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.

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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.