I began to read Charles Dickens two or three years after high school. I was out of school then without any great expectations. I found myself roaming the streets of Manila with no particular direction, no sense of a future and subsisted, during these wanderings, on water and ten-peso-or-so bread.
I came to the capital city to look for my mother and get a university education on my own. I was raised by my grandparents in the province my entire life and I wanted to remove from them the further burden of my concerns.
I found my mother and this prevented me from probably living a hobo’s life. My mother could not afford to send me to college but she gave me a place, left to her for tending, to go home to at night.
The place was in a remote, depressed and almost rural part in Antipolo. My room had a big window which not only ventilated the place but gave me a view, at night, of the lights in the lower parts of the city. No neighbors could be seen from my room. There was only an open and empty space right before a sharp drop down to the foot of the hill, on which side the house was.
I had a good bed (rattan framed by solid wood), a rusty but working study lamp, a cassette tape of Chopin’s best compositions and a cassette tape player. With this orchestra, I met Dickens and his characters almost every night, and it began with “David Copperfield.”
Reading it was like conversing with a comrade from across time and continents. It was a relief for me to know that I was not the first young person to find oneself in a dire spot. If I felt particularly persecuted at least I was in the company of David, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Little Nell, Toots, Pip and a band of characters with such reeking personalities.
Dickens understood poverty with an understanding that escaped me until then. He understood not merely the substratum but, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, “even the subconsciousness of the substratum.”
Dickens had been poor himself. Early in his life his entire family was in jail because of the unpaid debts of his father. If you read “David Copperfield,” you will encounter a part of his father in the perennially-in-debt-but-always-brimming-with-possibly-profitable-plans Wilkins Micawber.
Dickens was uneducated and he worked as a child laborer in a shoe-blacking factory. He worked there, according to Chesterton, “drearily, like one stunned with disappointment.”
It is unfortunate that Dickens is not much read in our country and not one of his works is translated into Filipino or other languages. We could find so much of ourselves in Dickens’s characters and world.
Dickens seemed to have written about the experience of the common Filipino. He seemed to describe in his novels the streets of our cities and the experience of our people. For although it was an empire where the sun never set, Victorian England was a developing country during Dickens’s time much like the Philippines now, where the sun always regally sets.
Dickens had one particular penchant which irked Chesterton, his best critic according to Harold Bloom, but which any Filipino would readily understand. To resolve the perennial problems of Wilkins Micawber, Dickens shipped him to Australia where the character met with much success and even became the governor of one area. Pip’s great expectation came from somebody who made fortunes abroad, impossible to do in his own country. When he was stuck in writing “Martin Chuzzlewit,” Dickens moved the setting of the story from England to America.
Dickens, like many Filipinos, understood that to be poor in a particular place may have something more to do with the place and what is there in that place than with one’s efforts; salvation could lie elsewhere.
But it is not only because of what Dickens says about poverty, the poor and about the Filipino that we must read him. It is what he does to us after reading him.
Roque, my octogenarian Jesuit friend, pointed this out to me when I asked him why he found Dickens good to read. Roque got his realization from Chesterton.
Dickens sharpens the way we look at a person; when he presents a character in his novels, however despicable the character, we are made not only to love but reverence the character. “Without denying one of the dreary details which makes us avoid the man,” says Chesterton, “Dickens makes him a man whom we long to meet. He does not gloss over one of his dismal deficiencies, but he makes them seem suddenly like violent virtues that we go to the world’s end to see.”
And we, who meet such characters after every reading, could no longer be induced to pass any person by—especially those we do not find at society dinners and in places of power and opulence. We could no longer be induced to pass persons stranded here and there, persons of unknown and unsuccessful positions, persons adrift, for we have already discovered (Chesterton again) “the great paradox of all spiritual things; that the inside is always larger than the outside.”
Dickens to British readers may be talking of an old world they can no longer find traces of except in historical monuments. But his world and his band of characters have already moved to our city streets for, yes, it is more fun in the Philippines.
I hope we do not pass any of Dickens’ characters by before the end of the first of his next two hundred years (a milestone which begins Feb. 7), or we simply will pass ourselves by, too.
Roberto S. Salva is the executive director of the Catholic Ministry to Deaf People Inc. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org