Charles Dickens was fixated on the idea of celebrity. While we now see him as a well-entrenched fixture of the literary canon, in his own time Dickens was embattled by an intrusive popularity. Accordingly, many of his works dealt humorously, keenly, and empathetically with the causes and consequences of fame.
In the Dickens Studies Annual, scholar Timothy Spurgin examines Dickens’s struggle with celebrity. He quotes David Lodge, who called Dickens the “first writer … to feel the intense pressure of being simultaneously an artist and an object of unrelenting public interest and adulation,” and Juliet John, who backs up Dickens’s “claim … to be called the first self-made global media star of the age of mass culture.”
Examining the presentation of characters in a short sketch and Nicholas Nickleby, Spurgin gleans some insight into Dickens’s differentiation between the lasting fame he was aiming for as a writer—in the great literary canon alongside Shakespare—and celebrity, which he found more hysterical, self-serving and base in nature.
Spurgin writes, “…celebrity is ephemeral and often insubstantial. It tends to fade over time, and it’s not always linked to genuine achievement.” He continues:
Though people can be celebrated for leading armies or writing books, they can also be known for their wealth, their beauty, or their social connections. As a result, there can appear to be an inverse relationship between achievement and celebrity: it sometimes seems that the less you’ve actually accomplished, the more likely you are to attract attention to yourself.
Simultaneously, Dickens appears to have a deep sympathy for those consumed by the pursuit of celebrity, or enmeshed in its trappings if they’ve managed to achieve it. Exploring certain scenes and characters, Spurgin writes, “As Dickens explores these rituals, he reinforces another crucial point: namely, that celebrity culture originates in the peculiar anxieties of the urban middle class.” One particular family in Nicholas Nickleby, the Kenwigses, “may be motivated by practical concerns about money and status, but they are also plagued by deeper feelings of insignificance and worthlessness.”
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Dickens crafts a subtle, but revealing scene, where Mr. Kenwigs is defending another character, and hits upon “a crucial bit of hesitation” when saying he would not allow certain remarks to be made in his presence. “Mr. Kenwigs was going to say ‘house,’ but he rounded the sentence with ‘apartments.’ This is a revealing moment, for it shows how pride in your connection to a rate-collector can immediately give way to embarrassment at the smallness of your lodgings,” writes Spurgin. “If celebrity culture offers itself to Kenwigs as a remedy for insignificance, it only makes him feel worse in the end.”
While Dickens appears to feel disdain for characters who hunger and pursue fame, and delight in finding themselves mentioned even in gossip columns, he also examines the psychological ramifications of fame, acknowledging the subtle social cruelties associated with it.