Charles Dickens -- comic crusader
His novels exposed injustice in society and changed the world -- and, says Philip Hensher, laughter was the sharpest of his considerable weapons
It will be Dickens's 200th birthday in February, and to some of us he still seems not just the greatest of all writers in English, but the most intensely alive. There is nothing so rich as his imaginative world, and nothing so full of both minute and colossal energy. It is not an enclosed, artificial world, but a vision which, like the young plaintiff in Bleak House, possessed itself of a real horse and rode away into "the other world", to change everyone's lives for the better.
There are, it sometimes seems, no limits to the creative vision of this greatest of writers: there are more than 150 named or speaking characters in Bleak House alone, every one of them intensely realised and memorable. He will go on forever, when antiquarianism has settled on other writers.
Laughter lay very near the surface of Dickens; it was always on the verge of breaking out, generously, ruthlessly, uncontrollably, as if someone had struck a match near a volatile substance. We are told that, in life, he was always on the point of laughing without restraint at some absurdity, sometimes unable to stop. Once, someone has recorded, he could not stop laughing after an affected young woman at dinner tried to attract her husband's attention by calling out "Darling..." Many accounts survive of his ability to set the company in a roar by seeing the comedy in a situation, of transforming what was a private joke into a public performance.