This is it then. The big day. The bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, one of the key dates in a year of celebrations that will no doubt include much sentimental silliness - and Dickens would have no objection at all to that.
Dickens's works - or some essence of them - have penetrated deeper into the national consciousness than anyone's except Shakespeare's. This despite the fact that - as with Shakespeare - the actual works are less and less read (though Shakespeare's are staged probably more than ever). It will be a good thing if the bicentenary encourages people to actually read Dickens's novels; I suspect they might be shocked by what they find. They are big baggy monsters, dense, complex, resistant and fricative. They are also, almost all of them, deeply flawed - by wild implausibilities, sickly sentimentality, preachy rhetoric, feebly conceived heroes and heroines, a compulsive urge to achieve a Happy Ending... But none of this matters, because the sheer imaginative power of Dickens in full flow disarms all criticism. The force of his characterisation - not only of people but of landscapes, even inanimate objects - and the vitality and abundance of his comedy are such that they carry all before them. It is very sad that most children who come through the state school system have only read Hard Times, one of the least satisfactory of his works, selected largely - one suspects - for its relative brevity and its easily deconstructed 'message'. Dickens - essentially a comic writer - was at his weakest when he ventured into the world of 'ideas', as he does in Hard Times. His world was entirely concrete and intensely, wonderfully, often grotesquely real. It is worth rediscovering in this bicentenary year.