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,


Thoughts on Claire Tomalin’s biography

Dear Charlie,

If it’s true that you should never meet your heroes, then it’s equally true that you should never read their biographies.


Charles Dickens: A Life

I realize now, my friend,  that I’ve had you on a bit of a pedestal. Sure, I knew about your affair, and sure, I knew about your sometimes odd behavior as a father, but it wasn’t until I finished Claire Tomalin’s biography the other week that I got a more complete sense of how your writings and your sometimes messy personal life intersected. And I gotta confess, I feel less like fangirling over you and more like nodding sagely and a bit sadly now that I know that you could be a pretty big jerk, as well as being a wonderful and perceptive author.

The biography itself, however, is brilliant. I don’t want to imply that my vague sense of disappointment is in any way a product of bad writing. Tomalin has done a phenomenal amount of homework, and she writes with an engaging style that conveys a wealth of detail without ever getting bogged down in it. She has a fantastic talent for weaving together your books and their significance into the larger fabric of your busy life filled with family, friends, publishers and travel. And although she never takes you out of the spotlight for long, there’s a very real sense of sympathy for your long-suffering and oft-pregnant wife, and an interesting focus on the influence the women in your life had on you.

I really enjoyed reading about your childhood and family life – I never realized just how often you moved houses as a kid. I maaaybe am revealing too much when I tell you I used Tomalin’s handily provided addresses of your former residences and Google maps to take a peek at some of the places you used to live that are still standing. I’m especially glad that Gad’s Hill is still around.


Do I feel a bit stalker-y skulking around your former homes using Google Maps? Maybe just a little…

Part of me didn’t want to read about your relationship with Ellen Ternan, or the last years of your life, partly because of the way that Dan Simmons had already made me feel like you were quite manic and out of control. Tomalin, however, presents a much less creepy picture (thank goodness). You’re certainly busy (juggling writing and public readings while trying to keep an affair secret and battling of-course-it’s-not-gout-it’s-frostbite-no-really in your foot), but it’s a much more realistic view.

One of the most shocking parts of the bio was learning the true circumstances surrounding your “Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices.” Because I read the story early on in the year, I envisioned two very young men, excited to be out on their own and enjoying the freedoms and entertainments of youth. Instead, I learn that the trip was a rather flimsy cover for a definitely NOT young you to go chasing like a lovesick schoolboy after frickin’ Nelly Ternan, who “just happened” to be in the same area. Yeah, right. There’s my happy and innocent little vision blown to smithereens.

I’m also pissed off at you for burning your correspondence. Seriously. Don’t you know how difficult you make it to poke into your private life when you do that?

I have a funny mental image of a ghostly you, reading over Ms. Tomalin’s shoulder as she was writing your biography, wringing your hands and pulling your hair in embarrassment that she’s revealing so much about your private life. And then I imagine you ineffectually trying to stuff her into a wardrobe or trunk to prevent her from sending the manuscript to her publishers. I hope, Charlie, that death has mellowed you a little, and that you’re able to look back on yourself and realize that maybe you could have overreacted less, and done some things differently. Like finish Edwin Drood.


I wish I knew what you saw in these ugly, cheerful things, but this one is now mine. :-/

Because after all the heartache you caused in your latter years, Charlie, and your often crazy-defensive attitude to anyone who suggested you might be handling the situation badly, reading about your death was still painful, whatever the actual circumstances (and wasn’t the hypothesis fascinating, that maybe you didn’t die at home like everyone said?), and made me realize again how very attached to you I’ve become. Dammit, I even bought a red geranium at the garden center last week because they were your favorite flower. And I have hated red geraniums my entire life. I hope you appreciate the quasi-weird things I do for you.

It’s only my first biography of you and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but I feel I’ve come to know you in a much more human and comprehensive way. And Tomalin has set the Charles Dickens biography bar pretty high.

I’m afraid I’m still going to remain friends with you, Charlie, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.



Reviewing Simmons’ Drood

Dear Charlie,



I recently finished reading Dan Simmon’s behemoth of a book, Drood, and I’ve been putting off telling you about it, myfriend, because it’s been very difficult to put my feelings into sentences that don’t end in hmmngfhhhh (that’s the closest I can come to depicting a conflicted sigh). It was at the same time extremely satisfying and extremely distressing, and I closed the book with mingled relief and regret.

The narrator of the story is none other than your friend Wilkie Collins, and occurs in the five years between the train accident at Staplehurst that you were involved in and your death. I’m sorry to bring up such painful subjects so early in this letter, but the contents of the book will likely make you even more uncomfortable. So if you’d like to toss this letter in the fireplace immediately, I’ll understand. Also, there be spoilers ahead, so if you’d like to read the book unencumbered by my questionable opinions, again, this would be a good time to go and visit the afterlife’s version of Facebook.


Our absolutely unreliable narrator, Mr. Wilkie Collins

The book opens dramatically with Wilkie claiming that you’re a psychopath and possible murderer (I told you this would make you uncomfortable) and proceeds to describe in grisly detail the train disaster that he believes brought about this shift in your character. And as if the carnage of that event wasn’t vivid enough, we’re introduced to a mysterious and menacing figure named Drood, whose presence and motives are unclear but who is damned unsettling.

I gotta say, it’s one of the most instantly gripping, dramatic and intense opening couple of chapters I’ve read in recent memory.

There are a lot of excellent things going for the rest of the book. Simmons has clearly researched ALL THE THINGS pertaining to your final five years and creates a picture of you through Collins’ eyes that’s incredibly believable. Dinners at Gad’s Hill, your long walks, even your secret affair are all captured in loving detail. There’s a scene where Simmons describes your first dramatic reading of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes, and I swear to god I felt like I was there in the audience. Simmons does a brilliant job of capturing your manic energy and your charm, as well as your self-importance and odd (and sort of cruel) sense of humour. This is a dark book, but Simmons makes you its glowing center. The best part of the book, I think, is the very real sense that I spent some time with you.

I also love the way Simmons creates intimate conversations between Collins and you. The two of you casually discuss the plots of both your works and continually criticize and compliment each other’s plot choices and styles with the same fervor that today’s readers discuss the relationships in Harry Potter. It gives your works a freshness an immediacy that warm the cockles of my heart. And I love how the setting, characters and plot points from The Mystery of Edwin Drood are woven into the narrative and suggest ways in which that book might have developed.

All this brilliance aside, there are things here that made the book difficult to get through. One of my pet peeves is when a book gets so bogged down in its research that it feels like you’re reading a textbook and not a work of fiction. And although the Dickens fan in me was reveling in the details of your daily life, there are a LOT of details here that, although accurate, aren’t incredibly pertinent to the plot. I appreciate being told that Kate’s husband is Wilkie’s brother, or that Collins calls his mistress’ daughter  Carrie even though her name is really Harriet – I don’t appreciate it so much the 15th time I read it. Although long, this book is not serialized, but the author clearly doesn’t trust his readers enough to remember the pertinent players.


No, Mr. Simmons, I do not believe I shall require smelling salts, thank you.

And can we talk about the plot for a second? Because I would have been quite happy if this had remained some kind of continuation of The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices. Instead, the über creepy opening chapters diffuse into a general and pervasive sense of darkness and unease punctuated with brief interludes of horror. And I use horror in the Victorian ‘this-is-rather-unusual-and-where-are-my-smelling-salts’ kind of way and not the 21st century ‘I-watched-Paranormal-Activity-and-slept-like-a-baby-immediately-afterwards’ kind of way. Wilkie Collins, bless his bespectacled heart, becomes the Salieri to your Mozart rather than the Watson to your Holmes, fueled by mesmerism, jealousy and enough opium and laudanum to fell a rhinocerous. So even the tension of the ‘scariest’ bits (being tied down naked to the clichéd heathen cult’s altar, for example) is dissipated by the nagging suspicion – a suspicion that gets stronger and stronger as the novel comes to a close – that none of what you’re reading is actually happening.

The result is that not only do I not trust any of the crazy-ass shite that Wilkie is telling me (which is lucky for you, because he says quite a lot of not nice things about you or your writing, and actively plots to kill you), but by the end of the novel I don’t really care, either. I’m just once again sad that you died so young.

I’m also left with the feeling that I want to give Wilkie a smack upside the head, a good psychologist, an appointment with a 21st century doctor, and into rehab, not necessarily in that order.

Thanks for helping to put my thoughts into words. And if you made it this far in the letter, Charlie, I remain,

Yours affectionately,