Competition launched to find real-life Dickens characters

Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent
Photograph: Lionsgate UK/PA

A charity founded by Charles Dickens has launched a competition to find real modern-day characters who could have provided the basis for one of the author’s classic creations.

Dickens helped to found the Journalists’ Charity in 1864. To mark the 150th anniversary of his death, the charity is asking for written portraits of a modern-day Dickensian character. The subject could be someone in public life, including a politician or and celebrity, or an NHS worker helping to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Entrants have a 300-word limit and are encouraged to take inspiration from Dickens’s prose to bring to life a contemporary figure who could rank alongside Betsey Trotwood, Miss Havisham or Bill Sykes.

Ian Dickens, president of the Dickens Fellowship and the author’s great-great-grandson, said the competition was “full of rich potential and modern-day relevance” because the range of characters that Dickens invented opened the door to all.

“Drawn from acute observation of those he knew and those he chanced upon, they connect with the reader because we all recognise elements within them,” he said. “And such rich pickings continue to place themselves firmly in front of us every day, if we bother to stop, listen and imagine. I can’t wait to meet them.”

The author’s characters, including Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley, were often inspired by people who lived or worked near Dickens, while his villains are still often compared to real-life politicians.

Dickens spent time as a parliamentary reporter during the 1830s, when the reform of the poor laws was being debated, and the influence of his reporting notes from the period can be seen in his second novel, Oliver Twist.

He was among the group who founded the Journalists’ Charity in 1864, which offers assistance to journalists who are struggling financially and presents annual awards for those who demonstrate “an outstanding commitment and contribution to journalism”.

The writing competition is free to enter, although organisers encourage entrants to donate to the charity, which will direct support to journalists in need.

Ramsay Smith, chairman of the Journalists’ Charity, said: “Journalists the world over are doing a brilliant job reporting the coronavirus pandemic, but the reality is that many, particularly freelance journalists, are facing an extremely challenging time.”

All funds will go towards helping journalists who are struggling at a time when newspaper circulation figures are down and freelance work is being cut due to the coronavirus pandemic. The winning entry will be drawn by the veteran cartoonist Stanley McMurtry, who worked for the Daily Mail until 2018.

“This competition provides a great opportunity for people – journalists and non-journalists alike – to put their creative skills to work in these strange times. We hope everyone who holds the works of Dickens dear will take part,” Smith added.

David Copperfield was recently adapted by Armando Iannucci, who used colourblind casting on the production, which starred Dev Patel as Copperfield, Benedict Wong as Mr Wickfield, Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes and Nikki Amuka-Bird as Mrs Steerforth. Iannucci called it “a response to the kind of toxic conversations we’re having in politics at the moment” and antithetical to the image of Britain as a “divided and angst-ridden” country that is constantly “putting up barriers”.

“I wanted to celebrate what I think Britain is, which is something more lively and vibrant and cheery,” he said. “Personally, I’m an optimist.”

The deadline for the competition is 9 June 2020, the 150th anniversary of the author’s death, and rules and examples can be found at journalistscharity.org.uk.

Hard times: modern politicians who got the Dickensian curse

The former chancellor George Osborne delivers his Mansion House speech in 2015. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

George Osborne Mr Micawber (David Copperfield)

The former chancellor earned comparisons to the impecunious clerk after his Mansion House speech in 2015, where he doubled down on his “live within your income” maxim that was also favoured by the character. Three years earlier, the former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Forsyth said the chancellor was aping Micawber by adopting a “something will turn up” attitude toward the economy.

Donald Trump Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol)

After unveiling a plan to slash food stamp benefits for more than half a million unemployed Americans just before Christmas, Trump became the latest in a long line of politicians to be compared to the miserly Scrooge. Paul Krugman of the New York Times noted that by Trump-era standards, “Ebenezer Scrooge was a nice guy”.

Jeremy Corbyn Mrs Jellyby (Bleak House)

The historian David Starkey said Jeremy Corbyn resembled the “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House because of what he called the former Labour leader’s obsession with “obscure causes” into which he “threw himself with dour enthusiasm” at the expense of more immediate concerns.

Dominic Cummings Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities)

Gina Miller read the novel while trying to ignore online trolling, and said that within its pages “you’ll find Dominic Cummings”. Some speculated that she was referring to Sydney Carton, the doomed fixer for the vain, feckless Mr Stryver.

Gavin Williamson Uriah Heep (David Copperfield)

The education secretary earned a brutal comparison with perhaps the ugliest of all Dickens’s villains after what the New Statesman called “ruthless manoeuvring” and repeated promotions despite “having no obvious talent other than ingratiating himself with the exceptionally vain”.