaucer, Alfred Tennyson, Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling and other literary greats.  

The event marked the largest gathering of Dickens’ descendants, with over 200 family members attending.  

“This bicentenary should help renew our commitment to improving the lot of the disadvantaged of our own day,” said the Dean of Westminster, John Hall, referring to Dickens’ preoccupation with inequality and poverty.  

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt presented his fellow cabinet ministers with copies of Dickens novels; Prime Minister David Cameron was given Great Expectations and Hard Times.  

Further afield, the British Council staged a global “read-a-thon” with 24 readings from 24 Dickens texts in 24 hours, starting in Australia and taking in countries including Iraq, China and Pakistan.  

Ongoing events coinciding with the anniversary included exhibitions in Zurich, New York and across Britain, theatrical performances by professional actors and schoolchildren alike and an online tribute from bloggers in Spain.  

Dickens’ appeal shows no sign of abating more than 140 years after his death.  

His books remain in print the world over and film director Mike Newell is working on a new screen version of “Great Expectations” starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes.  

On Tuesday, a new stage musical version of “A Tale of Two Cities” was announced scored by David Pomeranz and opening at London’s Charing Cross Theatre on April 5.  

And Google paid tribute to Dickens on its homepage with a cartoon “doodle” featuring some of his most famous characters.  

Dickens’ early experiences labouring as a child in a factory while his father sat in prison for unpaid debts fuelled his ambition and inspired some of his most famous characters and settings, probably including Fagin in “Oliver Twist.”  

Dickens’ first short story appeared in 1833, around the time he became a parliamentary reporter in London.  

His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was serialised in 1836 and became a success, and was followed by Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.  

The author travelled to the United States in 1842 and 1867 on reading tours, and in between produced some of his most acclaimed books — Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.  

He carried with him the whiff of scandal when, in his mid-forties, he met teenager Ellen Ternan, and their relationship led to his separation from Catherine, his wife and mother to his 10 children.  

The author died at his home near Rochester in Kent in 1870 aged 58, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Thousands of people visited his open grave to pay their respects and throw flowers before it was closed.