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 <>.

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!



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.