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Dickens' Fans Mark 200th Anniversary of his Birth

  • Dominic Laurie

Tuesday, February 7 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the world's best-loved writers - Charles Dickens. And although his novels depicting the harsh reality of life in 19th century England are from another age, Dickens remains a celebrated figure throughout Britain. Cities across the country are celebrating his life, including the place where he was born.

This is Portsmouth, about 100 kilometers south of London. It's a city with a proud past, one of the main homes of the British Navy.

Tourists come here to see the historic port. But though the cultural heritage is rich, the city is not.

Many people here are on welfare. The navy does not employ as many as it once did. The city's last remaining shipbuilder, providing a livelihood to 1,500 families, is under threat of closure.

But Portsmouth does have one thing it can never lose.

It's where one of Britain's most famous novelists, Charles Dickens, was born on February 7, 1812.

Portsmouth wants to make the most of its famous son.

The final touches are being put on a special exhibit at the city library. The star attraction - the original manuscript of Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens' third novel.

City council member Lee Hunt:

"We're going to get millions more people visiting our city, spending their money here," said Hunt. "Of course, those millions more people are going to arouse a curiosity of local children. Some, only some, who can't read and we hope that this whole celebration encourages them to pick up a Dickens novel and start reading."

Portsmouth may have been the city of Dickens' birth, but it was London where he spent much of his later childhood and adult life. It's locations in this city that spring to mind when you picture scenes or images in his novels. London's poor houses may have gone, but warehouses and old style arcades like these ones here in St. Katherine's dock in the east of the city center will be familiar to readers.

There are many locations central to Dickens' life and novels within just a few minutes' walk of this famous tourist spot.

Christopher West leads Dickens tours around these neighborhoods, taking visitors, for example, to the site of the old Marshalsea Prison on the other side of the river, where Dickens' father was jailed for not paying his debts.

West says Dickens still fascinates his audience.

“He was championing the problems of not enough health care, not enough police, problems in school, problems in parliament, problems in the law, banking in particular," said West. "While we still have these problems - very relevant today.”

Here's West's favorite passage - it's from Great Expectations...

"In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice," quotes West.

Powerful stuff now, as it would have been then. And will be, he says, in another 200 years.