A Canadian Dickens fan in London: Part 1

Dear Charlie,

Gosh, it’s been a while since I wrote you, hasn’t it? Hopefully I can make it up to you by recounting my visit to you (!) a few weeks ago.

I sent in a proposal for this year’s Dickens Day conference, and it was accepted, which gave me and excellent excuse for a holiday. I’m not sure what I would have done had my paper not been accepted. Found a flimsier excuse and gone anyway, most likely.

This letter will fangirl over the many Dickens-related things in London. Part 2 will cover Dickens Day itself.

Westminster Abbey

Coming from a city that’s younger than you are, Charlie, and one that for the most keeps its dead confined to cemeteries and away from churches, Westminster Abbey is unlike anything I see on a daily basis. It’s astonishingly beautiful and impressively old and so stuffed full of very important dead people that it makes your head spin. I can’t properly convey the feeling I had while being guided through the various chapels and seeing tombs of monarchs that changed the world and walking over the gravestones or countless others who made contributions to science, music, literature, art. Impermanent might be the word, especially as you walk across stones where the names of the occupants beneath have been effaced by the thousands of feet that have come before you. I’d tell you more about some of the famous graves I saw, but my memory is crap and you’re not allowed to take photos inside the Abbey, which absolutely and totally bites.

Westminster Abbey, graves of Dickens, Kipling and Hardy

So. Many. Feels.

It’s interesting to think that, while you’ve been dead for over a century, as far as the Abbey is concerned, you’re just a newcomer. And I know that you didn’t want to be buried here, but I can’t think of a more fitting resting place.

Poet’s Corner is amazing, Charlie, but I have to confess that I really only had eyes for you. After spending so much time in your company over the past two years, to find myself suddenly face to face with you (face to grave?), was unexpectedly intense and very moving. You probably didn’t even notice me, and I can’t blame you, because I wasn’t there for very long. I really wanted to spend a bit more time taking it in, Charlie, but I may have burst into tears. My husband may have escorted me to a nearby seat. It may have taken me a little while to compose myself. I may have all the emotional fortitude of a five year-old meeting Santa for the first time. It’s probably a good thing they don’t allow pictures – it wouldn’t have been pretty.

The Charles Dickens Museum

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My favorite door in London. 🙂

After pulling myself together and doing some non-Dickens sightseeing, we ended our day at 48 Doughty Street, an address which will be familiar to you. Unfortunately, it’s the only place in London where you lived that’s still standing. Fortunately, it’s absolutely adorable, and full of things you’d recognize. Having had my allotted emotional outburst of the day, I was more excited than anything to be wandering through your dining room, study, library and bedroom. There’s so much to see – all these wonderful, tangible pieces of you and your family in a cozy and intimate environment. I loved that we could walk into and around each room, and that they weren’t all roped off like set pieces. It was easy to imagine you striding down the stairs, or reading aloud to your family in front of the fire. I confess that I touched your arm chair before realizing that I probably wasn’t supposed to touch anything. Apologies.

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Your writing desk and chair from Gad’s Hill look quite happy in your cozy library.

I’m sure you’d find it a bit incongruous to see some of the furniture and décor from your later life at Gad’s Hill arranged in this location. Your desk and chair set up in your old library, for instance, or your reading lectern behind glass in the sitting room. But you’d probably get a kick from seeing the ordinary street signs that you saw and wrote about all rescued and collected here. For a visitor like me, having all these wonderful items all in one place is definitely convenient, when your itinerary doesn’t include a tour of Rochester, anyway.

I’m not sure you’d want the drawing of yourself in spectacles displayed for anyone to see, but that, and the locks of your hair, made me feel like I got to see Charles Dickens: the regular person, and not Charles Dickens: super important author.

 The British Library

gothics-posterI admit that I wasn’t expecting to run into you at the British Library’s exhibition of Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. Mary Shelly and Bram Stoker, yes, and even Wilkie Collins wasn’t a surprise, but I tend to think of you as, I dunno, fairly un-gothic. Maybe it was the whole “convivial” theme I’ve been focusing on for months in preparation for the conference, but you don’t strike me as particularly spooky. However, there was a clip playing of a veiled and spooky Gillian Anderson as Lady Deadlock from Bleak House, and the section of the exhibition that focused on you referred to the ghosts in A Christmas Carol (a lot of your Christmas stories feature ghosts, I realized), and suddenly I could absolutely see how you slot into the larger Gothic literary tradition (even if I have trouble seeing the ghost of Christmas Present as a creature as terrifying as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster – he’s certainly not as popular a costume at Halloween).

On a unrelated note, it was fascinating to see a page of one of your manuscripts, and to be able compare your handwriting to Wilkie Collins’ – yours all rushed and messy, and his very tiny and precise. I don’t know what it says about your respective mental states, but it was neat to see the manuscripts almost side by side. It was a really interesting exhibition, and having it include you was an unexpected treat.

 

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Up close and personal. A lock of your hair displayed at The Dickens Museum.

I loved hanging out with you in London, Charlie. Having Doughty Street a minute’s walk from our hotel meant that I could do my best to block out the cars and modern buildings and try to imagine you closing your front door, adjusting your hat and striding along the pavements on one of your epic walks. From your grave, to your early home to the library, this was the perfect way to continue our friendship and inspire further areas to research and discover.

I remain your overly emotional friend,

Melissa

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Affectionately,

Melissa

A bevy of biographies

Dear Charlie,

I’m not ignoring you, honestly. I’ve just been out of your sphere of influence in my reading/watching materials lately. But I have added another book to my growing number of biographies of you. I’m now the proud owner of Claire Tomalin’s biography, bringing the total of Charles-Dickens-biographies-I-own-and-have-not-yet-read to three.

biographies

When I started my year-long reading project, I sort of intended to read at least Forster’s biography as I went along, and I did make it through the first couple of chapters, but you wrote so frickin’ much, my friend, that I quickly abandoned that plan in favour of just keeping up with your writings. So, while I dipped in to your life occasionally (I confess I resorted to Wikipedia more than once), I haven’t yet read one of your biographies cover to cover. But now that I’ve put some distance between myself and that marathon o’ reading, I find I’m missing your charming company. (That and I’m still trying to shake the creepy residue that Dan Simmons’ book left on my brain, so reading a biography where you’re NOT portrayed as a hyperactive sociopath sounds really good.)

Assuming that my next read is one of these fine biographies, which one should I start with? I’m sure that you’d rather I begin and end with Forster, whom you knew and trusted not to include anything too salacious or derogatory, but where’s the fun in that? I confess to finding the sheer heft of Ackroyd’s book more than a little intimidating. I’m leaning towards Tomalin’s book, because a) I’m trying to read more books by female authors this year, b) it got good reviews, and c) now that I’m cycling to work again, this volume would be much easier to fit in a pannier without making my bike tip over.

Or perhaps I should add to my biography collection and seek out a few more before I make my decision. Simon Callow’s, Jane Smiley’s and Michael Slater’s books also look really interesting.

What do you think, Charlie? Which biographer “gets” the real you? Where should I start?

Affectionately,

Melissa

P.S. In other news, I was feeling quite accomplished having surpassed the 100,000 visitor mark, until I started going through my blog’s spam filters. Now I suspect that half my visitors have, in fact, been soulless spam robots intent on getting me to buy viagra, fake running shoes and purses, and to watch celebrity sex tapes. There are a lot of things you’d like about the 21st century, Charlie, but spam would definitely not be one of them. :-/ -M

Reviewing Simmons’ Drood

Dear Charlie,

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Drood

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.

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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.

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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,

Melissa