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,


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,


Dickens’ Chamber of Horrors, Part 1

Dear Charlie,

If there’s one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to your body of work, it’s that you had a fantastic knack for creating memorable characters. Just mentioning Mr Pickwick, Sairey Gamp or Uriah Heep conjures vivid mental images.

Unfortunately, the popularity of these same characters has meant that the world is full of depictions of these same characters in some form or other. And while I commend the spirit in which these homages to your talents were undertaken, the result of this well-meaning adoration is that there exist some truly ugly and often terrifying depictions of your characters. I brought one of these creations to light in a previous post, but the more you look, the more they seem to leap out of the woodwork.

Be warned! What follows is not for the faint of heart.

Let’s start with one of the most terrifying paintings I’ve ever seen, Dickens-related or not.

Let’s take Little Dorrit‘s master of the Circumlocution office, Mr. Tite Barnacle. Yes, he’s inefficient, and yes he is one of society’s less benign elements, but Mr. Frederick Blanch has made him the stuff of nightmares:


Forget his career of manufacturing red tape – it looks more like this man would eat babies for breakfast and spend his afternoon torturing small animals <shudder>.

TurveydropEbaySilverJFFradleyNCoFar less terrifying, but still pretty damn ugly, is a silver bookmark depicting Mr. Turveydrop of Bleak House fame, who you described thus:

He was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear. […] He had under his arm a hat of great size and weight, shelving downward from the crown to the brim, and in his hand a pair of white gloves with which he flapped it as he stood poised on one leg in a high-shouldered, round-elbowed state of elegance not to be surpassed. He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of deportment.

Personally, I don’t think any physical depiction of the character could possibly be as vivid as your fabulous description is. This fellow here, apart from the hat and gloves, looks more the model of dopiness than the model of deportment.

But it is with Mr. Pickwick that your adoring fans have taken the most horrifying liberties. I find this especially distressing, since he’s one of the most adorable characters in your body of work, and I feel a bit protective of him.

Let’s start with a teapot, since it’s only a little cringe-worthy. I’m a little Pickwick, short and stout:


Here is my boneless arm and here is my other boneless arm. And scarily oversized eyebrows. At least this Mr. Pickwick has eyebrows. And eyes.

Unlike this terrifying plaque:


I admit that time has not been kind to this artifact, but the fact that almost all his facial features have been rubbed off changes it from sweet to seriously spooky.

And speaking of Pickwicks to which time has not been kind, let me show you a shaving brush (how popular was this character, that they made him into a shaving brush!):


Ack! Totally. Frickin’. Terrifying.

I have a couple more, if you’re still with me.

Here’s a Mr. Pickwick that looks as if he’s had some really terrible plastic surgery that has turned him into a Joker look-alike:


Seriously, what is wrong with his face?!?

And I have no idea who this was supposed to be, with his no hair, lipstick, mascara and too-wide sunglasses, but Pickwick it most assuredly isn’t:


And so ends our first installment of Dickens’ Chamber of Horrors. I’m sorry it ever came to this, Charlie.

Stay tuned for more exciting and horrifying finds from around the web.



Well, aren’t you adorable?

Dear Charlie,

I know I got a little bit whiny on you while I was reading the first volume of your “Miscellaneous Papers,” but after taking a break with Great Expectations I returned to the second volume with greater equanimity. This time around, there were several things that caught my attention, including your hilariously sarcastic observations on the spiritualist movement and séances (remind me never to introduce you to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I don’t think you’d get on), less racism than I expected, and some really interesting appearances of some unexpected guests.


Meet Harold Skimpole…er, I mean Leigh Hunt. NOT Skimpole. AT ALL.

These guests are none other than some of your famous characters, and the articles in which they appear are those where you step out from behind the “anonymous author” curtain to either defend your work or review another’s. Let’s start with, “Leigh Hunt: A Remonstrance.” In it, you defend yourself from accusations that Bleak House’s childlike Harold Skimpole bears a striking resemblance to your friend Mr. Hunt. Where most people would likely flat-out deny the similarities, you stand up and say, “Yes! Of course I took some of dear Leigh’s eccentricities and used them to create Skimpole, but only the good bits and no one could possibly infer that Skimpole’s less desirable qualities are in any way attributable to Mr. Hunt. And, anyway, I asked his friends to read it and totally changed the bits they thought were too much like him, so kindly shut up about it already. Lewsers.”

I’m not entirely convinced, Charlie, and I’m not entirely sure you were either.

The other place one of your characters puts in a prominent appearance is in your review of your buddy John Foster’s biography of Walter Savage Landor. In your review, you compare Landor to Bleak House’s Mr. Boythorn on two separate occasions. Reading the article, I’m struck both by how similar your fictional character is to the real life subject, and by how cavalierly you make the connection for the reader, without any of the previous article’s remonstrance that Boythorn is a separate and unique creation. Was it because you don’t make Boythorn as morally questionable as Skimpole, so no one was likely to give you a hard time about it?

In both articles, however, it’s fascinating to read about the real-life models for two of your famous characters.


“The Village Coquettes,” 1970s-style

And now we come to the part of the book that endears you to me. These are a collection of your early attempts at short plays and operettas. No, don’t blush, my friend, they’re the most adorably awful of your creations I’ve read. They’re like 19th century stage productions of “Three’s Company” episodes, with  comic misunderstandings, impossible coincidences, and unbelievable and abrupt resolutions. I particularly love the title of your play, “Is She His Wife? Or, Something Singular!” Sounds less like high culture and more like a great tabloid headline. 🙂

You’re an amazing writer, Charlie, but I admire these cheesy, less than stellar early works because they reveal your enthusiasm for experimenting with different forms of writing, as well as just how far you progressed in the course of your career.

But to end this letter on a sentimental note, let me quote your dear friend. Even though Forster was writing about Landor, as I continue to read this volume I can’t help but apply his observation of that gentleman to you:

But, now that the story is told, no one will have difficulty in striking the balance between its good and ill; and what was really imperishable in Landor’s genius will not be treasured less, or less understood, for the more perfect knowledge of his character.

Thanks for giving me more windows into your character, my friend.

Affectionately yours,


A miscellany of Bleak House things

Dear Charlie,

Verdi turns 200 this year!

My correspondence has been interrupted of late, but having just celebrated your bicentenary, I know you won’t begrudge similar celebrations for another genius who’s celebrating his own 200th birthday this year: Giuseppe Verdi. I’ve been rehearsing for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s upcoming performance of Verdi’s Requiem. This means that while I have a lot of time to read before rehearsals, it doesn’t give me a lot of time to write to you. But if you didn’t get a chance to hang with your Italian compatriot during your lifetimes, you should float your ghostly self to the Jack Singer concert hall this weekend and check it out. I’ll keep an eye out for ectoplasm.

So, I finally finished Bleak House, which had, I’m happy to say, a thoroughly satisfying ending, as well as a couple more unfortunate but fairly predictable deaths (but how many people can die from lawsuit fatigue, really? I didn’t even know that was a thing). And while I know that some people consider Esther a bit of an annoying goody-goody, she’s got nothing on John Jarndyce. Seriously. Let’s just put ourselves in his head for a moment, shall we?

Oh, hello young, attractive doctor returned from overseas. What? You still love Esther? Well, yes, I love her too and am actually engaged to her. But you know what? I’m pretty old and unsuitable, so even though she’s happily preparing for our wedding, why don’t I just go ahead and give her to you without talking to her about it. That wouldn’t be weird at all. No no, I’ll be fine and happy just watching you two be happy. Really.

Uh huh. Cuz that would totally happen, Charlie.

Anyway, before I leave Bleak House, I wanted to show you some of the more entertaining pictures I found on the internet while searching for images more appropriate to the civilized tone of these letters.

This has to be one of the most obscure “Keep Calm” variants I’ve ever seen:

And I’ve been saving this one for months:

This cat picture isn’t as random as it might seem. I think LOL cats would be right up your alley, since I also found a picture of a letter opener of yours (housed at the New York Public Library), ornamented with a cat’s paw:

Engraved on the handle: “C.D. In Memory of Bob 1862”

A good luck rabbit’s foot is creepy, but a well known talisman. Is a cat’s paw a similar thing? At first I was envisioning scenarios where this creature spent one too many nights howling on your fence before you pegged it with a rock, until I found out it belonged to your own beloved cat, Bob. At least you didn’t stuff all of him, like you did with your raven, Grip. I’m a little disturbed, I admit, but very happy to know you’re a fellow cat person.

Anyway, I’ve just started Hard Times. Seeing as this is the first single-volume novel you’ve written since Oliver Twist, I’m interested to see how something half your usual length impacts your style. Also, I’ll hopefully have a chance to get a little caught up with my self-imposed schedule.

Hope you can make the concert this weekend. You should find Verdi and go together. I’ll watch for two sets of ghostly footprints in the lobby. Heck, bring Bob too.

Affectionately yours,