Bicentenary reflections- 12 February 2012

It started early Tuesday morning with a visit by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to the Charles Dickens Museum.  Pictures are up on the website.  But they don’t speak to the preparations.  Director Florian Schweizer, in response to a request from the Prince’s office, sent a few pages about the Museum and what the suggested tour would include. The response he got back said that for these kinds of visits the Prince briefs himself over the weekend, and usually gets 50-60 pages of information to digest. (That much paper on the weekend would give me indigestion—even if it were all written by Dickens!)  So Florian sent off more material, including the lengthy guides to each room that I wrote last fall before we knew exactly what was going where when the electrical renovations were completed.  So far as I know the rooms were enough like the guides to pass muster. To judge from the picture, the birthday cake was an open book—and probably better reading and eating than the briefing papers. Gillian Anderson read to their Royal Highnesses from another, more legible, open book: Great Expectations.

While this was going on in the Museum, many of those invited to the wreathlaying in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey were braving the cold, windy day to get in line for security and seating. We were lucky enough to be placed on the last row of (padded seats—not pews!) the section housed in the south transept.  A bright sun illuminated the great south window throughout the ceremony—Dickens would have liked that, I think, since he noticed and wrote about the “Five Sisters of York” window in York Minster.  Guests entered through the West doors and proceeded into the choir and the crossing, so we were able to see the Mayor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall as they processed from the entrance to the grave. From then on, of course, the actions were obscured by the dense crowd in front of us.

But not the organ and organist, visible atop the choir screen. Robert Quinney opened the ceremony with Mendelssohn’s Sonata in B flat Op 65 no 4 in four movements, and then played a very quiet Lento movement from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony. Following a fanfare, the distinguished guests entered.

Nor were the voices muffled. After a welcome by the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster, Claire Tomalin read from a letter Dickens sent to his sister Fanny, Mrs. Henry Burnett, on 1 March 1844, regaling her with the ovations he received upon delivering a speech in Birmingham: “he delivered the best speech I ever heard him make,” he reported, modestly using the third person. Following on, Mark Charles Dickens, Head of the Dickens Family and President of the International Dickens Fellowship, read from the opening of Dickens’s rendition of the New Testament written for his children: The Life of Our Lord.

Another Dickens descendant, the Right Reverend Michael Dickens Whinney, retired Bishop of Aston and Southwell and current President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, as was Dickens in 1869, chose a passage from Luke 14: 7-14, in which Jesus admonishes his followers to take the lowest place at a feast. Dickens’s own gloss on the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37, synopsizes this parable, “of which the meaning is, that we are never to be proud, or think ourselves very good, before God, but always to be humble.”

But not, of course, ’umble like Uriah.

Next came the “Address” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He’s had a hard time of it in recent years, coping with all the factions within the Anglican Church. But on this morning he delivered a very moving sermon. Speaking simply and from the heart, confessing that he knew Dickens very well and didn’t have to “research” this subject, he meditated on the good and bad characters, the latter living in a hell of their own making. A blogger, Judith Flanders, has a series of amusing tweets about the curly white-haired and bearded Archbishop, “ADORABLE like fluffy new hatched chick.” She managed to tweet key points of the address: Dickens loves the poor not out of duty but out of outrage that their lives were being made dead.  Dickens and the tragic: he knows what hell is like—people who cannot live when their myths of themselves are destroyed. And in conclusion the Archbishop spoke about the tension between Dickens’s happy endings and unbearable suffering, a tension that creates a great art of compassion and mercy. He shows us human beings and their “utterly unreasonable compassion.”

I hope Ms. Flanders will allow my borrowings. Insofar as I could hear and remember, her tweets seem faithful to the sermon. I can’t think of a better example of “utterly unreasonable compassion” than when Aunt Betsey asks Mr. Dick for his advice when the Murdstones want David to return to them: ‘“Have him measured for a suit of clothes directly.” “Mr. Dick,” said my aunt triumphantly, “give me your hand, for your common sense is invaluable.” Having shaken it with great cordiality, she pulled me towards her and said to Mr. Murdstone: “You can go when you like; I’ll take my chance with the boy. If he’s all you say he is, at least I can do as much for him then, as you have done.”’

Ralph Fiennes then read the death of Jo, from Bleak House. And no one protested the denunciation Dickens pens when “The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead! Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.” These words are no less applicable to our world today than to Dickens’s.

The Dean read from The Times report of the burial on 14 June 1870, the Prince of Wales laid down the wreath, the Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist, lead the prayers, the Dean pronounced the Blessing, clergy and guests sang the National Anthem, and the procession moved to the west end of the Abbey while the organist played the Fantasia and Fugue in G Op 188 of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry.

The service was as simple, and as appropriate, and as moving, as Dickens could ever have wished.

20th January 2012

I’ve just finished escorting twelve students from Saarland University and their professor, Dr. Bruno von Lutz, through the Charles Dickens Museum. The University was founded after WW2 by the French government and the University of Nancy. It now offers internationally acclaimed programs in Infomatics, nanotechnology, and biosciences, a bilingual French-German language base, and a unique certificate in European studies. The University has reached out to other higher education institutions around the world at which its students might take classes. For a few years Rice and Saarland exchanged faculty. Dr. von Lutz found out I was here and arranged this visit to the CDM so that we could renew our friendship and possibly arrange further exchanges between Saarland and the UK and the US. Another group of students will be coming over this summer to visit the Birthplace Museum at Portsmouth.

The students seems particularly interested in knowing how Doughty Street functioned: what it was like to live there, to work as a servant or, like Fred Dickens, as a factotum for his brother. They seemed interested in the dinners and entertainments the Dickenses provided for their guests, and in the kinds of work it took to run such a home, with eventually three babies, four adults, a cook, “tweenies,” and a groom in the stables.  They had seen a clip from Downton Abbey and learned about what the servants had to do to get the household up in the morning: rising before sunup, cleaning the fireplaces and restocking the coal, heating up the boiler and the stove, emptying the chamber pots, and so forth—tasks unimaginable today, and involving an intimacy between family and servants that would be difficult to sustain on both sides. They are taking a course on the construction of history (how does it get made, what is the relation between lived experience and the subsequent record, and so forth).  This week in London comes at the end of the course, but it is packed: they came from Lancaster Gate to Doughty Street by 10.00 a.m. this morning, then went off to the British Museum for the afternoon, and were to attend a lecture this evening.  Tomorrow, all day at the V&A.  And to keep fit, they all, including Dr. von Lutz, climbed the 178 stairs of the Russell Square Tube Station.

Next term (beginning in a few weeks) every member of the English faculty will teach a course on Dickens! Whatever the faculty member’s special fields of interest, somehow Dickens will be connected. And as a part of that observance of Dickens 2012, the University will bestow an honorary degree upon a very distinguished Dickensian, Professor Emeritus Edgar Rosenberg of Cornell University.  Dr. Rosenberg escaped from Germany before the war, and had a most illustrious career teaching comparative literature and Dickens. His Norton Critical Edition of Great Expectations is superbly informative on every aspect of the novel’s composition, reception, and subsequent interpretation. He came back to Germany a few years, and was so impressed with what he learned that he reclaimed his German citizenship. He will be another link in the long chain of reparations, one of them forged by Dickens with his portrayal of Riah in Our Mutual Friend, for the treatment of Jews in centuries past, and the synagogues in Saarland will play a key role in celebrating this event.

This is yet another of the unexpected ways in which Dickens continues to affect our lives and bring peoples of the world together.

20th January 2012

I’ve just finished escorting twelve students from Saarland University and their professor, Dr. Bruno von Lutz, through the Charles Dickens Museum. The University was founded after WW2 by the French government and the University of Nancy. It now offers internationally acclaimed programs in Infomatics, nanotechnology, and biosciences, a bilingual French-German language base, and a unique certificate in European studies. The University has reached out to other higher education institutions around the world at which its students might take classes. For a few years Rice and Saarland exchanged faculty. Dr. von Lutz found out I was here and arranged this visit to the CDM so that we could renew our friendship and possibly arrange further exchanges between Saarland and the UK and the US. Another group of students will be coming over this summer to visit the Birthplace Museum at Portsmouth.

The students seems particularly interested in knowing how Doughty Street functioned: what it was like to live there, to work as a servant or, like Fred Dickens, as a factotum for his brother. They seemed interested in the dinners and entertainments the Dickenses provided for their guests, and in the kinds of work it took to run such a home, with eventually three babies, four adults, a cook, “tweenies,” and a groom in the stables.  They had seen a clip from Downton Abbey and learned about what the servants had to do to get the household up in the morning: rising before sunup, cleaning the fireplaces and restocking the coal, heating up the boiler and the stove, emptying the chamber pots, and so forth—tasks unimaginable today, and involving an intimacy between family and servants that would be difficult to sustain on both sides. They are taking a course on the construction of history (how does it get made, what is the relation between lived experience and the subsequent record, and so forth).  This week in London comes at the end of the course, but it is packed: they came from Lancaster Gate to Doughty Street by 10.00 a.m. this morning, then went off to the British Museum for the afternoon, and were to attend a lecture this evening.  Tomorrow, all day at the V&A.  And to keep fit, they all, including Dr. von Lutz, climbed the 178 stairs of the Russell Square Tube Station.

Next term (beginning in a few weeks) every member of the English faculty will teach a course on Dickens! Whatever the faculty member’s special fields of interest, somehow Dickens will be connected. And as a part of that observance of Dickens 2012, the University will bestow an honorary degree upon a very distinguished Dickensian, Professor Emeritus Edgar Rosenberg of Cornell University.  Dr. Rosenberg escaped from Germany before the war, and had a most illustrious career teaching comparative literature and Dickens. His Norton Critical Edition of Great Expectations is superbly informative on every aspect of the novel’s composition, reception, and subsequent interpretation. He came back to Germany a few years, and was so impressed with what he learned that he reclaimed his German citizenship. He will be another link in the long chain of reparations, one of them forged by Dickens with his portrayal of Riah in Our Mutual Friend, for the treatment of Jews in centuries past, and the synagogues in Saarland will play a key role in celebrating this event.

This is yet another of the unexpected ways in which Dickens continues to affect our lives and bring peoples of the world together.

5 January 2012

Has anyone recovered from the Christmas season yet? Those most deserving of a rest are the staff of the CD Museum, who kept open house Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. Living near-by, I can testify that the Museum was the only facility open within a radius of at least a mile. And the crowds came! By late Christmas Eve afternoon we were already out of mince pies, with two days to go. So we went up to Waitrose in the Brunswick Shopping Center and bought 284 more—which were gone by the following afternoon! Michael Slater read for ten minutes each hour from the Carol, giving great pleasure to a standing-room only audience (and a few minutes for those downstairs to tidy up before the next rush).  This year Christmas Eve was particularly busy; I don’t know if the Tube strike on Boxing Day discouraged some families from ­­­­­­­exploring bus routes to Doughty Street. All in all, the Museum was richly decorated with seasonal ornamentations, the staff was friendly and attentive, the shop stayed busy, and our guests seemed to have a good time. Surely Dickens was cheering.

He would have cheered the next day, when I went to the Hackney Empire Theatre to see my first-ever pantomime, Cinderella. The theatre, built in 1901, is a confection of plaster foliage, gilded figures, scarlet seats and curtains, a night-sky dome, private box seats, balconies and dress circle, all emitting the sensation that one has entered the most glamorous and exciting world imaginable: a little like the early cinemas, at least in the US, that were decorated in exotic styles such as the Orientalist Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood or its rival just down Hollywood Boulevard, the Pantages Egyptian Theater. (I lived just a few blocks away and spent every Saturday from 10 to 6 “at the movies.”) Panto combines every kind of theater presentation, from musical to Strictly Come Dancing, from minstrelsy to opera, with talking animals and cross-dressed ugly sisters (and they were ugly!!!), and a gorgeous wicked step-mother who understood audience boos as tributes, because she is so boo-tiful.  You all know more about this than I did—but Dickens knew the panto of his era, and, like his art, it’s a theater that appeals to all ages and understandings. It also requires audience participation, just like his novels.

I don’t think he would have cheered the BBC production of Great Expectations, however. No one I’ve spoken with thought it rivaled the best previous film, by David Lean. Gillian Anderson is lovely and a restrained actress whose Lady Dedlock was the best ever, but this film gave her too many rooms to wander in, too much makeup (she seemed to be caked in white face powder by the end), and subjected her to deliberate self-immolation. The plot was like that—event after event not quite as in the book, as if Dickens on his own could never bring anything off right. Michael Slater reminded an audience at Goodenough House last autumn that the novel is one of Dickens’s funniest. Tim Lott makes similar points in The Independent on Friday, December 30th (p. 15). The Christmas Day dinner at the forge is a brilliant concoction of persecution, Swiftian satire, and terror, but this version drained it of complexity. All through the production there were little things that just didn’t make sense to change: Pip steals a single slice of pie instead of the whole thing, when it isn’t plausible to suppose Mrs. Joe would miss the slice more than the whole, or that Magwitch had entered the forge, found a knife, cut himself a slender wedge (he’s starving), washed the knife?, and slipped out.

David Suchet was as usual powerful. He for one wasn’t cast according to his body. Others such as Pumblechook were almost caricatures because of their somatotyping, but Suchet expressed Jaggers’s commanding personality through his voice and gaze. But again, a small, unnecessary change: why was Molly depicted as “free to go,” more like a mistress than the household drudge saved from execution but permanently incarcerated in Little Britain? Wemmick seemed a credible character, but without Walworth he carried too many personal sentiments back to the office. Orlick, often more or less written out, was one of the good additions: he would indeed have been jealous of Pip, angry at Mrs. Joe, and unable to govern his violence, and that character stayed with him and influenced the film creditably.

But what was the butterfly logo? The novel is a story about growing up, so maybe Pip could be said to turn from a grub into a jeweled flighty creature, but in the third installment the butterfly that opens the drama turns black. Does Pip turn black, or blacksmith? Or is the butterfly his dreams? But they were nurtured by others, as well as himself. So while Miss Havisham and Magwitch die, this version of the ending consummates Pip’s dream. Or are we to think that the match made in Satis House forecourt is another black choice?

Any reader who saw the serial is invited to weigh in. This was an expensive, primetime production enlisting a lot of resources and talent. It will be interesting to hear what moved the audience, what was disconcerting, what you thought were its merits and its achievement relative to other Dickens filmic adaptations you have seen, and to the matchless original.

I didn’t see any part of the mash-up of The Old Curiosity Shop with Bleak House. But there have been few reviews, and word-of-mouth wasn’t very positive. Anybody out there have an opinion? I’ve heard more favorable comments about Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas. Sue Perkins’ documentary may be old news to those who have followed Catherine’s rehabilitation over the past several decades. Yet even after Lillian Nayder’s full-bore defense, Dickens’s wife sticks in many minds as he unfairly characterized her: lethargic, fat, uninteresting. She was a loving wife and mother, and even a more remarkable cook than previous gastronomes would credit. Reading an unexpurgated copy of Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management would dispel any modern notion that the way to prepare a dinner is to go to Waitrose and buy ready-made dishes to be heated in a microwave. In the Victorian period running a house was a full-time occupation that required great judgment, skill, and personnel management; having babies and parties on a Dickensian scale must have been challenging and at times exhausting.

In the Guardian’s New Year’s Eve Review section John Mullan, Professor of English at UCL, reports on Claire Tomalin’s deft fielding of questions from the members of the Guardian Book Club. Many wondered about the relation between Dickens’s own love life and his portrayal of eligible young women. His young wives, such as Scrooge’s nephew’s wife, often seem to be delectable morsels to older male observers, who enthuse about the “ripe little mouth, that seemed made to be kissed.” “Not very nice,” Tomalin quipped.

And so we go on, trying to understand whether Dickens really is a world author, or a British one, or just an English one, and pretty old fashioned and wordy at that.  If nothing else, Dickens 2012 is asking again and again what makes Dickens special, and how might his specialness relate to our age. For my money one of the best responses of the Christmas season was “What larks! My father, Dickens, and me,” by the former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen (Guardian, 2 January 2012). Rosen has a combination of convictions that would appeal to Dickens: he’s a champion of education, of the child’s imagination, of humane distribution of the world’s goods, and of sympathy for outcasts and aliens. His experiences as a child hearing his father perform the characters in Great Expectations taught him that “when books leave the page and become spoken out loud in a room full of people . . . they become live and vivid, but they also become social, they end up belonging to everyone in the room.” That’s as good an explanation as anyone’s come up with for Dickens’s popularity, then and now.

Christmas post

School’s out!  Holiday reading suggestions . . .

The 10.12.2011 Guardian Review credits Dickens with one of the top ten governesses in fiction: Miss Wade in Little Dorrit! “Best” in this case means “one of the most enigmatic.”

The Guardian, as others have pointed out, cares so much about independent bookstores it issues a special color supplement listing and describing all those in the British isles, and yet its own Bookshop sells at a steep discount from retail price.  Last week Claire Tomalin’s widely-praised biography, normally £30, was on sale in the Bookshop for £21, and was their 6th bestseller.

The Folio Society is offering four of its “much-loved” editions for Christmas. One of these is Great Expectations with illustrations by Marcus Stone and an introduction by D. J. Taylor. No price is mentioned. Enquire at <guardian.co.uk/foliosociety>.

Michael Slater has pointed out to me that The Times on December 3 suggested Dickensians should revisit the 19th century newspaper for columns that may have been written by Dickens (Ben Macintyre, “Dickens and The Times,” pp. 10-11) or might have influenced him (Ben Macintyre, “Was Oliver Twist a child of The Times?,” p. 4).

Film3Sixty magazine, distributed by the Guardian and the Observer, runs a column in the 2 December issue mentioning some of the films that will come out shortly: “Charles Dickens: A Creator of the Language of Cinema.” Those releases include a BBC three-parter of Great Expectations, another version of the novel being directed by Mike Newell, starring Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter, and scheduled for release next year, and a huge retrospective of Dickens films screened at the British Film Institute from December to March 2012, kicked off with the BBC documentary from Arena: Dickens on Film.

The Times for 3 December (Slater again) carries a whole round-up of Dickens books (pp. 14-15) briskly characterized by Andrew Billen: a lushly illuminated and smartly abridged edition of John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens, edited by Holly Furneaux, described as “a work of passion and scholarship”; Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life—“judicious and brilliant”; Mirian Magolyes’s Dickens’ Women, in which the great actress admits “she cannot forgive [Dickens] for his treatment of his wife”; Jenny Hartley’s “invaluable” Selected Letters of Charles Dickens, which includes Dickens’s explanation of his marital separation to Angela Burdett Coutts at “the lowest point” in his life; a new edition of Dickens’s Life of Our Lord; Charles Dickens (titles of books aren’t copyrightable), “a delightful jackdaw folder for grown-ups” by Lucinda Dickens Hawksley; a reproduction of The Manuscript of Great Expectations, housed at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum; Slater’s The Genius of Dickens, essays that range widely over Dickens’s fiction, journalism, letters, and speeches; a volume thickly illustrated by photographs of Dickens’s Victorian London, edited by Alex Werner, Head of History Collections at the Museum of London and Tony Williams, pictures “less vivid than Dickens’ prose” for Billen but for me, quite magnificently evocative even though nothing may compete with Dickens’s rhetoric at its best; and Quentin Blake’s “pale illustrations” to yet another edition of A Christmas Carol.

This hardly scratches the surface of Dickensian Christmas. Simon Callow continues his one-man performance of A Christmas Carol into the new year, and at the theater you can also purchase the paperback of his 2003 Dickens’ Christmas: A Victorian Celebration. If you go to see Martin Scorcese’s film Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you’ll encounter many Dickensian characters and clever twists as the hero and his side-kick Isabelle tour the lost world of silent movies, many of which were inspired by Dickens’s writing. (Hugo may be just on the cusp of something big: Michel Hazanavicius’s black-and-white silent film The Artist pays tribute to all the original melodramatic filmmakers, such as Erich Von Stroheim, Fritz Lang, and King Vidor. It was snapped up by Harvey Weinstein for release in the USA, signaling a run for an Oscar.) The many pantomimes staged at this time of the year bring back some of the theatrical conventions and magic Dickens enjoyed as a boy. And if you stay at home, dial up an interactive novel/app launched last week by the Museum of London, that according to Philip Baillie “is the next best thing to having your own time machine.”  The episodes will be published monthly during the Museum of London’s Dickens exhibition: look for “Dickens: Dark London.”

And don’t miss the British Library’s exhibit exploring Dickens’s interest in the immaterial: “Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural” will run until 4 March in the Folio Society Gallery. For Dickens, ghosts were always a feature of the Twelve Days of Christmas. There are supplements to the exhibit on the Library’s learning website, including a lecture on Dickens and the Gothic by Professor John Bowen, and videos of performances by Simon Callow, whose own biography of Dickens will be out next spring.

Any one of these treats may be accompanied by one of Catherine’s dinner recipes, on sale at the Charles Dickens Museum, and by one of Dickens’s many hot compounds of spirits, fruit, and sugar—though I still haven’t heard further about “his favourite” potation, the Rocky Mountain Sneezer, which was served at the reading of The Chimes on 2 December. It sounds as if it would make bells ring in my head for days.

Well, these are just some of the items brought to my attention this season, and I make no claim for having discovered all the riches in stores. For an American even this list is amazing. If I’d lived here all my life and my children and grandchildren knew about these delectable “collectables,” I’d be broke and living in very crowded quarters!

Merry Christmas!

Bob

5 December 2011

Last weekend, back to back parties and readings in canonical Dickens locations.

First, on Friday, 2 December, the anniversary of the evening in 1844 when Dickens read to a gallery of his closest friends his just-completed Christmas story, The Chimes, the current occupants of that Lincoln’s Inn Fields room adjacent to John Forster’s study opened their doors and hearts to a crowd of children, adults, barristers, staff, and lucky guests. Garden Court Chambers occupies two buildings (each once two multi-story residences) on the west side of the square; some of the rooms were redecorated when one of the houses was turned into two and the other turned from two into one—the neighboring architect Sir John Soane being the architect of the remodeling. Now all four are one. The room where Dickens read, shown in Daniel Maclise’s famous drawing of a haloed Dickens sitting in front of the fireplace in the middle of a long table around which his friends are gathered (and identified, usefully, by the artist), is now the practice’s accounts office, so the long table has been elongated and computer monitors line both sides. But the cornice boasts Soane’s characteristic plaster ostrich feathers which must have been there in Dickens’s time, and the fireplace surround is just as it was in 1844.

After imbibing welcoming drinks, cold and hot, guests were invited into the Drawing Room entirely lit by wax candles burning in chandeliers and on table tops. It was magical to see this high, generously proportioned room with tall windows looking out into the nightscape of the park, illuminated as it would have been in the Victorian era, before interior gas. The reading of The Chimes was cut to an hour and a quarter (Dickens’s reading of the whole must have lasted several hours and many bottles). This was an entirely “amateur” effort by members of the Chambers. So far as I know, they did not refer to Dickens’s reading edition. But they did acknowledge in their extract what G. K. Chesterton has termed Dickens’s “war cry” against magistrates as well as politicians, economists, and social commentators promoting the view that the poor are “born bad.” (Edward Bulwer Lytton had commenced his novelistic career in the early 1830s with two stories arguing that circumstances, not innate temperament, produce crime; and in The Chimes Dickens seems to show that same conviction, but blames the demoralizing circumstances, in Carlylean fashion, on an uncaring governing class.)

It was all the more wonderful, therefore, to have as the two readers barrister David Watkinson, an ardent advocate for the dispossessed including travelers, and former member of Chambers His Honour Judge Owen Davies QC. They ping-ponged the reading between them, tracking first the wind sweeping through the tower of the chimes, then Trotty Veck overhearing officials declare the badness of the lower classes, then Trotty answering the goblin call of the chimes, seeing the ruin of future lives and his own death at the bottom of the tower, and waking at last to a wedding day and the joy of his own family and friends. Afterwards we adjourned for “light refreshments,” including home made miniature mince pies beautifully composed and decorated, and Dickens’s “favourite hot toddy,” “The Rocky Mountain Sneezer,” which one toper proclaimed was a bit sour. I’ve never heard of it, and quailed to try it, perhaps because my home is right at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and I know they can be very rough going.

The event was a fund-raiser by Garden Court Chambers for the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Open House, held every year in mid-September. Dickensians, “when found, take a note of”: these Grade I listed buildings are open during one weekend each year. A fact-sheet about them can be found by Googling “Garden Court Chambers.” (See how a “Resident Scholar” labors at his homework!) The enthusiasm of the audience and the glowing pleasure of the participants augurs well for a repeat ringing of the Chimes next season.

The following evening those with appetites for “more” (I begin to think Oliver greedy) adjourned to The George Inn in the Borough, where Chair Peter Duggan convened a festive Dickens Fellowship Christmas Supper. The menu consisted of game terrine with onion relish and toast fingers, a hearty venison Wellington accompanied by roasted potatoes and parsnips, seasonal vegetables, and gravy, and a delicious Christmas pudding with brandy. That wasn’t all, by no means! Generous guests bought a whole cellar of wines, and from the looks of the last drops in the last bottle, there was, in the words of the Carol, a “sufficient” potation for the whole family. And more: a Spirit of Christmas Present cornucopia of gifts were raffled off. The Cratchit spirit must have been actively working too; not one winner was willing to go for a second prize if his or her number came up in a further drawing. Scrooge must have been there as well, for I don’t think a single guest went home without a present. And more still: Michael Slater favored us all with his inimitable reading of bits of the Carol, performed by a dozen different characters whose sounds and accents created for our imagination the embodiment of every speaker, from Scrooge’s angry rasp to the second-hand dealer with the whispery voice who buys the deceased Scrooge’s bed linen. He will read at the Charles Dickens Museum on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day—an event that always sells out.

20th November 2011

Two important events in the last couple of weeks

First, the Charles Dickens Museum has reopened!  Monday, 7 November, was the tentative target date for completing all the electrical retrofitting, some painting, and restoring the rooms to their accustomed state.  Most significant, this renovation opened a door between 48 and 49, so that now visitors will enter at Number 49, going directly into the shop for tickets and souvenirs—the room corresponding to the dining room in 48—and then pass into the front hall of 48 and begin the tour of Dickens’s house as usual.  Much better security now, an immediate opportunity to acquaint visitors with the Museum’s treasures, and a straightforward approach to the Dickens rooms, without visitors having first to go all the way to the café for tickets and then retrace their steps to begin the tour.

During the renovation the Director made sure the processes were documented on film. Our first day saw a scheduled group arrive promptly in the morning, when things were still just a bit unsettled, even though the staff and workmen had spent the entire weekend setting things to rights. But by the second day the last display cases had been filled and the last picture hung. The drawing room in particular looked festive and welcoming in the late autumn sunlight.

I have written guides to the rooms, trying to give visitors an impression of the life that went on inside as well as the themes each room incorporates and the precious objects that our curator Fiona Jenkins cares for so well. The narratives are a bit too long. We’ll try them out for a while, adjust them according to feedback, and eventually laminate new and improved versions that can be picked up and read as people enter the six principal rooms. Eventually the Museum hopes to make audio recordings as an alternative accompaniment for our visitors.

The Museum will be open Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day, celebrating the past Christmases when the young Dickens family was so happy to be in such a splendid new home, and the present one when we can welcome so many Dickensians. I very much look forward to imbibing some mysterious mixture compounded according to a family recipe to cure troublesome coughs and brighten the cheeks. We anticipate large numbers of visitors, so please book now.

The other special event was the first meeting of the Headquarters branch of the Fellowship in the Churchill room of Goodenough College. A warm, paneled chamber with portraits not only of Sir Winston but also of the queen and several other eminent statespersons provided a comfortable, indeed elegant setting. The Dean of the College, Roger Llewellyn, welcomed us, and then got around to doing what a Dean does best: scrambling around in a closet to find more chairs, as we had a standing-room only audience.

Understandably, since Michael Slater has just returned from his second trip to the Morgan Library in New York, a trip that according to the newspapers and reports from American Fellowship members was as sold out as any of Dickens’s Readings. Michael gave a wonderful talk on a most unexpected subject: Great Expectations as Dickens’s comic masterpiece.  That’s right!  By the time he had gone through the various kinds of comedy the novel celebrates, from the Jonsonian humours characters of the greedy Havisham relatives to the good-natured lessons Pip learns from Herbert about peas and knives and other things, to Joe’s gentle nurture and nursing and apologies for “Tickler,” the audience rendered hearty if surprised agreement.  I am ready to admit that Hamlet, as performed by the illustrious company headed by Mr. Wopsle and produced with the lavish sets and costumes, especially hosiery, that signify the Danish court, is indeed Shakespeare’s own triumph in farce.

Michael was warmly applauded, and Joan Dicks should also have received a round of thanks for another successful meeting, in a setting that I feel sure the Fellowship will want to return to in the future.