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Charles Dickens’ famous works keyed off his own life, professor says

February 14th, 2012 Posted in Arts and Life

Story & photo by Sean O’Sullivan

LOGAN – The key to Charles Dickens’ success is simple: he wrote about himself. David Copperfield is as close to an autobiography as Dickens ever came.

“I mean, if you look at David Copperfield’s initials, it’s D.C.,” said Brian McCuskey, associate professor of English at Utah State University. “Then Charles Dickens is C.D.”

McCuskey helped Logan Library celebrate Dickens’ 200th birthday recently by speaking to a large audience about Dickens’ life and works.

Dickens took a lot of his life experience and used it inspire his classic novels, said McCuskey. When Dickens was 10 years old, he was living alone in London and working to pay off his father’s debt. He had no help from his family because they were all in jail serving the sentence for that debt.

Dickens never forgot this experience and became famous for all the neglected and lonely children he wrote about in his novels, especially in David Copperfield, said McCuskey.

Dickens also resented his mother for making him work as a child, and this resentment showed up in his novels

“There are just bad mothers in his novels,” McCuskey said.

Before Dickens became a famous author he worked with lawyers and politicians, and he grew to despise them. His hatred of lawyers and politicians can be seen throughout his novels, as he didn’t paint any of those types of characters in a good light in his books.

Another strong theme in his works was the presence of idealized young women. This came from his infatuation with his wife’s sister, McCuskey said.

Dickens wasn’t only inspired by the people in his life; he was inspired by situations as well. Growing up poor and seeing rich people in the streets provided a motif for Dickens.

“You have poverty versus excess of wealth as a common theme in his books,” said McCuskey.

Dickens’ past intrigued audience member Lawrence Culver. “It was nice to hear him put in context and hear a relation to his life and troubles,” Culver said.

However, there was a side to Dickens that some people may not know about. While Dickens despised his mother for not caring for him well enough, he acted the same way toward his children, McCuskey said. Dickens may have even been disappointed in his son Henry, who became a lawyer, he said.

“I didn’t know he had 10 children and didn’t love any of them,” said Dot Simmons, who attended the speech.

However, people will ultimately remember Dickens for writing what McCuskey calls the most famous scene in British literature: Oliver Twist asking for just a little more gruel.


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