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.