Charles Dickens is one of the most easily recognised English authors, both physically and from the style and content of his work. Born 200 years ago this month, he raised the profile of the appalling conditions that Britain’s poor lived in through his novels and plays.
Whilst the quality and readability of his work can in great part be put down to the genius of the man and his imagination, it was the experience he gained, first-hand, of such conditions that infused his work with credibility and tenacity.
A BBC news website article recently summed up Dickens’ contributions to the world of entertainment and spoke of how character comedy derived from his works and their performance. Most of his novels and plays deal with very serious issues but within each there are many characters who are written as caricatures of themselves and others on one hand are to be despised or pitied but because of the way they are written, the can also be laughed at.
Dickens also gave us what the BBC called ‘meaningful names’ an idea that makes for a great lesson. Consider Mr M’Choakumchild, written as a teacher in Hard Times. One has only to read the name to know what kind of character he is and authors since have used similar devices; consider Dahl’s Miss Honey or Miss Trunchbull in Matilda!
There’s even the notion that the idea of Christmas celebration as we know it today came from Dickens. History records that prior to the period, Christmas passed by barely noticed and that even in those days, a white Christmas was as much of a rarity as it is today.
The whole country will celebrate the bicentennial of his birth on February 7th with a plethora of events including new adaptations of his work, readings, exhibitions and more. It’s only fitting then that schools also join in to mark the contribution he made to British literature and our cultural heritage.
Many schools, ours included, are using Oliver as a summer production, whilst teachers are planning to incorporate a topic on Dickens into their curriculum.
The difficulty arises in finding suitable material to work with, especially for younger children. Abridging Dickens work often means losing a lot of what makes it special. I’ve found that the best way is to use small chunks of the stories, selecting parts that are about the child characters and working with those.
Accompanying this article are several activities you may decide to incorporate in any plans you have already made or you can use the set as a topic pack to cover the week around the anniversary. We’ve tried to include activities for younger children, despite the complexity of the material, and hope that you find the material useful.