A few days ago I was talking books with a reasonably educated and definitely adult acquaintance – and, on saying that I’ve read a good deal of Dickens through the years, I earned a raised eyebrow and this question: but isn’t Dickens a children’s author?
Right then I raised an eyebrow in turn – but I have to admit that my acquaintance had reasons to think so. Very Italian reasons that have little to do with the audience Dickens wrote for…
You see, to the average Italian reader Dickens is not the literary giant he is to the English-speaking world. He is, mostly, the author of Oliver Twist. And never mind that Oliver Twist is the so-and-so work of a promising by still green writer, while A Tale of Two Cities is a much more mature and polished work: in Italy everyone knows and many have read Oliver Twist, while AToTC is, generally speaking, a quote in a schoolbook at best.
This is because Italian publishers have decided, at some point in the past, that OT is a classic for children – so much so that almost no year goes by without some new heavily abridged edition, with or without some kind of teacher’s guide. I remember counting some twenty new translations between 2000 and 2012 (without counting quite a few re-issues of old ones), against one edition of A Tale of Two Cities over the same period.
See what I mean? No wonder that Dickens is generally perceived as a children’s author here, when most Italians only know him through slices of Oliver Twist, and perhaps some similarly treated bits of David Copperfield, and some film version of A Christmas Carol – and never bother to read more when they grow up, because he’s a children’s author…* Oh – and I remember finding in my school’s library an abridged and sugarily illustrated Little Dorrit, too. Who ever thought that such a grim, bleak tale should make good reading for middle graders, I can’t imagine. I guess it was because a book titled “Little XY” must of necessity be children’s fare?
Then again, through the years, I’ve also seen an unabridged Moby Dick for children, and even Conrad’s Lord Jim – recommended minimum age from 10 up – so I truly have to wonder: what are Italian children’s publishers thinking? How many potential readers have they deprived of the pleasure of really reading Dickens? Or Stevenson? Or Conrad? Or Melville – or any other writer unwisely labeled as kid’s stuff?
* Unless they read English Literature at the university, or they develop a specific interest in the author, of course – but that makes for a narrow slice of the population.