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.

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