'It Was The Best Of Times It Was... Sod It Where's My iPhone?' - Kids Lack 'Attention Span' For Dickens
Modern-day children are not being educated to read with the attention span necessary for a Dickens novel, a leading expert said today as the country prepares to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the revered author.
Events taking place to mark the anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth on Tuesday, include a street party in the road where he was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, and a wreath-laying ceremony at his grave in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, London.
Claire Tomalin, acclaimed biographer of Dickens, said that his novels and their depiction of an unfair society were "amazingly relevant" to the current day.
But she also decried the state of modern teaching for ill-equipping children nowadays with the attention span required to read his classic, but lengthy, books.
She said: "Very simply, he is, after Shakespeare, the greatest creator of characters in English.
"He has gone on entertaining people since the 1830s and his characters' names are known all over the world.
"And because of the way he wrote, he adapts very well for theatre and even people who do not read him know about him from films, the TV and musicals."
Ms Tomalin said that Dickens' relevance to modern society is apparent in his portrayal of the proletariat and the importance he gave to the working classes.
She said: "When he went to America in 1842, one of the points he made was that the 'unimportant' and 'peripheral' people were just as interesting to write about as 'great' people.
"You only have to look around our society and everything he wrote about in the 1840s is still relevant - the great gulf between the rich and poor, corrupt financiers, corrupt Members of Parliament, how the country is run by old Etonians, you name it, he said it.
"The world did become a much better place in post-war England, Attlee's government brought in the National Health Service, there was free university education for able children of all classes.
"But now our health system is deteriorating, we do not have free university education and we have never been so divided.
"What Dickens wrote about is still amazingly relevant.
"The only caveat I would make is that today's children have very short attention spans because they are being reared on dreadful television programmes which are flickering away in the corner.
"Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that's a pity."
Ms Tomalin added that the character in modern culture that she feels was closest to a Dickens creation was John Cleese's Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers.
She said: "The whole two series of Fawlty Towers stand up, they are so funny and Basil Fawlty, he is a Dickensian monster."
Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin, said Dickens' portrayal of London effectively "invented" the way we collectively view our past.
He said: "I think he is amazing, he more or less invented much of the world we lived in.
"London isn't objectively the most interesting of places but he has made even the most dirty of back streets into an exciting place.
"His imagination has enshrined England as an exciting place through the nature of his villains, his heroes and his enthusiasm for life."
Dr Christopher Pittard, senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Portsmouth, said that Dickens became hugely popular by his ability to combine stinging political and social commentary within believable and enjoyable storylines.
He said: "He was probably one of the first international celebrities of literature and culture.
"He embarked on a massive reading tour around the UK and America and you could call him the Beatles of his time as he very successfully broke the American market."
Dr Pittard dismissed the comparison of Dickens' serialised novels as soap operas of their time.
He said: "Although they were immensely popular like soap operas, his novels had a completely different mode of narrative, the soap opera is continually ongoing while his novels have a very definite shape to them, there's a hidden structure which isn't comprehensible at first, they are more like the DVD boxset of their time."
Dr Pittard added that Dickens' concern about crime and policing in the Victorian era had pre-empted both detective fiction and the modern surveillance culture.
He said: "Bleak House is the first novel in English to have a detective character, there is a murder mystery plot which is something that can still be seen in popular culture today.
"It's also a novel about surveillance, about people spying on each other, he uses a metaphor of detectives as cameras and although I'm not going to argue he predicted CCTV he had an insight into the mindset that led to it.
"He realised that social power and political power is controlled through surveillance which is an example of why he is of such important contemporary relevance."