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May
9th, 2012
birth of Charles Dickens
A talk by Mag. Heinrich Payr - 'On Pecksniffery'

Austro-British Society member Mag. Heinrich Payr is a Dickens enthusiast, and a well-read one. This was most evident on the evening of Wednesday 9th May when, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth, he gave a talk to an interested group at the Neue Akropolis : ‘On Pecksniffery’

Heinrich started with a short introduction to Dickens and his life: his early days working in a blacking factory when his family’s fortunes took a dip, his apprenticeship as a freelance reporter and then a political journalist and his increasing fame as a writer and publisher of periodicals, which featured not just his own work but the work of other famous authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell. Many of Dickens’ works were written in instalments to meet publication deadlines for these periodicals and the pressure of meeting these deadlines and a punishing schedule of public readings, in the UK and the United States, probably contributed to his early death at the age of 58. His works continue to be popular and are still studied in schools and universities wherever the English language is learned. He is generally regarded as the greatest English novelist of the Victorian period and his ‘A Christmas Carol’ as one of the most influential works ever written.

Dickens developed great skill as a writer. He also drew attention to the failings of Victorian society, but he was not exactly a social reformer: he exposed social issues but he had no answers for them. He had his faults, for example, there are those that say he never created a convincing heroine, his writing is sometimes loose and he can display a tendency to sickly sentimentalism. Yet he also had many gifts. He drew compelling pictures of the teeming, hectic, filthy metropolis that was Victorian London, and the characters desperately trying to survive there. He is now remembered most for these masterly word pictures, his realism, his comedy and for the memorable characters he created. Who can forget characters such as the genial Mr Pickwick, Miss Havisham, the deserted bride, the Artful Dodger, arch pickpocket, the brutal Bill Sykes, Oliver Twist who had the temerity to ask for more, and the noble Sidney Carton, who took another’s place at the Guillotine, among many others? Dickens’ recent biographer, Claire Tomalin, describes him as the greatest creator of character in the English language after Shakespeare.

Heinrich commented that, in a relatively short talk, he could only scratch the surface of Dickens’ achievements, but his knowledge and enthusiasm certainly impressed those present and may well have encouraged them to read again – or even for the first time – some of Dickens’ great works.

And what of ‘Pecksniffery’? Well, it means unctuous, hypocritical or sanctimonious behaviour and is named after one of Dickens’ great villains from his novel Martin Chuzzlewit: Seth Pecksniff, one of those very memorable characters that only Dickens could create.

Our thanks to Heinrich for an enthralling talk about a great figure of English literature and a peek into Victorian society.

Sandra Milne-Skinner


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