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Charles Dickens: The Making of a Novelist

John Simkin

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Sigmund Freud argued that to fully understand an artist you need to examine his childhood. Not that Freud was terribly sympathetic to artists. According to Freud they were “people who had no occasion to submit their inner life to the strict control of reason” - i.e. immature and narcissist individuals. Whereas adults satisfied their erotic urges in private imagination, the artist flaunted his in public fantasies.

One of the personality traits evident in any great artist is their tremendous energy levels. This is combined with a passionate self-belief in what they are doing that they are capable of accepting constant rejection. According to Freud, this energy is a result of the repression (pushing conflicts back into the unconscious) and sublimation (the artist channelled the sexual drive into the achievement socially acceptable goals). In other words, it is only the unhappy neurotic who becomes a great artist. This is something that is definitely true of Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens, the son of John Dickens and Elizabeth Dickens, was born at 13 Mile End Terrace (now 393 Old Commercial Road), Landport, just outside the old town of Portsmouth, on 7th February 1812.

John Dickens was the son of William Dickens and Elizabeth Ball Dickens. His parents were servants in the household of John Crewe, a large landowner in Cheshire with a house in Mayfair. William Dickens, recently promoted to the post of butler, died just before his son was born. His mother continued to work as a servant at Crewe Hall.

John Crewe was the member of the House of Commons for Cheshire. His wife, Frances Crewe was a leading supporter of the Whig Party and regular visitors to Crewe Hall included leading politicians, Charles James Fox, Augustus FitzRoy and Edmund Burke. They also hosted artists and writers such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Charles Burney, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sarah Burney and Hester Thrale. During this period Frances became the mistress of Sheridan, the country's leading playwright. He dedicated his most famous play, The School for Scandal, to her in 1777.

John Dickens was treated very well by the Crewe family. He was allowed to use the family library and in April 1805 was appointed to the Navy Pay Office in London. The Treasurer of the Navy at this time was George Canning, a close friend of the Crewe family. The job came to Dickens through Canning's patronage, on which all such appointments depended. Claire Tomalin, the author of Dickens: A Life (2011): "John Dickens may have been the son of the elderly butler, but it is also possible that he had a different father - perhaps John Crewe, exercising his droit de seigneur, cheering himself up for his wife's infidelities, or another of the gentlemen who were regular guests at the Crewe residences. Or he may have believed that he was. His silence about his first twenty years, his habit of spending and borrowing and enjoying good things as though he were somehow entitled to do so, all suggest something of the kind, and harks back to the sort of behaviour he would have observed with dazzled eyes at Crewe Hall and in Mayfair."

Charles Dickens' mother, was the daughter of Charles Barrow, who worked as Chief Conductor of Monies at Somerset House in London. According to her friends she was a slim, energetic young woman who loved dancing. She had received a good education and appreciated music and books. Elizabeth had several brothers. John Barrow was a published novelist and poet. Edward Barrow was a journalist who married an artist. A third brother, Thomas Barrow, worked in the Navy Pay Office, where he met fellow worker, John Dickens. Elizabeth married Dickens at St Mary-le-Strand in June, 1809. The following year her father, Charles Barrow, was forced to leave the country, when it was discovered that he had been defrauding the government. A daughter, Fanny Dickens, was born the following year.

R. Shelton MacKenzie, the author of Life of Charles Dickens (1870) has pointed out: "Elizabeth Dickens... was tall and thin, with a wasp's waist, of which she was very vain... She was a good wife, very fond of her husband and devoted to her children... She has been described to me as having much resembled Mrs. Nickleby... in the charming inaccuracy of her memory and the curious insecutiveness of her conversation."

Charles Dickens later recalled that his mother was an amazing woman: "She possessed an extraordinary sense of the ludicrous, and her power of imitation was something quite astonishing. On entering a room she almost unconsciously took an inventory of its contents and if anything happened to strike her as out of place or ridiculous, she would afterwards describe it in the quaintest possible manner."

John Dickens continued to make progress at the Navy Pay Office. In 1809 he was promoted and given a salary of £110 a year. He almost certainly got this post because Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Treasurer of the Navy, had been a supporter of his career. It has been speculated that Sheridan, the country's leading playwright, was Dickens' father.

Dickens was transferred to London and the family found lodgings in Cleveland Street. Dickens was now earning £200 a year. However, he always had trouble managing money. He liked to dress well, enjoyed entertaining friends and bought expensive books. Dickens was in debt and had to ask for loans from family and friends.

In April 1816, a fourth child, Letitia, was born. Seven months later John Dickens was sent by the Navy Pay Office to work at Chatham Dockyard. Dickens rented a house at 11 Ordnance Terrace. Charles Dickens remembers his father taking him aboard the old Navy yacht Chatham and sailing up the Medway to Sheerness, where he had to distribute wages to the workers. It has been claimed that "this landscape and the sludge-coloured tidal rivers haunted him and became part of the fabric of his late novels".

The salary of John Dickens continued to grow and by 1818 he was earning over £350 a year. He still could not manage and in 1819 he borrowed £200 from his brother-in-law, Thomas Barrow. When he did not pay the money back, he told him that he would not have him in his house again. The family finances were not helped by the birth of two more children, Harriet (1819) and Frederick (1819). John Dickens did earn a small amount of money from journalism. This included an article in The Times about a big fire that had taken place in Chatham.

While living in Chatham Charles and his sister Fanny Dickens attended a school for girls and boys in Rome Lane. In 1821 he went to a school run by the twenty-three William Giles, the son of a Baptist and himself a Dissenter. His friend, John Forster, has commented: "He (Charles Dickens) was a very little and a very sickly boy. He was subject to attacks of violent spasm which disabled him for any active exertion. He was never a good little cricket-player; he was never a first-rate hand at marbles, or peg-top, or prisoner's base; but he had great pleasure in watching the other boys, officers' sons for the most part, at these games, reading while they played; and he had always the belief that this early sickness had brought to himself one inestimable advantage, in the circumstance of his weak health having strongly inclined him to reading."

Dickens was given access to his father's collection of books: "My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs to which I had access (for it adjoined my own), and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas and Robinson Crusoe came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time - they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii - and did me no harm; for, whatever harm was in some of them, was not there for me."

In 1822 John Dickens returned to work at Somerset House in London and the family moved to Camden Town. Here he met and became friendly with a fellow worker, Charles Dilke. The following year, Fanny Dickens was awarded a place at the Royal Academy of Music in Hanover Square. She was to study the piano with Ignaz Moscheles, a former pupil of Ludwig van Beethoven. The fees were thirty-eight guineas a year, an expense that they family could not really afford.

Claire Tomalin, the author of Dickens: A Life (2011), has argued: "Dickens maintained that he never felt any jealousy of what was done for her, he could not help but be aware of the contrast between his position and hers, and of their parents' readiness to pay handsome fees for her education, and nothing for his. It is such a reversal of the usual family situation, where only the education of the boys is taken seriously, that the Dickens parents at least deserve some credit for making sure Fanny had a professional training, although none for their neglect of her brother." Dickens' friend, John Forster, commented: "What a stab to his heart it was, thinking of his own disregarded condition, to see her go away to begin her education, amid the tearful good wishes of everyone in the house."

Elizabeth Dickens thought that she could educate the rest of the children by starting her own school. She took a lease on a large house in Gower Street North. Charles helped his mother distribute circulars advertising the school. He later recalled: "I left, at a great many other doors, a great many circulars calling attention to the merits of the establishment. Yet nobody ever came to school, nor do I recollect that anybody ever proposed to come, or that the least preparation was made to receive anybody. But I know that we got on very badly with the butcher and baker; that very often we had not too much for dinner."

In February 1824, John Dickens was arrested for debt and sent to the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. It has been estimated that over 30,000 people a year were arrested for debt during this period. The insolvent debtor was classed as a quasi-criminal and kept in prison until he could pay or could claim release under the Insolvent Debtors' Act.

Charles was used by his father as a messenger to carry his requests for help to family and friends. He already owed these people money and no one was willing to pay the money that would free him from captivity. Dickens later told John Forster: "My father was waiting for me in the lodge, and we went up to his room (on the top story but one), and cried very much. And he told me, I remember, to take warning by the Marshalsea, and to observe that if a man had twenty pounds a year, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched. I see the fire we sat before now; with two bricks inside the rusted grate, one on each side, to prevent its burning too many coals."

Although only twelve years old, Charles was now considered the "man of the family" and was given the task of taking the books that he loved to a pawnbroker in the Hampstead Road. This was followed by items of furniture, until after a few weeks the house was almost empty. Peter Ackroyd has argued in Dickens (1990): "It was not so many years before that Dickens's maternal grandfather had absconded as an embezzler, and there were theories in this period concerning some inherited propensity towards crime as well as towards madness. It might have seemed to the young Dickens that this was indeed his true inheritance, which is perhaps why some critics have believed that Dickens's great contribution to the description of childhood lies in his depiction of infantile guilt."

A family friend, James Lamert, suggested to Elizabeth Dickens, that Charles should work in his uncle's blacking factory, that was based at a warehouse at 30 Hungerford Stairs. Warren's Blacking Factory, manufactured boot and shoe blacking. Lamert offered Charles the job of covering and labelling the pots of blacking. He would be paid six shillings a week and Lamert promised that he personally would give him lessons during his lunch hour to keep up his education. Charles was disappointed by his parents’ reaction to the offer: "My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge."

On Monday, 9th February, 1824, just two days after his twelfth birthday, he walked the three miles from Camden Town to the Warren's Blacking Factory. Charles Dickens later recalled: "The blacking warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumbledown old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscotted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary's shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label; and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty downstairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin."

Charles Dickens took lodgings in Little College Street in Camden Town. Mrs Royance took in the children cheaply and treated them accordingly. He had to share a room with two other boys. On Sundays he collected Fanny Dickens from the Royal Academy of Music and they went together to the Marshalsea Prison to spend the day with their parents. He told his father how much he hated being separated from the family all week, with nothing to return to each evening. As a result he was moved to another lodging house in Lant Street that was close to the prison and he was able to spend time with his parents every evening after work. At this time Dickens believed that his father would remain incarcerated until his death.

Charles Dickens later told John Forster about this period in his life: "I know I do not exaggerate, unconsciously and unintentionally, the scantiness of my resources and the difficulties of my life. I know that if a shilling or so were given me by any one, I spent it in a dinner or a tea. I know that I worked, from morning to night, with common men and boys, a shabby child. I know that I tried, but ineffectually, not to anticipate my money, and to make it last the week through; by putting it away in a drawer I had in the counting-house, wrapped into six little parcels, each parcel containing the same amount, and labelled with a different day. I know that I have lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond... I suffered in secret, and that I suffered exquisitely, no one ever knew but I. How much I suffered, it is, as I have said already, utterly beyond my power to tell. No man's imagination can overstep the reality."

In April 1825, John Dickens' mother died. He inherited the sum of £450, and he was able to pay off his debts. This allowed him to petition for release from prison, and at the end of May he was discharged from Marshalsea Prison. The Naval Pay Office agreed to take Dickens back and although he was only 39 years old, he requested to be retired early with an invalid's pension because of "a chronic infection of the urinary organs". He was eventually granted a pension of £145.16s.8d. a year.

Despite the improvement in his financial circumstances, John Dickens expected his son to continue working at Warren's Blacking Factory. The business had moved to Chandos Street in Covent Garden where he worked by a window looking out on the street and where his humiliating drudgery was exposed to public view.

Charles Dickens health was still poor: "Bob Fagin was very good to me on the occasion of a bad attack of my old disorder. I suffered such excruciating pain that time, that they made a temporary bed of straw in my old recess in the counting-house, and I rolled about on the floor, and Bob filled empty blacking-bottles with hot water, and applied relays of them to my side, half the day. I got better, and quite easy towards evening; but Bob (who was much bigger and older than I) did not like the idea of my going home alone, and took me under his protection. I was too proud to let him know about the prison; and after making several efforts to get rid of him, to all of which Bob Fagin in his goodness was deaf, shook hands with him on the steps of a house near Southwark Bridge on the Surrey side, making believe that I lived there."

Dickens later wrote: "No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship of common men and boys." Peter Ackroyd has argued in Dickens (1990): "Here one senses some imitation of his father's own projection of a genteel persona (it is clear enough how John Dickens's fear, stemming from the fact that he was so perilously hovering between classes, was transmitted to the son). It also tells us much about his instinctive reaction to the labouring poor, although it is one that would have been widely shared in his lifetime; the working classes were in a very real sense a race apart, a substratum of society which bred in those above them a fear of disease, a horror of uncleanliness and of course the dread of some kind of social revolution."

John Dickens and George Lamert were often in dispute: "My father and the relative so often mentioned quarrelled; quarrelled by letter, for I took the letter from my father to him which caused the explosion, but quarrelled very fiercely. It was about me. It may have had some backward reference, in part, for anything I know, to my employment at the window. All I am certain of is that, soon after I had given him the letter, my cousin (he was a sort of cousin, by marriage) told me he was very much insulted about me; and that it was impossible to keep me, after that. I cried very much, partly because it was so sudden, and partly because in his anger he was violent about my father, though gentle to me. Thomas, the old soldier, comforted me, and said he was sure it was for the best. With a relief so strange that it was like oppression, I went home."

However, Elizabeth Dickens wanted Charles to continue at the blacking factory. "My mother set herself to accommodate the quarrel, and did so next day. She brought home a request for me to return next morning, and a high character of me, which I am very sure I deserved. My father said I should go back no more, and should go to school. I do not write resentfully or angrily: for I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am: but I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back. From that hour until this at which I write, no word of that part of my childhood which I have now gladly brought to a close, has passed my lips to any human being. I have no idea how long it lasted; whether for a year, or much more, or less. From that hour, until this, my father and my mother have been stricken dumb upon it. I have never heard the least allusion to it, however far off and remote, from either of them."

Andrew Sanders, the author of Authors in Context: Charles Dickens (2003), has pointed out: "Dickens, like his parents, was to remain almost completely silent about this dark but formative period in his life. Only in the 1840s was he privately prepared to record the painful details and to show them to his wife and to his friend, John Forster. It was Forster who published most of his self-pitying autobiographical fragment after the novelist's death. For the most part, Dickens's boyhood misery was translated into fiction. The memory of his months in the blacking-factory became part of a habit of secrecy. It may also be integral to Dickens's awareness of the significance of leading a double life, a doubleness so frequently practised by his later characters."

On the insistence of his father, John Dickens was sent to Wellington House Academy on Granby Terrace adjoining Mornington Crescent. Dickens passionately disliked the man who owned the school: "The respected proprietor of which was by far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure to know, who was one of the worst-tempered men perhaps that ever lived, whose business it was to make as much out of us and to put as little into us as possible."

Owen P. Thomas was a fellow student at the school: "My recollection of Dickens whilst at school, is that of a healthy looking boy, small but well-built, with a more than usual flow of spirits, inducing to harmless fun, seldom or ever I think to mischief, to which so many lads at that age are prone.... He usually held his head more erect than lads ordinarily do, and there was a general smartness about him. His week-day dress of jacket and trousers, I can clearly remember, was what is called pepper-and-salt; and instead of the frill that most boys of his age wore then, he had a turn-down collar, so that he looked less youthful in consequence. He invented what we termed a lingo, produced by the addition of a few letters of the same sound to every word; and it was our ambition, walking and talking thus along the street, to be considered foreigners." Another boy pointed out: "He appeared always like a gentleman's son, rather aristocratic than otherwise."

At Wellington House Academy Dickens was taught traditional subjects such as Latin. Dickens did not distinguish himself as a scholar at the school. However, he did enjoy helping to produce the school newspaper. He also wrote and performed in plays. One boy at the school observed that "he was very fond of theatricals... and used to act little plays in the kitchen." He also spent a lot of time reading a sixteen-page weekly, The Terrific Register. He later recorded that the murder stories "frightened my very wits out of my head".

Dickens left the school in February 1827, when he was fifteen years of age. Once again John Dickens was deeply in debt. Fanny's fees at the Royal Academy of Music were so badly in arrears that she had to leave; but she showed such promise and determination that she was able to make an arrangement which allowed her to return and pay for her studies by taking on part-time teaching.

Elizabeth Dickens was able to arrange for her son to work as an office boy at the Ellis & Blackmore law firm in Gray's Inn. A fellow clerk, George Lear, described Dickens during this period: "His appearance was altogether prepossessing. He was a rather short but stout-built boy, and carried himself very upright - and the idea he gave me was that he must have been drilled by a military instructor... His complexion was a healthy pink - almost glowing - rather a round face, fine forehead, beautiful expressive eyes full of animation, a firmly-set mouth, a good-sized rather straight nose... His hair was a beautiful brown, and worn long, as was then the fashion."

Dickens was popular with the other clerks. Lear claimed that "Dickens could imitate, in a manner that I have never heard equalled, the low population of the streets of London in all their varieties, whether mere loafers or sellers of fruit, vegetables, or anything else.... He could also excel in mimicking the popular singers of the day, whether comic or patriotic; as to his acting he could give us Shakespeare by the ten minutes, and imitate all the leading actors of that time." According to Dickens: "I went to some theatre every night, with a very few exceptions, for at least three years: really studying the bills first, and going to see where there was the best acting... I practised immensely (even such things as walking in and out, and sitting down in a chair)."

In November 1828 Dickens went to work for another solicitor, Charles Molloy, in Chancery Lane, where he knew one of the clerks, Thomas Mitton. Dickens disliked legal work and he purchased a copy of Gurney's Brachgraphy and taught himself shorthand. In 1829 he joined his father working for his brother-in-law, John Barrow, who had started up a newspaper, the Mirror of Parliament. Barrow's intention was to rival Hansard by offering a complete record of what went on at the House of Commons. Dickens quickly obtained a reputation for speed and accuracy in recording debates.

On reaching eighteen in 1830 he applied to the British Museum for a ticket to the Reading Room. He used to spend his mornings reading history books and the afternoons and evenings reporting on the events in parliament. This included recording the debates on issues such as parliamentary reform, the abolition of the slave trade and legislation to protect factory workers. Dickens considered most politicians to be "pompous" who seemed to spend most of the time speaking "sentences with no meaning in them". However, Dickens was impressed with some of the MPs who genuinely appeared to be interested in making Britain a better place to live.

Dickens met Maria Beadnell in May 1830. He was eighteen and she was two years older. According to Peter Ackroyd: "She was quite short... dark-haired, dark-eyed with the kind of slightly plump beauty which can so easily dissolve in later life; and from all the available evidence, she was something of a flirt if not quite a coquette." Dickens fell in love straight away but Maria's parents disapproved of the relationship. Her father was a senior clerk at the bank at Mansion House and considered himself well above the Dickens family financially. In 1832 the Beadnell's took action to end their daughter's flirtation by sending her to Paris. Dickens wrote a letter, telling her, "I never have loved and I never can love any human creature breathing but yourself."

Dickens did see Maria when she returned to London but it was clear that she did not return his feelings for her. Dickens wrote to her accepting defeat: "Our meetings of late have been little more than so many displays of heartless indifference on the other hand while on the other they have never failed to prove a fertile soil of wretchedness in a pursuit which has long since been worse than hopeless." He also returned her letters and a present she had given him in happier times. Dickens told John Forster that his love for Maria "excluded every other idea from my mind for four years... I have positively stood amazed at myself ever since! The maddest romances that ever got into any boy's head and stayed there". However, he added that Maria had inspired him "with a determination to overcome all the difficulties, which fairly lifted me up into" becoming a writer.

Maria Beadnell remained unmarried until, at the age of thirty-five, she became the bride of Henry Winter, a saw-mill manager in Finsbury. Over the next few years she had two daughters.

In 1855 Maria wrote to Dickens. The letter was later destroyed but Dickens's letters in reply have survived. In his first letter to Maria he wrote: "Your letter is more touching to me from its good and gentle association with the state of Spring in which I was either much more wise or much more foolish than I am now".

In his second letter he told her that he had "got the heartache again" from seeing her handwriting. "Whatever of fancy, romance, energy, passion, aspiration and determination belong to me, I never have separated and never shall separate from the hard hearted little woman - you - whom it is nothing to say I would have died for.... that I began to fight my way out of poverty and obscurity, with one perpetual idea of you... I have never been so good a man since, as I was when you made me wretchedly happy."

Dickens wrote another letter to her claiming their failed relationship changed his personality. The "wasted tenderness of those hard years" made him suppress emotion, "which I know is no part of my original nature, but which makes me chary of showing my affections, even to my children, except when they are very young."

Dickens suggested they met in secret. She agreed but waned him she was "toothless, fat, old, and ugly", to which he replied, "You are always the same in my remembrance". As Claire Tomalin, the author of Dickens: A Life (2011) has pointed out: "The meeting took place. He saw an overweight woman, no longer pretty, who talked foolishly and too much. The edifice he had built up in his mind tumbled, and he beat an immediate retreat. There was, however, a dinner with their two spouses, which allowed him perhaps to compare the appetites and girths of Maria and Catherine and brood on their resemblances."

Maria Beadnell was the model for Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield (1850) and Flora Finching in Little Dorrit (1855).

In 1832 Dickens began contributing articles to the radical newspaper, the True Sun. Unlike most radical newspapers such as the Poor Man's Guardian and The Gauntlet, it did pay the 4d. stamp duty. Despite having to charge the heavy tax imposed on newspapers, the newspaper sold 30,000 copies a day. In his articles, Dickens used his considerable knowledge of what went on in the House of Commons to help promote the cause of parliamentary reform. Charles Dickens was pleased when Parliament eventually agreed to pass the 1832 Reform Act, however, like most radicals, he thought it did not go far enough. The new reformed House of Commons passed a series of new measures including a reduction in newspaper tax from 4d. to 1d. As a result, the circulation of the newspaper increased to over 60,000.


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I had to suffer through Dickens during my second year of high school. Thank God it didn't ruin my appreciation of REAL writers like John D. MacDonald, Sloan Wilson, and Donald Hamilton. ;)

What do you mean by REAL writers? I am afraid that studying great writers at school does a lot of damage. Several people have told me that they did not like history at school but learnt to love it in their own time.

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I think there are at least three forces at work here.

The first is that literature is art and art appreciation is highly subjective. There are

works of art (music, painting, sculpture, poetry, etc.) that have such genius behind

their production that a large majority of people can enjoy them or at least get

something out of it. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to assume that everyone

is going to like it. I can demonstrate this by simply going to Rotten Tomatoes or

Metacritic, looking at the "Top 100" films of all time (pick any list, including your own),

and seeing what the aggregate critical rating is. There are certainly a few films in

the high 90s, but most of the "classics" are broadly in the 70-90 range, which would

be a B or C in most schools. My advice to teachers has been to teach structure and

technique rather than "appreciation" and then expose kids to a wide variety of

samples (i.e., don't make them read whole books unless they want to).

This brings me to the second point, which is that forcing someone to perform a

potentially pleasurable activity immediately reduces the potential pleasure. There will

certainly be kids who enjoy the material and appreciate their teacher recommending it,

but I'm sure that there are many more kids who will resent the assignment for various

reasons and who may then develop a dislike of art exploration. I think the trick is to

be broad and employ samples; kids will eventually gravitate more naturally to what

they like and appreciate the teacher exposing them to it.

The last point is that (as John alluded to with history) kids often lack the wisdom

to enjoy art, at least to its fullest. I'm not going to get in a debate over exposing

babies to Mozart and the like. It's obvious that "good" art may contain something

for every age and background, and it's possible that a few geniuses out there will

be inspired by early exposure to the right thing. In any case, much of what we call

"good art" has a certain complexity or depth to it that requires some level of what

we might call life experience to understand or appreciate it. There's really no substitute

for this wisdom, so again, I believe that teachers shouldn't rush into ramming the

classics down the throats of students and instead expose them to the underpinnings

of what goes into art. They will gravitate to what works for them and most likely

enjoy the experience.

Thank you for such a thoughtful post. It deserves a detailed reply so this is just the first of my responses.

I studied the 19th century novel at university. It gave me the opportunity to read all the leading novelists of the period, including Charles Dickens. Although I gained an appreciation of these writers, I have to be honest that I do not read any of them today for pleasure. The main reason for this is that I do not get the time. I read three of four books a week, but they are mostly history, autobiographies and biographies that I need to read for my work.

I did read Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” recently and I was disappointed. It is definitely one of his worse. I suspect very few people read Dickens today. Interestingly, he said at the time that his novels would not be read by future generations because they were written for the readers of the period. Most people know Dickens for his TV adaptions that are still extremely popular with the British public.

It is true that studying novels in the classroom can destroy people’s love of that book. However, it can work the other way. I am a member of a reading group that recently read “Tale of Two Cities”. Most of us disliked the book, but one woman, in her early 70s, said that she loved the book. She said she first read the book when she was a teenager. The thing she loved about the book was the sacrifice made by Sydney Carton. I pointed out that was one of the reasons I disliked the book as it was completely unbelievable. She replied that as a teenage girl waiting to find her first boyfriend, the idea of a man sacrificing his life for the love of a woman, was highly romantic.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I think there are at least three forces at work here.

The first is that literature is art and art appreciation is highly subjective. There are

works of art (music, painting, sculpture, poetry, etc.) that have such genius behind

their production that a large majority of people can enjoy them or at least get

something out of it. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to assume that everyone

is going to like it. I can demonstrate this by simply going to Rotten Tomatoes or

Metacritic, looking at the "Top 100" films of all time (pick any list, including your own),

and seeing what the aggregate critical rating is. There are certainly a few films in

the high 90s, but most of the "classics" are broadly in the 70-90 range, which would

be a B or C in most schools. My advice to teachers has been to teach structure and

technique rather than "appreciation" and then expose kids to a wide variety of

samples (i.e., don't make them read whole books unless they want to).

Art is indeed subjective but over a period of time, "experts" decide that certain writers, artists, etc. should be studied in universities, libraries, colleges and schools. If society did not do this and just left it to the market, it would not be possible to maintain high standards in art. Of course, there will be a negative reaction from most students. I believe a really good teacher can to a certain extent overcome this problem. Even so, it is important that we constantly reassess the people we study in educational institutions. Although Dickens is horribly dated (he actually predicted this as he thought rightly, that he was a writer of his time) and I would not personally spend much time reading his novels (his journalism is still worth reading), he still deserves to be studied because of his importance to the history of literature.

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... If society did not do this and just left it to the market, it would not be possible to maintain high standards in art. Of course, there will be a negative reaction from most students. I believe a really good teacher can to a certain extent overcome this problem. ...

to me : the bit before and after kinda makes sense. This sentence is like a non-sequiteur to me. I'd like it not to be. For example NAZI Germany did not maintain high standards in art. If they did not like it, it was not art. Negative reactions were 'discouraged'. Good teacher's are in a real bind.

I realise this is about a particular mindset re society, but isn't the massive attacks on civil liberties around the world like the backward moves of British society, and Spain, Greece Italy, France, .. (tho I have some hopes for All as the working class is finally beginning to stir. This brings us to a critical point in history. Probably France as a nation of Art and Revolution (which is essential in art) will be very instructive as the election is being forced by radical elements.

A good teacher inform students of truth. ( Therefore a good teacher must accept consequences, then it's not hard.). In this way, whatever outcome, students will have had a first hand instruction. No wonder education is under heavy attack and consequently the 'battle' must be won there as well. When students and workers unite then things will happen.

Art must be recognised as free personal expressions of truths, as soon as the market gets its claws into an artist a compromise is made. It's inevitable. When Society is the Market and consumers commodities, that which was art is no longer so.

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You mean it is not easy? I suggest it is that simple, but it is understandably difficult. It as a lot to do with curriculum Who chooses it? Which comes back to society. Ultimately a Good Teacher is hard to find, for obvious reasons, in many societies. ... which goes back to the bit I quoted. etc.

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The following, to me, is relevant. It actually begs the inverse question. why do some ... not ... ?


Voices of conscience: why do some people take moral stands?


15 March 2012 Last updated at 19:11 GMT Help Why do people stand up for their principles, even when the results could lose them their jobs, or even their lives?

That's the question author Eyal Press asks in Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times.

A Swiss Police Commander disobeys orders and helps hundreds of Jewish refugees escape from Austria to Switzerland in 1938. A Serbian man saves his Croatian neighbours from abuse in a Serbian detention camp in the early 1990s. And a financial broker turns whistleblower after being fired for trying to prevent fraud.

There are many examples of evil lurking in conformity, when regular citizens stand by while others are in jeopardy. The characters in this book defy those stereotypes and stand against authority and apathy.

The book explores the psychology and science behind these ethical decisions - and Mr Press explains to the BBC why when the going gets tough, the tough stand their ground.

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