October 2012 | Jeremy Howell

Dickens at 200 - Still Championing the Downtrodden: An Interview with Dr. William Moeck

By Jeremy Howell



In this election season, remembering Charles Dickens as a champion of the displaced and downtrodden is particularly timely.  Fine Books & Collections recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. William Moeck, curator of "Charles Dickens: The Key to Character" on exhibition at the New York Public Library.  This 200th birthday celebration with a five-monthlong exhibit was four years in the making, and explores events in Dickens's life that inspired his unforgettable characters and their interpretation by other artists. The show boasts artifacts as varied as a Great Expectations-inspired designer gown and illustrations done by Hablot Knight Browne, the artist know as "Phiz." In addition to curating this exhibit, Dr. Moeck is a State University of New York Nassau Community College professor of English literature.

Top Left:  J. R. Brown. "Dickens Surrounded by His Characters." Engraving from Charles Dickens by Pen and Pencil, by Frederic G. Kitton (London: F. T. Sabin, 1890). General Research Division, NYPL.


Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do we find Dickens so compelling today?

Dr. Moeck:  The easy answer is that he continues to make us laugh and continues to make us cry, often on the same page.  Although that melodrama may not be to everyone's taste, the philosopher George Santayana nailed it when he said that although Dickens's taste is sometimes wanting, no one can deny his genius.


I think, really, the reason why Dickens has continued to be powerful is because of the visualizable quality of his way of drawing characters, and that has made him a natural for cinematography.  Early screenwriters said they were influenced by Dickens because they found in his novels such pre-cinematic techniques as panning, close-ups, montage, and parallel plotting. Since we live in a visually oriented culture, I think that's probably his power.  He speaks to our mind's eye.


JH: I'd like to ask about "Phiz"--the artist Hablot Knight Browne.  Both men were young when they began working with one another--Browne only 20 and Dickens just 24.  Can you tell me a little about what's on display from "Phiz," and why you think the pair of them made such good collaborators?


Dr. Moeck:  I think Hablot was able to pick up on Dickens's strengths and to accentuate them.  It's been observed by detractors of Dickens that the people in his novels are more like caricatures--two-sided rather than fully developed people--and Browne was able to bring that out.  He was able to clearly render them as kind of exaggerated.  He worked well with Dickens because he was relatively unknown compared to [earlier Dickens illustrator George] Cruikshank and therefore malleable and susceptible to Dickens's stage directions.  We have an exhibition of an unpublished draft of Edith Granger, a woman from Dombey and Son. Dickens gave Hablot directions to portray her as not being a day over thirty, elegant with the spark of the devil in her--but how do you do that?  Dickens was satisfied with the results.



I think even better examples [of art direction setting mood] are from the mature novels, such as Bleak House, and Browne's development of the dark plates.  He had fine line rulings that created a greater contrast of light and darkness, producing almost a mezzotint. That really worked well with the mature novels because in them, atmosphere has a much greater effect than the earlier novels. Landscapes and urban environments almost take on a character of their own, something Browne captured really well.


JH:  Why do you believe the two had their falling out later in life?


Dr. Moeck:  So that's an interesting question: It's been argued that Dickens thought his work was changing and that his characters were no longer as exaggerated as they were originally portrayed.  The answer is probably more complicated-- it might have been personal reasons, but also the sensibilities of the age had changed.  If you look at the illustrators who replaced Browne, they went after a much more naturalistic rendering--people like F.O.C. Darley.  They really tried to downplay the physical features that Dickens exaggerated in the novels and made the characters look like someone you might actually meet on the street rather than in a cartoon book.  I think that reflects a change in sensibilities of an era.


JH:  Dickens professed to know a little about music, but that wasn't entirely true. His novels are filled with musical references, which make me curious about the sheet music on display.  Can you tell me a bit about that?


Dr. Moeck:  We have three pieces of original sheet music on display that I chose in part because of their coloration.  In the 1840s, when Dickens came to New York, there was a big party thrown for him on Valentine's Day, and two thousand people crammed into a theatre to celebrate the world's most famous novelist writing in English.  They mounted a tableau event, people acting out key scenes from the early novels, and composers wrote dance music honoring different characters.  We have on display the "Barrow Boz Quadrilles," that were composed in his honor.  The other sheet music on display is "Little Nell Waltz," which was composed in the 1860s. It's based on one of the most pathetic Dickens characters of all, this little girl who wanders the countryside with her grandfather, who is addicted to gambling.


JH:  The exhibit also includes the codebook Dickens used to communicate with his mistress.  How does this fit in with the theme of characters?


English: Ellen Ternan, the young actress who b...

English: Ellen Ternan, the young actress who became Charles Dickens's mistress Français : Ellen Ternan, la jeune actrice qui devint la maîtresse de Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dr. Moeck:  It forms a part of the section of exhibitions called "Fatal Attractions." That is about Dickens's last three books and about the upheaval in his personal life, which kind of underpins them.  He met an eighteen-year-old actress when he was 45 and separated from his wife of twenty years on account of Ellen Ternan. Dickens was a champion of domesticity in the heart and home.  He was quoted as having said that his great ambition is to live in the hearts and homes of home-loving people, and that was his public persona.  It would basically have been a catastrophe if the public found out that he was involved with someone who was not his wife and half his age, and, of course, you couldn't divorce someone back then and marry someone new--that was not possible. He broke things off with his wife and more or less carried on this secret affair, and during 1867, on his second visit to the U.S., he brought with him a diary that recorded all of his engagements and also the wording he was going to use to telegram Ellen Ternan back in England as to whether she should come visit him.  The diary says "All Well" meant Ternan should come, and "Safe and Well" meant "Don't come."  That's what he ended up telegramming to Ternan via his agent.  He felt he did not have enough privacy to see her safely without attracting the press.  Dickens was very scrupulous to burn all his correspondence with Ternan, and vice versa, and this diary was lost or stolen until it turned up out of the blue at auction in New York in the 1920s.  Albert A. Berg and his brother Henry snatched it up because they were big fans of Dickensiana, and it was their behest to the library in 1938 that really forms the central core of the New York Public Library's holdings.  The Berg Collection not only has the diary that contains the code, it also has the memoranda book that, for thirteen years of his career, Dickens kept filled with lists of names of characters, some of which he used and some he didn't.  He always felt he had to have a character's name before he could write about a person.  As he used the names, he checked them off.

JH:  What is one of your favorite pieces on display?


Dr. Moeck: I like the Joseph Clayton Clark, otherwise known as "Kyd."  It's a picture of Dickens as a wizard dressed in a gown full of stars and moons and holding a wand. He's conjuring up the Ghost of Christmas Present, the famous image that was drawn by John Leech. I like that one because I think, for many people, Dickens is just inextricably attached to Christmas itself.  I teach Dickens, and A Christmas Carol is so easy to teach because everyone knows the story, and students can just focus on the language. Scrooge is so much a part of our cultural baggage that we travel with.  "Kyd" builds on this in this drawing of Dickens as a wizard and so capitalizes on this notion of Dickens having invented our modern celebration of Christmas, which is not true.  But somehow, in popular esteem, Dickens has eclipsed everyone else as the author most intimately attached to Christmas celebration.


JH: Dickens was, of course, a champion of the downtrodden and very much about social justice.  It's ironic that in this election year, those are themes that we are still talking about.  Is Dickens timeless?


Dr. Moeck:  There was an article addressing just this topic by Michael Feingold in the Village Voice of September 5th, and it was saying exactly how Dickens, being the champion of the downtrodden, is timeless.  I'm not so sure as to whether Dickens is timeless so much as economic inequality and oppression are--I think they are the ones that are timeless, and Dickens just tapped into it.


JH:  How else is the library celebrating Dickens's 200th birthday and what has this exhibit meant to you?


Dr. Moeck:  If you go to the library web site and find the page for the Dickens exhibition, you can access that information.  The exhibit is really a tribute to the New York Public Library, as the holdings of this institution are just phenomenal.  This exhibition was four years in research, and I could have filled a much larger space.  The reach of Dickens in every form of artistic interpretation is astounding. 


Additional Photo Credit, mid-page, right:  "Mrs. Gamp proposes a Toast."  In this original watercolor drawing by Phiz illustrating a celebrated scene in chapter 49 of Martin Chuzzlewit.  The New York Public Library, Berg Collection of English and American Literature.