A December full of Dickens

Dear Charlie,

Merry Christmas, my dear friend! The last couple of months have been weirdly (but in a good way) full of Dickens-related things and I thought I would share my joy with you.


Eating babies since 2014

Firstly, eighteen months after it began, the Twitter-happy group reading of Our Mutual Friend came to an end in November (if you’re interested, you can read the tweets in a cohesive Storify narrative for each installment). I mentioned in an earlier post that I was tweeting as one of the characters, and I can now reveal that I was/am @omf_dustygator, the taxidermy alligator residing in Mr. Venus’ shop.

The months have flown by, and I had such a great time constructing my fictional alter-ego, so you can imagine how pleased I was to be asked to contribute an article about my experience to “19,” Birkbeck’s online journal. Lest I be tempted to reiterate all I said there, you can read the whole article (and equally fascinating articles by some of the other characters) at 19’s website. And because I was given an official citation to share, I’ll copy it out verbatim here, cuz it looks all fancy ‘n academic ‘n stuff:

Symanczyk, M. (2015). Reflections of a Sawdust-Filled, Six-Foot, Tweeting, Taxidermy Alligator. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 21, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.16995/ntn.749

And as far as titles for scholarly articles go, you gotta admit that it’s pretty awesome.


An unexpected Christmas treat!

The second cool Dickens-y thing that happened was receiving a Christmas present from my Aunt, who lives in Malvern. Not only did she send me a wonderful edition of “The Pickwick Papers” from the 1930s, but she also included a fascinating booklet called “Charles Dickens at Malvern,” by Elini Odescalchi, detailing your travels to and from Malvern in 1851.

I learned that you had made arrangements for your wife to stay there to take advantage of a Dr. Wilson’s “hydropathic establishment” after an illness following the birth of your ninth child. After nine children I don’t doubt that poor Catherine needed a vacation! Apparently she stayed in one “Knotsford Lodge” which is now part of the gorgeous Abbey Hotel. I wish I’d known that you had such a personal connection to Malvern when I visited last year, but I will definitely take this little booklet with me when I visit next and refer to the last section in particular, which details which local buildings would have existed in 1851. I sense a perambulation of my own in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

And finally, I have to mention the premiere of a television show I’ve been anticipating since I first heard about it. I’ve seen the first two episodes of BBC One’s“Dickensian” and I must admit that I’m a little bit in love.



One thing I always lamented in your works (with the exception of Master Humphrey’s Clock) was the lack of character crossover between novels. And here is a show that basically tossed everyone into a big hat to be drawn out at random and pushed on stage. I’m curious to know what someone with only a passing familiarity with your works would make of it, because the things that warm my heart the most have very little to do with the actual plot. The first episode was spent half in a perpetual state of fangirl squee watching familiar character after familiar character make their entrances, and half in a kind of brain-vibrating, game-show excitement trying to identify the novels from which the characters were plucked and which shop signs were nods to other novels (I suspect that all of them are: I noted with glee a sign that said “Pecksniff’s” something or other, for instance).

I am more than willing to forego analysis of chronology and potential anachronisms if it means Sam Weller and the future Mrs. Dedlock get to converse (for the record, I will be deeply disappointed if none of Pickwick’s posse have speaking roles – they’ve been mentioned in passing but we didn’t get to meet any of them). If there’s anything lacking here it’s a bit of your irrepressible humour, and who better to bring in some of that merriment than Pickwick & co.?

Mr. Venus in BBC's "Dickensian"

Mr. Venus in BBC’s “Dickensian”

But I love that Inspector Bucket is investigating Jacob Marley’s death. I love that his assistant is none other than Mr. Venus (have I mentioned that I feel a strong bond with Mr. V. due to my stint as his alligator?). I love that Mr. Venus is absolutely nothing like I pictured him but that the casting still absolutely works. I love that there are already two characters from Our Mutual Friend on the scene. I love that they’ve taken pains to at least attempt a bit of diversity in the casting and how that makes me want to reexamine the original plotlines in light of those choices. I love that characters like Lady Dedlock and Miss Havisham get some backstory to flesh out their characters (and I love that they’re friends!). I love that there are another 18 episodes to enjoy. This show makes me so, so happy.

And on that note, my friend, I shall wish you the best of the season and a New Year full of Dickens-related topics to discuss.

Your friend,


Entering the ‘mystic circle’

Dear Charlie,

Merry Christmas, my dear friend! I hope you had a lovely and very festive holiday. As well as eating too much turkey and stuffing with family and enjoying some time off from work, my holiday season was made extra festive by the arrival of three envelopes, two of which had 46 Doughty Street as the return address. Is it weird to get so excited about the address of a house where an author who’s been dead for over a century lived once? Probably.

I don’t care. I was excited.

The first of these missives was a bunch of papers welcoming me to The Dickens Fellowship, first founded in 1902 and still going strong (they’re also on Twitter at @DickensFellowHQ). I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to join. The blue membership card lists the events scheduled for 2015. It warms my heart to read about all the fun things that your followers can participate in, even if (being thousands of miles away from any of the venues) it’s highly doubtful whether I’ll be able to attend any of them (I, like you I imagine, will have to attend in spirit). Also, if I want to spend thousands of dollars to return to London, I’ll be able to get into the Dickens Museum for free! 😀


Look at all these pre-Christmas goodies!!

The envelope also contained a copy of the latest newsletter, the “London Particular” and a lovely little geranium flower pin, which has already been mistaken once for a very tiny Remembrance Day poppy. I was annoyed, but in retrospect I can use any further enquiries into why I’m wearing a poppy when it’s not November to put on my Dickens proselytization (is that a word?) hat and give the unwary questioner a wide-eyed explanation of why you’re so amazing and why they should become a member of Charlie’s Army. I’ll let you know how many new recruits I can muster (or how quickly the pin gets stolen as a result).


Winter 2014

The second envelope, which arrived just before Christmas, was a copy of “The Dickensian,” the Fellowship’s journal, published three times a year. And here’s where I admit that I had kind of an ulterior movie for joining the fellowship when I did: I discovered at the Dickens Day conference in the fall that the journal contains summaries of Dickens-related conferences. Since I am a sucker for seeing my name in print, it behooved me to join in time to receive this issue.

But personal vanity aside, the journal itself is fantastic – full of a broad range of articles, book and television reviews, conference reports, the doings of the many “branch lines” and other news. I also found out that as of January 2015, “The Dickensian” celebrates 110 years of unbroken publication devoted to a single author. That’s pretty damn impressive, and I’m so happy to be a small part of that tradition now.


Eeee! My name! In print!! 😀

The third envelope was from my aunt in Victoria, who sent me a reprinted newspaper article that fist appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on May 28, 1938. The timing could not have been more serendipitous. It was written by one Nellie McClung, who’s rather famous in these parts as a Canadian feminist, suffragist, author, a member of the “Famous Five” (the Canadian ones, not the Enid Blyton ones) and Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta from 1921 to 1926 (she was also all into eugenics and forced sterilization, which is decidedly not awesome).

Anyway, I felt an instant kinship with her upon reading the first sentence of her article:


Nellie McClung. Mostly a very cool woman.

I joined the Dickens Fellowship recently, and paid the modest fee they required of their members, feeling all the time that I should pay arrears, for I have been one of the mystic circle for many years.

She goes on to recount her “initiation,” a public reading of A Christmas Carol in its entirety, given at the Orange Hall in the middle of a blizzard in Mantiou, Manitoba on Christmas Eve, 1908. By the end of the lengthy reading in the drafty hall, Nellie, her daughter and the reader were the only people left, and she remarks that, “since then we have considered ourselves in good standing of the fellowship.”

I admit, Charlie, that I didn’t have to endure such a frosty initiation, but I’d like to think that I, too, am merely making official my membership in the ‘mystic circle’ that I joined the first time I started reading your books.

Merry Christmas, my friend, and here’s to more adventures in 2015!



Of serendipity and television

Dear Charlie,

prompt copy

The NYPL houses the only prompt copy of “A Christmas Carol.”

Happy New Year, my friend! I hope you had a lovely Christmas, ate too much Christmas pudding, and had a chance to eavesdrop on some performances and readings of A Christmas Carol. I hear Neil Gaiman’s reading in New York in mid-December was pretty amazing. He used the original prompt copy you used when performing your readings of the work (and he dressed up as you as well, because Neil Gaiman is awesome).And just as I was beginning to feel all left out, I was reminded that I do, in fact, live in the 21st century and not the 19th, which means that about a gazillion people put it online and that through the wonders of technology I can listen to the performance as many times as I want to! Huzzah!

But that’s not all.

secretmuseumIn an extra-weird Christmas-y burst of serendipity, this Brain Pickings article goes into more detail about that prompt copy and performance, which is housed in the New York Public Library. This august institution also houses your cat’s paw letter opener I mentioned in an earlier letter to you. Well it turns  out that poor old Bob’s preserved foot is featured in a book called The Secret Museum by Molly Oldfield, which, oddly enough, I got for Christmas. And Molly Oldfield introduced Gaiman at that reading. Is your brain hurting as much as mine? Is it just because I spent a year reading your works that I’m now hyper aware of your influence? Or has everything always pointed back to you in some weird six-degrees-of-Charles-Dickens kind of way? You’re sneaky, Charlie, very sneaky. I like it.


Even old Mr. Turveydrop, master of deportment, makes an appearance.

But as odd as all that is, that’s not why I’m writing to you, since my Christmas was unusually Christmas Carol free. I did, however, start watching the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of Bleak House. I just passed the half way point and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I was surprised and pleased to find so many of your wonderful secondary characters included, like Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop, albeit too briefly. It made me realize just how many characters there are in the story, how many are absolutely essential to the plot, and how much fantastic detail you put into even the minor ones that can never be conveyed in an adaptation unless it was two or three times as long.On the other hand, there are things that a TV adaptation can do that make up for the necessary omissions. There’s so much fabulous non-verbal acting going on here that conveys paragraphs of subtext. When Esther is talking to Mr. Jarndyce in the Growlery, for instance, the dialogue may be lifted straight from the page, but you can see in a single glance that Jarndyce feels more than paternal affection for Esther (a fact that thickheaded me didn’t pick up on until much later in the book). Skimpole comes across as sketchy right from the outset, which is interesting. Gillian Anderson’s Lady Deadlock, too, conveys buckets of information in the twitch of an eyebrow or pursing of the lips. And Charles Dance is an inspired choice for Tulkinghorn.


Gillian Anderson plays a wonderfully constrained Lady Deadlock.

And there’s some great stuff that’s been added, too. Guppy, here, is way more stalker-y than he seemed to be in the book, lurking on the sidewalk outside Esther’s home like a creepy lost puppy. It makes his dogged determination to find the letters more believable. And the scenes showing Mr. George carefully priming and aiming various firearms is a wonderful piece of visual misdirection.


Dear BBC, I’m sorry, but not casting Brian Blessed as Boythorn was a HUGE miss.

Should I confess here, Charlie, that as I made my way through your books I often referred to IMDB.com to “cast” the characters before I started reading? I don’t usually do that, but you do have so many characters and it helped to keep them all straight. I did make a few substitutions, however. For instance, I couldn’t help but cast Brian Blessed as Mr. Boythorn (complete with canary, of course) – I mean, how could you not? The TV adaptation doesn’t make him nearly the booming and boisterous presence he’s supposed to be, which is a shame.But overall it’s great stuff, and now that the action is picking up speed, I can’t wait to see everything unfolds. I’m sure I shall write to you again soon, once I’ve finished watching.

Until then my friend, I remain,

Affectionately yours,


In which I buy stuff

Dear Charlie,

I’m less than 100 pages from the end of “David Copperfield,” and rather than write you two more letters about that fantastic book, I thought instead I’d share with you some miscellaneous bits and pieces I’ve collected relating to you.

It’s kind of weird that this time last year I was completely oblivious to your charms, whereas now I can’t see anything even remotely associated with you without a) getting very excited and b) wanting to own it. The only thing preventing me from purchasing this Tale of Two Cities t-shirt while on a recent trip to The Book Man in Chilliwack was the fact that I haven’t read the book yet (I bought The Maltese Falcon one instead). I strongly suspect it’ll be in my closet by August.

One of these things is more obscure than the others…

Anyway, I went to an auction a few months ago and saw three Royal Doulton figurines of characters from your books. And having the rabid possessiveness of a new convert, I bid on them and won them. Now I can look up at my hutch and see Mr. Pickwick (yay!), Tiny Tim (yay!), and Stiggins (ya—wait, who?).

I thought he must have been a character from a book I hadn’t yet read, but no, he’s tucked away in the Pickwick Papers, being one pineapple-rum-imbibing reverend who takes advantage of, and preaches to Mrs. Weller (and whom Mr. Weller, Sr. gleefully boots into the street after his wife’s unfortunate death).

I’m guessing that The Pickwick Papers were far more popular when the series of figurines was first commissioned, since so many of them are characters from that book. However, having now read over half of your body of work, and having been introduced to a myriad of memorable characters, I can think of more than a few who should have been memorialized ahead of Stiggins. Barnaby Rudge himself springs to mind. Quilp, too, would have been fun to design, having such a distinctive look. It’s not a great photo, but you can see most of the figurines on Christie’s website, where almost the entire series sold for £576 back in 2005. Who would you have chosen, I wonder?

I was aided in the identification of Stiggins by a book I bought online, called Charles Dickens: A Celebration of His Life and Works. It turns out to be less about your life and more about listing every character in every book you wrote, complete with contemporary and modern illustrations. Not engrossing bedtime reading, but handy for keeping names straight. This ambitious project of mine, continuing after your year-long bicentenary, has enjoyed the unforeseen advantage that all of the books that came out or were reprinted for that memorable birthday are now slowly migrating to the discount shelves (I love you, but I’d rather spend $5 than $40 on books about you).

How cool is it that your descendant is also a writer? Pretty damn cool.

And speaking of discounted books, I also picked up a fantastic one written by Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, your great-great-great granddaughter and patron of the Dickens Museum in London. Written in association with the museum, it features an informative, bite-sized biography divided into time periods and other areas of scholarship like your views on religion and the poor, and it’s nicely illustrated as well. I learned, for example, that, much like David Copperfield did, you had one hell of a crush on a young lady and that the relationship, unlike David’s, didn’t progress as far as you would have liked.

But what makes this book extra awesome is that it also contains facsimiles of actual documents from the museum, such as your marriage certificate, different calling cards with your photograph, a ticket to your final reading tour, and pages of your original manuscripts. It’s not as exciting as seeing that letter you wrote, but it’s the next best thing. I’ll have to console myself when I’ve finished reading all your works by perusing these books at greater leisure.

And now I’ll get back to the final pages of David Copperfield with great anticipation. And until I write again, I remain,

Yours affectionately,




From Christmas stories to family greed

Dear Charlie,

Welcome to 2013, Charlie dear! Have you made any resolutions? For starters, I would recommend a resolution to stop being dead, because I’m growing quite fond of you and would really like this correspondence to be a little less one sided. I didn’t need any more resolutions – reading your collected works in a year is proving challenging enough.

However, I did finish The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices on January 2 and am well into the first volume of Martin Chuzzlewit, so it’s been quite the eventful week. The former, and the last of your Christmas stories, reminded me strongly of our friend Mr. Pickwick and his seemingly random adventures, but now with a more satiric and cynical bite (although still very funny). Since you think that Mr. Goodchild’s aimless and purposeless tasks to be another form of idleness, I wonder if you would look back and consider Mr. Pickwick equally idle? I have a soft spot for old Mr. P., as I feel you do. I don’t yet know much about your later years, so I don’t know if your early penchant for walking the streets and observing people and events changed at all, or if Mr. Goodchild’s particular form of idleness as you portray it is necessarily a bad thing.

The Lazy Tour of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins!

Ha! And just as I write that, a cursory tour of the interwebs informs me that the story was based on a trip you took with Wilkie Collins, that it was a collaborative effort between the two of you, and that Goodchild was based on you! Well, no wonder the character is more of a vehicle for your observations of things like the horse races at Doncaster than he is a moral cautionary tale. And Mr. Idle’s hilarious musings on the perils of not being idle were those of Collins himself! Eesh, I feel I should read the whole thing again now that I know this. Goes to show you how a bit of foreknowledge can utterly change one’s perceptions of a work. At least I noted a similarity between Goodchild and you without knowing the extent of the connection. My New Year’s resolution clearly needs to be to do some damned research before I start blogging about things I don’t know. :-/ I will read this article about your friendship with Mr. Collins as the first part of my resolution.

Now it’s on to Martin Chuzzlewit, and I’m glad to be into one of your larger works again (I deliberately skipped over your adventures in the US and Italy because I needed a full course meal after the many Christmas appetizers). I learn that you liked this work more than your adoring public did, which must have been a bit of a rude awakening for you. Being about half way through the first volume, I can only guess that the absence of a likeable character may have played a part. Everyone has their own agendas, and they seem intent on pursuing them without regard to anyone else. Not that there aren’t some great characters (Mr. Pecksniff and his daughters, for instance, and their trip to London was hysterical), but so far I haven’t found anyone yet to really root for (except Tom Pinch, but I feel sorry for him more than anything, much like I did with poor old Barnaby). Even young Martin Chuzzlewit is a bit of a patronizing ass, isn’t he? I hope he improves upon longer acquaintance.

Don’t get me wrong, my friend, I am very much enjoying the book, and am very interested to see where all this family animosity and greed is heading (nowhere good, I imagine).

And please start working on that New Year’s resolution, would you? I know I’ll be working on mine.

Affectionately yours,