Of sons and swords

Dear Charlie,

Families are interesting animals, aren’t they? It’s all very well when children embrace their parents’ values and interests, and proudly follow in their footsteps. But they often have a tendency to do the exact opposite. Your third son, Francis, for instance, must’ve been a bit of a disappointment to a father who saw his own hard work and determination pay off in spectacular fashion.


Daaaaad, stop calling me Chickenstalker. I don’t like it.

After dropping out of pre-med studies in Germany, you try to help him out by getting him a respectable job working alongside you at your magazine. And how does he repay you? By waltzing off to India to join the Bengal Mounted Police. I don’t think he could’ve sent a clearer message about personal space.

I dunno, maybe you should’ve picked a more flattering nickname for your son than “Chickenstalker.” Just sayin’.

I wouldn’t normally drag these awkward family skeletons into the light, but it turns out that good ol’ Chickenstalker and I had a close encounter of the historical kind this week, and I thought you might be interested to hear about it.

This recent article registered on my radar of All Things Dickensian, and I discovered that your much maligned son is actually really interesting. After returning to England after your death and burning through his inheritance, he got a commission as a Sub-Inspector in the Northwest Mounted Police, forerunner of today’s RCMP (it helps when one of your aunt’s friends is Canada’s Governor General).

So Chickenstalker, now “Frank” spends over a decade traipsing doggedly (if not always effectively) around various forts on the Canadian prairies, my very own back yard. But it was the last line of the article that caught my attention.

Frank’s sword is in the collections of the Glenbow Museum.


Well, I had to see it for myself.

Several weeks and emails later, I arranged to meet with one of the Glenbow’s curators, the lovely Aimee Benoit, and spent a very happy hour up in the museum’s collections. The historian in me had a little moment of ecstasy as I looked at the shelves filled with helmets, armour, plane models, statues, and cupboards filled with drawer upon drawer of artifacts, each one with its own story. I could’ve spent hours there.


This is what Heaven looks like to historians.


Drawer o’ swords. And whatever that thing with the pom-poms is…

Aimee found the proper drawer and brought Francis’ sword into the light.


You can see the initials “FJD” engraved on the blade, as well as “VR” further down the blade. So. Frickin’. Cool.


Frances Jeffrey Dickens. No Chickenstalkers here.

Turns out, this isn’t his NWMP sword, which lives in the RCMP Heritage Centre in Saskatchewan. This sword is likely from his days in the Bengal Mounted Police. Still, suddenly Frank is more than a grainy photograph or paragraph in a book, but a guy with a rock star dad, just looking for his own place in the world, who held the very item I’m looking at.


Unfortunately, the piece arrived in the collection in the days where having an airtight provenance was less of an issue, so it’s unclear where the sword’s donor acquired it or how it came to Calgary. But I like to imagine Francis packing for Canada in a tiny room in London, his Bengal Police sword sitting in a corner. After filling his trunk with extra socks, long underwear and digestive biscuits, he thinks to himself, “you know, maybe an extra sword couldn’t hurt” and reopening everything at the last minute to stuff it in.


Frank is second from the left. “I have a wicked beard and TWO swords, suckas.”

You, Charlie, may have gone on a field trip to see “a prairie” during your trip to North America, but Frank, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, absolutely trumped you, and certainly saw far more of Canada than you would have dreamed of. The photos of Frank in his prairie setting show a guy who looks pretty comfortable in the rugged setting (probably because he’s thinking that he has two swords, while all these other chumps only have one).

There’s been a lot of trash talked about him, but personally I don’t think you get promoted to Inspector and work for over a decade at a job if you absolutely suck at it (insert a government employee joke here). In any case, Charlie, I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I also feel sorry for the guy. Just as he was going to start following in your footsteps at last and undertake a speaking tour in the States, he drops dead of a heart attack.


Francis’ grave in Moline, Illinois

Note to Dickens’ decendants out there: speaking tours and Dickenses don’t seem to get along.

I hope, Charlie, that Francis’ adventures in my neck of the woods earned him at least a little respect in his father’s heart.







Dickens on tour

Dear Charlie,

Remember your trip to Canada? How you gazed in awe at Niagra Falls, and visited Toronto and Montreal? I was so pleased when I read that you’d visited my native land, but I admit that I was a little disappointed that you never made it closer to my hometown of Calgary.

Of course, this would have been impossible, not only because of the vast distances involved, but because there was no city to visit. Fort Calgary wasn’t constructed until 1875, and even then I’m guessing that it wouldn’t have been abundant in amenities for travelers. It’s strange to think that while you were writing about the teeming streets of London, the place I live didn’t even exist.

Ah, home sweet home in the 1870s.

Now, however, my fair city has over a million lovely inhabitants. I think that’s pretty big, but I just read that London in the 1860s had over three million people living in it! Three million!! I suppose to you I’m still living in Hicksville, aren’t I?

Look at you, all dressed up for international adventures.

But I digress.

Through the wonders of the internet, I discovered that your former residence at 48 Doughty Street, now an awesome museum celebrating your life and works, is having an exhibition starting in June called “Dickens on Tour,” and they are soliciting submissions.

What perfect timing! All I had to do was print you out (which I did almost immediately), and take you places. Since I’ve already been trundling you around for the better part of nine months, I’m so excited to be able to document our travels and share them with other enthusiasts of you and your work.

Another week of choir rehearsals brought me downtown this week, so I thought you might like to start your Calgarian tour with some of the city’s more famous landmarks.

I submitted this photo of you on 8th avenue (calling the street ‘historic’ would no doubt seem strange to you, but here we get very excited about anything that’s older than our grandparents). And the Dickens Museum posted it to their Facebook page, which I’m very pleased about. I can’t wait to see where else you visit and what adventures you have.

What better way to start a tour of Calgary than with a stroll down Stephen Avenue?

I’m very excited about this whole project, but I don’t want the exhibition’s organizers to refer to me as ‘that weird woman who keeps sending us photos’ so I’ll post other photos I take here, rather than start spamming your former home.

As well as a downtown street, I thought you might also like to see our iconic Calgary Tower up close (well, you saw this cool horse sculpture up close, but the Tower isn’t far away):

As far as the reading goes, I’ve almost finished a volume of “Reprinted Pieces,” which is mostly articles you wrote for your journal “Household Words.” I’ll chat with you about that soon, but since we’re on the subject of places to visit, I gotta say that you’re the only person I know who would take a trip to Paris and then spend his time visiting the abattoires to compare them to English slaughterhouses.

I won’t be taking you to any slaughterhouses during your visit. Let’s make that clear up front. Prisons aren’t high on my list either.

I wonder what else you’d like to see? Any suggestions?




Italian impressions

Dear Charlie,

Renovations completely ate into my usual weekend blogging time, so I apologize for my tardiness and hope you weren’t waiting in too much anticipation for my letter. And having just finished your “Pictures from Italy,” you might have wanted to leave this unopened. I have learned from painful personal experience that no matter how wonderful your vacations are and how much you experience, no one sincerely wants to hear about it or see your holiday photos when you get back. And if they say they do they’re lying. Unless it’s your mom, and even she might just be humouring you.

I’m kind of glad you didn’t take actual photos; it means there’s no photo of you propping up the leaning tower of Pisa.

Without photos, it’s hard for us readers to envision the multitude of churches you visited, or all the tiny Italian towns you try to describe (or, in the case of Switzerland, consciously do not describe). But there are a lot of them. So many. My eyes may have glazed over a little. Maybe.

So, let me recap: you get kind of stung by your American audience after criticizing their country, and decide to spend a year in Italy, and then preface your Italian observations by trying to pacify your audience up front by telling them you have the best of intentions. So you clearly learned something from your American adventures and your book’s reception. All well and good.

Well, I don’t know how large your Italian fan base was, but I can’t imagine this book improved it any. Perhaps our definitions differ, but I hardly think calling a town a “pig sty” is an entirely objective observation, or one designed to gain an affectionate Italian following! My overall impression is that very few cultural events or locations raised themselves in your estimation out of the general dirt, squalor and primitive Catholic rites that seem to be your primary preoccupation in your travels. For a guy who declares he has such an open mind, you’re very concerned with foreign standards of cleanliness.

An actual picture of Italy in the 1840s. There are more if you click the photo.

That said, there are several vignettes that were fascinating reading. Your dream of Venice was a lovely, soft interlude, and your descriptions of the Easter week celebrations in Rome were really interesting – I can imagine you and your wife in a carriage surrounded by flowers and sugarplums, and you loving every crazy, giddy minute of it. I enjoy picturing you standing each day in the coliseum, which you clearly fell in love with. And your hike up the sides of Vesuvius was pretty epic – it’s not everyone who would risk flying lava to peer into the mouth of a volcano. And while I’m on the subject, I think it’s fascinating to think that when I visited Rome I probably walked the same ancient roads and wondered at the same buildings and sights that you did. The coliseum still stands, and it connects us, somehow. This is cool.

All in all, and in spite of your less than charitable observations, you must have enjoyed being away from home, since you began writing Dombey and Son, the novel I’ve just begun, on a return trip to the continent. I’m looking forward to getting into a new story, now that I’ve learned more about you as a traveler. If I have to sit through anyone’s travel stories, I’m glad they were yours. And I remain,

Yours affectionately,


P.S. How much do I love that you describe the first Italian villa you stayed in as “the pink prison”? 🙂

Across the pond

Dear Charlie,

We’ve spent quite a bit of time together now, Charlie dear, and I have become surprisingly fond of you. But ever since your ramblings in Sketches you have been partially obscured by your fictitious creations, as revealing as they are about your values, morals and pet peeves. But now, here you are, freshly returned from your 1842 trip to America (and Canada), and I feel that since the observations of your younger, rambling self in London, you’ve grown both more opinionated and more reserved, now that you’re a famous literary figure.

Eastern State penitentiary: still a creepy, horrible place.

If someone were to read your American Notes knowing nothing about you, they might think you were a social worker or doctor, since you so often record your observations of the institutions, prisons and hospitals in the various cities you visit (your detailed and horrifying account of the Eastern State Penitentiary of Philadelphia, for example, was riveting and perhaps even more disturbing for readers of my time than yours). Or they might think you were an abolitionist, from your unwillingness to venture into states where slavery was legal and the strongly worded final chapter decrying its abuses. At any rate, you make it sound as if you and your small party (never named) were mostly left to your solitary pursuits, with the odd dance or Presidential audience for variety.

It’s not until one reads some of your letters to your friend Forster that it becomes clear that you were crazy popular in the States, were met with adulation and celebrations in your honour, and more often than not were thronged by adoring fans. You even sat for portraits and a bust! And your readers back home wouldn’t have known. You coy thing! The letters, too, reveal a much more personal portrait – how you felt, who you were with, and even the fact that you and your wife performed in a charity theatrical in Canada.

There are two Charles Dickenses on this trip – the one trying to remain objective, not revealing names and recording what he thinks his audience is interested in, and the one who writes to his best friend and reveals his excitement at meeting Washington Irving and homesickness after six months away from his family.

Niagra falls, as you would have seen them.

I think perhaps the only time those two people are one and the same is when you see Niagra Falls. Then you let the reader get swept up with you in its grandeur and magnitude. I could almost hear its roar and see the contented smile on your face when you talked about the sense of peace it gave you.

Certainly, there were things that bugged you – the American penchant for chewing tobacco being the most amusing, but I think in your published work you genuinely tried very hard to provide an objective portrait of the country, its institutions and its people. I can imagine, then, what Martin Chuzzlewit must have done, when you stripped away the good and rather mercilessly satirized the worst in what you’d seen – hoo, boy, I can better see now why people got their hate on for you, and why you felt the need for an extended Italian vacation. Just because you’re popular, doesn’t mean your fans will let you talk trash about their country. I bet it was quite the eye-opener.

So now I shall read about your Italian adventures, and see if what happened in North America changed the way you wrote about your travels. I’m sorry you had to learn the price of fame the hard way, my friend, but I remain,

Affectionately yours,


P.S. I’m glad you enjoyed Canada so much. 🙂