RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. This coming Tuesday is the 200th anniversary of one of the most beloved storytellers in the English language. Charles Dickens's many novels, including "David Copperfield," "Nicholas Nickleby," "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations" made him famous in his own time and they live on as classics in ours. But a new exhibition in New York City shows the books were just a public face of a very complicated man. Tom Vitale reports.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: The Morgan Library is celebrating the Charles Dickens bicentennial with an exhibition of the largest collection of Dickensiana outside of England - documents, letters, illustrations & artifacts. At the entrance to the gallery, Curator Declan Kiely has placed a large reproduction of the writer's unmistakable signature, his name over an inverted triangle of squiggles.
DECLAN KIELY: Because one of the things that Dickens almost always did, right up until quite late in life, is use this flourish: at least three lines, sometimes five lines, slowly descending. What it looks like is a spring springing up, kind of keeping his name up in the air.
VITALE: It was a powerful symbol, says Kiely.
KIELY: Remember that someone from his really relatively humble origins, was later on, when he became a very famous author - and he became a very famous author very young - needed various support structures in his life.
VITALE: Dickens began his literary career with almost no formal education. He was born in Landport on February 7, 1812, the second of eight children. When he was 12, his father was sent to debtor's prison. Dickens was forced to quit school and work in a London blacking factory, sealing pots of shoe polish and pasting labels on them. He would rework that hellish experience into his fiction for the rest of his life.
SIMON CALLOW: He was a social reformer who knew whereof he spoke.
VITALE: Actor Simon Callow is author of a new biography called "Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World."
CALLOW: He knew what poverty was. He knew what it was to be rejected, to be cast aside, to live in squalor.
VITALE: And so Dickens wrote with great compassion for the suffering of innocent and vulnerable children - characters like David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, and in this passage read by Simon Callow, the orphan, Oliver Twist.
CALLOW: (Reading) With his slice of bread in his hand, and his little brown parish cap on his head, Oliver was now led away from the wretched home where one kind word or look never lighted the gloom of his infant days. Yet he burst into an agony of childish grief as the cottage gate closed after him. Wretched as were the little companions in misery he was now leaving behind him, they were the only friends he had ever had.
VITALE: With the appearance of "Oliver Twist" in London periodicals in 1837, the 25-year-old Charles Dickens became the most popular writer in England. But his first love was theater, and he considered becoming an actor. Peter Ackroyd is author of "Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion."
PETER ACKROYD: And when he was actually writing, he became the characters. He would get up from his desk, go over to the mirror, and mouth the words and do the expressions, grimaces, whatever, and then laugh, chuckle to himself, then go back and write it down.
VITALE: Dickens created 989 named characters, each with a distinct voice and style. Those characters bolstered his popularity - every one of his major works has been adapted for either stage or screen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")
REGINALD OWEN: (as Scrooge) Bah, humbug.
BARRY MACKAY: (as Fred) Don't be cross, uncle.
OWEN: (as Scrooge) What else can I be when I live in such a world of fools as this?
VITALE: "A Christmas Carol" inspired more than a dozen films, from Alistair Sims's "Scrooge" in 1951.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SCROOGE")
MICHAEL HORDERN: (as Jacob Marley) Why do you doubt your senses?
ALASTAIR SIM: (as Scrooge) Because a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You, you - might be an undigested bit of beef, a piece of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave in you, whatever you are.
VITALE: To Jim Carrey's voicing of the same character in Disney's 2009 3-D animated film.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")
JIM CARREY: (as Scrooge) Are you the spirit who's coming was foretold to me?
BEN MILLER: (as Ghost of Christmas Past) I am.
VITALE: The original 1843 manuscript of "A Christmas Carol" is on display at the Morgan Library. Dickens wrote everything by hand in tiny script with a quill pen. Remarkably, the manuscript is both the first and the final draft, says curator Declan Kiely.
KIELY: You can see that the first chapter, Marley's Ghost, was originally going to be called Old Marley's Ghost. Further down the page, he's excised a whole section where he sort of goes off on a tangent about hamlets and realizes, of course quickly, he's got to keep it tight. He only has a very, very short time in which to write this. He wrote the whole of "A Christmas Carol" in six weeks in order for it to be published in time for Christmas.
VITALE: Dickens wrote all the time. He traveled with a portable inkwell and a supply of quill pens. He was working on his last novel, "Our Mutual Friend," on a train trip. That manuscript is also on display at the Morgan.
KIELY: And Dickens had been writing this episode in July in France. And he was returning by express train from Dover to London and was involved in a fatal train crash. Several people died. Over 50 people were injured.
VITALE: Declan Kiely says first, Dickens saved his reputation.
KIELY: He was travelling with his mistress, Netty Tiernan, and her mother. And, of course, had to try to get her away from the scene because it would have been scandalous if the press had discovered their being together.
VITALE: Then he helped save the other passengers.
KIELY: He helps the injured and the dying and writes about that in a letter that we're also displaying in the exhibition.
VITALE: And finally, he saved his novel.
KIELY: He scrambled back in to the wreckage. Several train carriages had gone over a bridge into a river below. Dickens's carriage was precipitously balanced on that bridge. He crazily climbed back in to retrieve from his luggage this portion of the novel due for publication later that month.
VITALE: Charles Dickens died five years later in 1870, following a stroke at the age of 58. TC Boyle, himself the author of 22 books of fiction, who earned his Doctorate in Victorian Literature, says Dickens's achievement was extraordinary.
TC BOYLE: He achieved what any great artist achieves - a body of work that has entertained and delighted and instructed people down through the ages. I mean, that's what we all hope for.
VITALE: Dickens's greatest fiction, says Simon Callow, is his own character.
CALLOW: People think of him as, you know, a jolly chap, really. But he was by far from a jolly chap. And, in fact, increasingly plagued with depression, and a sense of hopelessness. And despair. And that's worth knowing. I think it's always good to know that great creative individuals have, you know, their struggle, their drama.
VITALE: A struggle that manifested itself in a dramatic signature and more than two dozen works of fiction that have never gone out of print. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.