30 September 2011

 The Dickens year started off in London last weekend with a big newsprint bang. On Saturday the 24th the Guardian opened bicentenary celebrations with a picture on the cover of the Review section of Dickens crossing the English Channel (or la Manche if viewed from France) to do his Readings in the 1860s. Inside, the first article, spread across pages 2-4, was a sprightly and loving account by Claire Tomalin of “a very small episode in the life of Dickens,” but one that shows him, and her book, to great advantage: his defense as a juryman of a woman on trial for infanticide. Like Dickens himself, said by “an observant girl” to produce “a sort of brilliance in the room,” Tomalin’s biography promises to bring that generous and troubled spirit to life.

Following were two further full pages devoted to quick reviews of favorite novels by various celebrities: the actor (and forthcoming Dickens biographer) Simon Callow on, not surprisingly, Nicholas Nickleby, the reviewer and biographer D. J. Taylor, a little more surprisingly, on Sketches by Boz, and six others nominating mid-to-late period Dickens. Even more surprisingly, no one mentioned Pickwick or Oliver Twist. On a further page Uriah Heep took honors as one of the ten best “thin men”: in this case, described by “JM” (I’m not inward enough with Fleet Street to know who that is) as having a “life-denying thinness.” I would have said a life-sucking thinness, as Uriah feeds, without gaining physical weight, on the lives around him, notably his employer Mr. Wickfield’s. Starting on Sunday the Guardian launched a podcast of a Dickensian walk through Clerkenwell, and a call for readers to tell the paper about their favorite Dickens novel.

Next day, inserted in the Guardian’s “sister” paper, the Observer (the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper), was a large free “wallchart”—a poster with images by the multi-talented Chris Riddell, children’s book author and illustrator and the Observer’s political cartoonist. To my eye the characters are cleverly drawn but get only at the outward eccentricities of the figures, not the complex inner workings that recent generations have come to discover, both in analyzing Dickens’s writing more carefully and in portraying what earlier generations thought of as “flat” characters supremely in the round. Who, after seeing W. C. Fields impersonate Micawber, could not believe in that optimist’s existence? Or after witnessing John Woodvine as Ralph Nickleby in the RSC production, would ever again suppose Nicholas’s uncle to be cardboard? Or after experiencing Martita Hunt as the fierce, vulnerable, and terribly needy victim of love Miss Havisham in David Lean’s 1946 film of Great Expectations, could imagine her as simply a clotheshorse in a tattered wedding dress? Riddell explains that his rendition of Miss Havisham is his “personal favourite. She’s a gothic monster, frozen in time, sitting in her faded wedding dress with her spider-infested wedding cake.”

Further into the Observer there is a splendid tribute to Helen Mirren (with a spectacular close up of her riveting face), and then three more pages about Claire Tomalin, her life and her forthcoming book, accompanied by a reproduction of the famous photograph of Dickens reading in the Gad’s Hill garden in 1865 to his daughters Mamie and Katie. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear Mirren read, maybe Lizzie Hexham from Our Mutual Friend or Helena Landless from Edwin Drood, both characters with grit!

 Alas, the Charles Dickens Museum is closed for renovation until mid-November, so those prompted by this run-up of publicity to walk to Doughty Street were unable to enter.  I encountered two groups of disappointed visitors.  The first consisted of three ladies from Rome whose children were in camp for a week so they flew to Britain and came to see Signore Dickens’s house. (Pictures from Italy has a lot to answer for, and so do the organizers of the superb conference on Dickens in Italy held in Genoa a few years ago. Silvio Berlusconi may never want to invite a Dickens heroine to his home for an evening, but many of his fellow citizens seem to be interested in going to Dickens’s residence.) Another group, apparently of American students on their first day of a course at Birkbeck College, University of London, were left standing in front of the closed door looking up at three floors of impenetrable windows. I’m thinking of holding some talks at the front of the Doughty Street terrace houses (the Museum is incorporating the one next door for ancillary museum functions so that the whole of number 48 can be restored to the time, 1837-39, when Dickens and his family occupied the premises). There is much to be seen and learned from the outside, as “Boz” knew when he read the hidden lives of occupants living behind the walls of London’s busy, dirty streets.

One needn’t visit any particular place in order to experience Dickens in all his many facets. Ask Michael Slater to dinner, as we did Thursday evening, and enjoy three-and-a-half hours of magnificent repartee, with Michael playing all the parts—of his thesis supervisors, interviewers, hosts during his hugely successful American tour last spring, audiences, and Dickens characters. I dare say that no one alive today commands the expressive range of Dickens’s prose and imagination more fully and joyfully.