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 Dickens and Assassins

Dear Charlie,

I’m not sure if there’s a Venn diagram that shows the overlap between video games and classic literature, but if there is I would imagine that it’s not large. Being a fan of both, then, you can imagine my joy when my pre-ordered copy of Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” arrived, complete with its bonus content “The Darwin and Dickens Conspiracy.” Which brings me to another very small Venn diagram, one that would show the overlap between “Charles Dickens” and “badass.” But this preview would fit there nicely:

Pretty cool, eh?

Previous iterations of the Assassin’s Creed series have been set in Renaissance Italy, the American Revolution, the Caribbean in the 18th century and the French Revolution, which has pleased both the historian in me and that side of me that enjoys sneaking up behind bad guys and stabbing them in the neck. But if Ubisoft developers had personally interviewed me about what my ideal game would look like they couldn’t have come much closer than they have with Syndicate. I’ve been playing the game (I would go with “enthusiastically,” my long-suffering husband may have used the word “obsessively”) for a few weeks now and my love knows no bounds.

Set in London in 1868, you play as either Jacob or Evie Frye, twin assassins whose mission it is to free London from a notorious gang (the ‘Blighters’) and their Templar leader by building up their own gang (the ‘Rooks’), assassinating various Blighter ringleaders, and freeing children from illegal factory work. Unfortunately, the London constabulary don’t look kindly on you running up to people and murdering them on the street, even if they are gang members, and will intervene. Stealth is paramount.

But let me talk about where you come in. Jacob and Evie run into you (literally) in one of the game’s first cut-scenes, looking distracted but spry as you talk about Edwin Drood (I’m not convinced you were even thinking about Drood in 1868, but I’ll go with it).

dickens_syndicateLater in the game we run into you in a pub, where Jacob and Evie learn of your membership in The Ghost Club and where you draft the two to help investigate and debunk a series of supernatural mysteries. So far I’ve only completed your first mission, which involved tracking down and killing someone pretending to be “Spring-Heeled Jack” (hey, I’m an assassin, that’s what I do), but later missions involve investigating haunted houses and kindnapping hypnotists. Sounds awesome.

I love and appreciate the research that Ubisoft’s developers have put into your character, and that they’ve built the game’s missions around a real club that you belonged to. But more than that I appreciate that an entertainment medium that is often decried or dismissed as time-wasting escapism is, in fact, teaching people about important eras and historical figures in an immersive and natural way.

Just another night of sabotage and mayhem.

Just another night of sabotage and historically accurate mayhem.

I am the first to admit, for example, that my knowledge of the American Revolution is sketchy at best, but walking through Boston with Samuel Adams or punching George Washington in the head (not my finest moment, I admit) puts personalities and context to faces and names and, although it sounds completely clichéd, really brings history to life. I can read about the Boston Tea Party, sure, but how much cooler is it to say “yeah, I helped heave crates of tea into Boston Harbour while angry British soldiers tried to shoot me. That was a hell of a night.”

It’s the same thing in this installment. Child labour was terrible, and reading about efforts to stop the practice are interesting, but sneaking into a factory undetected to free groups of coal-shovelling children, while dispatching their cruel overseers with a series of weapons designed for me by Alexander Graham Bell is undoubtedly more rewarding. Bell? A bit chatty, but a total sweetheart.

My Rooks are badasses, but well-read badasses.

My Rooks are badasses, but well-read badasses.

London in the 19th century is not just a computer-generated series of buildings and streets and carriages but a fully immersive world. As Evie (by far the cooler twin, and the first playable female character in the series – hooray!) roams the city we hear snatches of popular songs coming from pubs (they’re included on the soundtrack too, which is nice) and collect local beers and contemporary illustrations. Even my band of Rooks, usually intent on causing mayhem, are surprisingly well-read. At one point I was standing in an alley and when one of them (a woman in a fetching green jacket, trousers and a bowler) ran up to me and blurted out “Have you read ‘The Moonstone’ yet? It’s wonderful!” I don’t think a video game character has ever given me a book recommendation, much less with such breathless enthusiasm. (With a large chunk of side missions devoted to you, my friend, we mustn’t begrudge Wilkie Collins his moment.)

What I’m saying is that it’s difficult to walk away from a world you’ve explored and historical figures you’ve conversed with without at least a passing interest spilling over into reality. And if someone, somewhere, picks up a book by Charles Dickens because they once met him on a London street and helped him catch a phony Spiritualist, surely that’s not a waste of time. Now, let’s press Play and continue our adventures!

Yours in in ghost-hunting camaraderie,



Finding Fellowship in Chicago

Dear Charlie,

I have no idea where the past six months have gone – probably to the same place where my good intentions for regularly updating this blog went. I apologize, my friend, for letting you get pushed into the background by the demands of a new job. Before I descend into maudlin self-recrimination, however, I shall turn a new leaf and instead write about my recent encounter with you in Chicago.

The Cultural Center used to be the library, so it's fitting that you're memorialized here.

The Cultural Center used to be the library, so it’s fitting that you’re memorialized here.

Why Chicago? I visited this amazing city as a member of the Calgary Philharmonic Chorus in a summer tour, and had the chance to sing not only at the beautiful Cultural Center (where you are immortalized in mosaic) but also at the stunning Rockefeller Chapel on the University of Chicago campus. It was my first visit to Chicago and I absolutely loved it.

After the official tour, however, I took a few extra days to see the city, and July 7th was all about discovering the benefits of being a member of The Dickens Fellowship. The Chicago branch is the second oldest in the U.S., founded in 1905, and it was on their website that I discovered that the Newberry Library houses a number of your things, so I instantly signed up for a reader’s card. It was with some trepidation that I also emailed the Chicago branch enquiring if anyone would like to meet up with me (I felt a bit like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel). The responses were so friendly and welcoming that I had warm fuzzies for days.

The Newberry Library, Chicago

The Newberry Library, Chicago


My new friends Sue, Carole, Mary and Liz!

On the morning of the 7th, therefore, I set out for the library. In the lobby of this lovely building I met up with four even lovelier ladies: Liz, Carole, Mary and Sue. We collected our library cards and then went up to the special collections area and were ushered into a glass room where we sat around an enormous table in the map room. Reference librarian Jill Gage and several of her associates then brought in a large box and sets of white gloves. There were two boxes in total, each filled with artifacts, as well as an original engraving for one of the illustrations in The Pickwick Papers. There was also a huge black binder containing the provenance and descriptions of each item, most of which seem to have been acquired by the library in 1979.

So many things! So much engraving!

So many things! So much engraving!

It was hard to believe that a) there were so many things to look at, b) we could pick everything up, and c) the staff trusted us enough to basically leave us alone and enjoy our explorations. And enjoy we certainly did! We spent the next hour and a half passing things around, exclaiming, conjecturing, and imagining when and where you might have used each piece. Most came with a statement from Georgina Hogarth, your sister-in-law, verifying that the items were owned and used by you.

it's probably a really good thing that label makers hadn't been invented yet.

A large candle holder. It’s probably a really good thing that label makers hadn’t been invented yet.

Not that there would have been much doubt, to be honest. Engravers must have been booming in the 19th century, because everything from the horn cups to the ladles to the soap container bore personalized messages to you from the gift givers (many from your friend John Forster, which was really cool to see). But even those things that weren’t obviously gifts bore your initials engraved on them somewhere. It reminded me of seeing the monogrammed dinner plates at the Charles Dickens museum in London, and I wondered if your family ever got tired of seeing every item they owned with a “C.D.” on it somewhere, and as an act of rebellion kept a stash of un-monogrammed things under their beds. (“No, dad, you can’t put your initials on my teddy bear. Piss off.”)

Whereas the aforementioned museum certainly has more items on display, sitting at the Newberry with my new Fellowship friends was a much more intimate experience. Not only was it was shared with people who have each connected with you and who each have a unique relationship with you as an author, but being able to interact with items that you would have seen and used every day made you feel very much more real and human.  (I do, however, question how often you used the pickle fork – honestly, it seems a bit like the Victorian equivalent of a one-click butter cutter.)

A small oyster fork, dangerous-lookin gpickle fork, an ivory tobacco tamper and a fingernail cleaner. I guess even famous authors need clean fingernails.

A small oyster fork, dangerous-looking pickle fork, an ivory tobacco tamper and a fingernail cleaner. I guess even famous authors need clean fingernails.

I found every single item fascinating, and I’m pretty sure my new friends felt the same. I wish I knew more about the specific times and places you’d used them. There was an ivory pipe tobacco tamper in the shape of a horse’s leg that Georgina says belonged to John Forster but that he gave to you and which you had made into a tie pin. Had you expressed a liking for the little thing or did John just think you’d like it? There was a beaded cigar case – who did the beading? Did you buy it like that or did someone add that decoration afterwards?


I loved seeing the ink well that Georgina writes that you gave to Mary Hogarth and then kept with you after her death. It was a tangible reminder of how much you cared for her and missed her. Although we had come to see items belonging to you, it’s amazing how much those same items reveal about your connections to your friends and family.

Mary's inkwell

Mary’s inkwell

There’s also a candlestick that Georgina claims is depicted in “The Empty Chair,” an engraving by Luke Fildes made just after your death (but which I can’t find on admittedly fuzzy internet representations).



Maybe it's in a drawer? (image from http://nicolelobdell.com/research/)

Maybe it’s in a drawer?


Yes, I had a moment with a soap holder. Deal with it.

Yes, I had a moment with a soap holder. Deal with it.

It sounds a bit weird, I admit, but it was the soap case I mentioned earlier that resonated with me the most strongly, probably because I was myself travelling and instantly saw the utility and thoughtfulness of such a gift for a man often on the road, delivering public readings. John Forster knew you well. But seeing the wear of regular use and then opening it up and seeing that there were still bits of soap still lodged around the hinges and indentations – it’s like, logically I knew you didn’t just emerge from a clam shell a fully formed author, but suddenly it became very clear that you were an author, yes, but also a dude that used soap and needed something to carry it around in. And here I was holding it. I just felt very connected to you as a fellow traveler and human being.

I don’t think I’m describing this very well but I hope you get the gist.

Of course I didn’t say any of this out loud because I wanted my new friends to not smile awkwardly and back out of the room slowly, away from the crazy woman. Instead, Liz, Carole and Sue took me to Lou Malnati’s, where we enjoyed some authentic Chicago deep dish pizza. And then Carole, who used to be a docent, gave me a fascinating guided tour of the Art Institute of Chicago*.

A fabulous day with four fabulous people. Five, if I count you among us in spirit.

Yours in Fellowship,


* Random tangent here: the Art Institute houses some works of Van Gogh. Van Gogh mentions seeing and being moved by Fildes’ “The Empty Chair,” and it may have inspired his own chair painting.

Also, here’s the Pickwick engraving I mentioned. I have more photos, too. Drop me a comment if you’d like me to post the rest. 🙂


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!



A Canadian Dickens fan in London: Part 2

Dear Charlie,

It’s high time I wrote to you to tell you about Dickens Day, which was the justification for this year’s trip to London. Although it’s an annual event (its 28th to be exact), I stumbled across it on Twitter for the first time earlier this year. The theme for 2014’s event was “Dickens and Conviviality,” and since “convivial” pretty much sums up our friendship to date, I felt compelled to submit a paper proposal.

So on the morning of Saturday, October 11, 2014 I arrived at Senate House, University of London. It looks like this:


But when you’re giving a presentation to a bunch of people who probably know a heck of a lot more about you than I do, and you’ve never given a presentation as long as twenty minutes before, it bore a striking resemblance to a certain supernaturally afflicted apartment from Ghostbusters:


Intimidating building aside, once I found the registration table my nerves were calmed by the warm welcome I received from the event’s organizers, Ben, Bethan and Holly (who, unlike me, actually remembered to take pictures and put them on Twitter). Also calming was learning that my panel was to be in the smaller of the meeting rooms, and that my husband, aunt and second cousin (or maybe first-cousin-once-removed) and her husband were in the audience to lend moral support. You can read my presentation here – it wasn’t nearly as scholarly as the other papers, but it seemed to go over well, and I think I answered the questions directed to me afterwards mostly coherently. 🙂 Go me!

You can read about the other presentations at this far more coherent account of the day, but as a newcomer to the event, my impressions were these:

reference– There’s a scene in The Avengers where the team is sitting around a table in the fancy S.H.I.E.L.D. ship and Steve Rogers, who’s been frozen since the 1940s, finally understands a pop culture reference. Sitting in a large room filled with strangers who got all the Dickens jokes and references I had the very strong feeling that I had finally found my people. After spending more than two years in relative solitude (Twitter notwithstanding), it gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies to be able to look around at a room full of people who share the same kind of affection and interest in you that I now have. I wanted to hug them all, or put them all in my pocket and take them home with me, or at least invite them to my house for a party. Seriously. Drop by whenever. I’m sure I could do a little better with a meal than David Copperfield did. (See? They’d all totally get that.)

– Speaking of David, I loved the two dramatic readings that ended the morning and afternoon sessions, one from David Copperfield and one from Our Mutual Friend. The three readers effortlessly assumed all the characters’ identities, and brought each episode richly to life. Even my husband and aunt, neither of whom have read Dickens, were laughing. The readings are such a good idea – after stretching our brains with some really interesting interpretations and ideas during the panels, they bring us all back to a collective appreciation of the source material in such an entertaining way. You would have loved it, Charlie, I have no doubt.


Look! Look at all the Dickens people! 🙂

– And the people! I’m deeply, deeply envious of all the people I met who live in and around London and who have such instant access to all these Dickens-related sites and events and conferences. However, they’re all so friendly and welcoming that I can’t hold it against them. I was so glad that there were a number of breaks to give me a chance to track people down. Meeting fellow newcomers to both Dickens and the conference, like David, and fellow presenters like Katie was so wonderful, as was finally getting to meet Twitter friends face to face like Pete (who also gave a really interesting presentation on the often overlooked humour in Edwin Drood) and Emma, who organized the Our Mutual Friend online reading project and who assigned me my character (I didn’t reveal my secret identity to anyone though). I also met a very nice man who’s name I’ve completely forgotten but whom I think maybe runs the Dickens Fellowship and who made me feel I’d be welcome at Gad’s Hill which was SO awesome, even if I didn’t have time this trip to take him up on the offer. Sir, if you’re reading, I’m sorry I forgot your name.

– So. Many. Ideas. Every presentation made me think about the works they covered in new ways, and made me very aware that reading your works is one thing, Charlie, but I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the wealth of scholarship out there. Every paper I heard made me want to go back and re-read those chapters they mention and dig for new meanings and interpretations. I think it’s time to start easing myself into the contemporary scholarship and see what I can find.

My only complaint was that a day just didn’t seem long enough, and I wanted to be able to clone myself so that I could attend all the panels I missed. Also, had there been a Dickens-themed book table with recent publications, or other stuff for sale, Dickens- or conference- or college-related, I absolutely would have bought all the things, because I like souvenirs and it would have been cool to buy a book by one of the attendees or a collection that would introduce a newcomer to the scholarship side of things. Just a thought. 🙂

There’s nothing for it but to keep an eye out for next year’s topic and see if I can’t make this a more regular occurrence (as well as finally make it to Rochester).

As days go, Charlie, it was right up there among the best.

Yours convivially,