It's hard nowadays in this electronic age to imagine how popular Dickens was. He was Harry Potter-popular in the era when transportation and communication were pretty much the same thing. ("I've got news for you, and I'll send it by horseback.") I read in some of the biographies about the long queues of people outside stores when the latest installment of one of his serialized novels came out. And here? Dickens visited us a couple of times, drawing enormous crowds in all the American cities he saw--and received important visitors, literary and otherwise (Poe had a chat with him in Philadelphia). And hordes of people would wait at the docks for the latest shipment of, oh, Little Dorritt to arrive from England. Until I saw Potter-mania (for Book 7), I'd never witnessed anything like that for a writer.
I first got to know Dickens through the movies. An old film of A Christmas Carol scared me sleepless (I was in elementary school) after I saw it on TV--the image of Scrooge scraping dirt away from a gravestone and seeing his own name there terrified me. But later--in Hiram--the college cinema scheduled a showing of The Pickwick Papers, and my brother Dave and I laughed ourselves sick at the froggy little servant who announced it was dinner time.
I HATED GREAT EXPECTATIONS! I HATED CHARLES DICKENS! I WOULD NEVER AGAIN READ A DAMN WORD THAT SADISTIC BEARDED BASTARD EVER WROTE!
A few years later, I was in an English Lit class at Hiram College. I read the syllabus with dread. And with good cause. There it was--"Charles Dickens. Great Expectations."
The same evil book by the same satanic writer! I thought about shifting my major to something else, wondered how badly failing grades on Dickens quizzes would affect my GPA. Probably wouldn't be good ... But I couldn't think of any other major that would let me read books with dirty words in them, so I resolved to stick it out. (I couldn't drop: the Brit Lit survey was a requirement.)
And (remember: it's getting close to Valentine's Day?) I fell in love ... with Charles John Huffam Dickens and Great Expectations. I loved the book, ate his sentences like snack food, laughed, cried, spilled out just about every emotion I had, like dumping over a lazy susan.
I guess I was just ready. I was older (a manly, virile, ripped, sophisticated 19 years old). I'd read more. I don't know. But it clicked.
And I would go on to read all of Dickens, some of them several times.
One memory: When I went with the Aurora High School Marching Band to Disney World (in the late 80s?) as a chaperon, I was reading Bleak House. It was Memorial Day at Disney, and about 150 degrees, and as crowded as that part of my brain that holds memories of things I regret. I found a solitary seat at one of the outdoor restaurants and sat there reading Dickens, sipping a Diet Coke. Ah! Luxury! While Disney-hordes swarmed around me.
I received 130 answers, all wrong. Eight-five kids either turned in a blank sheet or a perfunctory I have no clue. One angry lad wrote, I don’t know, and I don’t care. Of the forty-five attempted answers none came closer than Little Nell is a character in a book who is sick and needs a doctor. One wiseacre quipped, The person who is drinking is Little Nell; another offered, The little glass on the counter in Little Nell. So much for literary immortality