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What Charles Dickens can teach us about times of crisis

An academic from Queen Mary University of London has produced a short film to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens.

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A photograph of author Charles Dickens
A photograph of author Charles Dickens

Dr Matthew Ingleby from Queen Mary’s Department of English has paid tribute to acclaimed author Charles Dickens through a special multimedia project.

Dickens in a crisis

The film, Dickens in a Crisis, features an essay written by Dr Ingleby, which is accompanied by images created by illustrator Alex Brenchley. The two modes of communication in the film – text and image – are used in conscious dialogue with one another, setting up moments of gentle friction as well as more explicit illustration.

The film pays homage to the ways in which Charles Dickens engaged with the public, working collaboratively illustrators as well as performing his own texts orally in his public reading tours.

Dr Ingleby argues that reading novels such as Dickens can offer insights into the current crisis. He suggests that Dickens’s form of fiction was born of an age characterised by crisis and distraction, as the current Covid-19 crisis is often seen as today.

In the video, and accompanying essay, Dr Ingleby asserts that Dickens not only wrote novels about different forms of crisis, but the novels themselves were a formal response to his own experience of crisis, written for readers who knew crisis too.

Emergence of multi-plot fiction

1870, the year of Dickens’s death, is also the year that the Education Act was passed. The legislation helped achieve a rapid rise in literacy rates in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. According to Dr Ingleby, Dickens used his writing as a tool for campaigning, covering a number of topical issues, with education being one of his most consistent concerns.

Dr Matthew Ingleby, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at Queen Mary said: “Why read Dickens now, in the middle of a crisis, when there are so many other things to do? The form of Dickens’s multi-plot fiction emerged as a response to the crises that characterised his own historical moment, which was when our current idea of crisis was forged.

“Reading complex novels like his is difficult in our culture of distraction, but the crisis-pitch of attention they demand helps readers build resources of engagement that can be redeployed for other tasks, such as participation in democracy.”

More information

Alex Brenchley is a visual artist & cartoonist. His This England cartoon series appears every week in New Statesman magazine.

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