A birthday statue

Dear Charlie,

Happy slightly belated 202nd birthday, my friend! I didn’t get you a gift, but in case you missed it, Portsmouth got you a statue!

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Happy birthday, Charlie!

And before you start protesting that you didn’t want a statue, that it’s expressly in your will that you didn’t want to be memorialized, and that bronze really isn’t your colour, I would like to remind you gently of three things.

  1. You’ve already been buried in Westminster Abbey, also expressly against your dying wishes, so it’s not like this is the first time items in your will have been ignored in favour of a bit of public recognition. (The up side of your grave’s location is that, unlike being buried in some quiet churchyard, you have some illustrious company to discuss things with. I imagine you and Kipling and Sheridan strolling around the Abbey in the dark. Actually, check that. You’d probably be walking in brisk laps around the interior while they looked on in amazement from some cozy alcove.)
  2. This isn’t even your first life-sized statue (although it’s the first in the UK). Those upstart Americans and badass Australians both said to heck with your will and made statues of you in the 19th century. Frankly, I’m amazed at the restraint shown in the UK that it’s taken this long for them to join the Charles Dickens Statue Club.
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    The only other statues of you are in Philadelphia and Sydney, both looking deep in thought.

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    Martin Jennings creating Charles Dickens, who at the moment looks like something out of War of the Worlds.

  3. It’s quite a nice statue. Unlike its 19th century counterparts, you are not looking deep in thought here. I imagine you’d quite like the successful, relaxed, slightly theatrical depiction. It looks like you’re about to give a reading to a small group of friends. And it’s at eye level, not on a huge plinth like the other two, which makes you part of the crowd and not some inaccessible icon towering above the throng.I also think you would find the pictures of the work in progress very funny, with your lack of face and impossibly spindly legs.It looks so alien I think it’s only a matter of time until the Ancient Aliens guys get a hold of you.

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Statues aside, I don’t think I need remind you of the many smaller than life representations of you. I’ve already frightened you with those. Seriously, you should have been worried less about statues and added a clause in your will expressly forbidding “tiny, nightmare-inducing toys, dolls and medallions.” Your new statue is so not frightening that if I went to Portsmouth I could literally go and sit on your knee (which I won’t do, because that would then be a bit creepy on my part).

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Penguin’s latest Dickens’ collection is a thing of beauty.

I know you wanted your “claims to the remembrance of [your] Country upon [your] published works,” but honestly, Charlie, I don’t think you need fear that your statue will somehow usurp the place of your books. Sure, maybe Dombey & Son isn’t as well known today as it was when you wrote it (although it deserves to be), but I could walk into any Calgary bookstore right now and find Bleak House and The Pickwick Papers taking up more than what you would think would be their fair share of precious shelf space. And Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without seeing A Christmas Carol on TV or in a theatre.

Trust me, my friend, the thirty-six volumes I read last year that are sitting in my library are infinitely more precious to me than any hunk of bronze with your face on it. Statues or no statues, your literary legacy is as strong as ever.

So try not to fret about this generation’s lack of regard for your dying wishes and do what everyone who has ever received a birthday present they weren’t quite enamoured with does: smile graciously and accept the damn thing.

I suspect that smile will be genuine as you walk around the Abbey tonight.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

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.

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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.

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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.

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This is what Heaven looks like to historians.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Affectionately,

Melissa

 

 

 

 

Dickens’ Chamber of Horrors, Part 2

Dear Charlie,

After unearthing some truly disturbing likenesses of your characters last month, I felt it only fair to see what kind of shiver-inducing articles I could dig up out there that bear your own likeness. Being the beloved cultural icon that you are, this wasn’t difficult.

Interestingly, everyone seems to love you with a beard, even though you didn’t sport one until relatively late in your literary career. Turns out in your younger years you were quite the trendsetter.

Before we trot out these monstrosities, I think it behooves us to remind ourselves of your very UN-horrific face:

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Hello there, handsome.

And now to the terrible, terrible things that (probably) well-meaning people have done to you.

I apologize in advance to anyone who owns or created these things, but mostly I apologize to you, Charlie, for being depicted in such unflattering ways.

Let’s start with something festive. And what could be more festive than a Charles Dickens nutcracker:

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Because nothing says “Charles Dickens” like a grizzled, bespectacled old man dressed like Colin Baker’s Doctor, who’s about to trip over his shopping while balancing the world’s largest quill pen on a tray (I’m sure you often went shopping with paper and an enormous feather pen, just in case you had a flash of inspiration). Oh! And there’s an extra book slung around its poor neck, just in case there was any doubt that this nutcracker is an author.

Wait, perhaps this is supposed to be you if you’d lived another 30 years and gone a bit senile… the ghost of Dickens yet to come?

Moving from nutcrackers to porcelain now. I hate to pick on Royal Doulton (I have, after all, started collecting their set of Dickens characters), but this jug gives me the willies:

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It isn’t so much your features I object to, which are actually quite nice. Serene. It’s the goitre-like protrusions erupting from your neck. If I squint, it looks like you’re wearing an Elizabethan ruff, or are doing skinny jazz hands around your face. Mostly, though, it looks like you’re undergoing some sort of alien reproduction-through-budding process, and that’s just not right.

Coins, you might think, would be a safer bet.

Well you’d be wrong.

In this coin, Charles Dickens is very, very angry at something or someone in the middle distance. Probably the coin’s artist.

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Seriously. Tell me you could see this and not feel you’ve done something deeply offensive to literature. Whatever it was, Charlie, I’m very, very sorry.

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And now for the truly terrifying.

I present to you Charles Dickens, the dead-eyed, vampire dwarf:

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And if that wasn’t disturbing enough to keep you up at night. His head comes off.

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Yeah, you can keep your certificates of authenticity and your registration cards. This is just messed up.

After all of these terrible sights, I need a scotch.

Wait a second, that random old guy on the ad is supposed to be you? Uh huh. I think the artist asked what you looked like and was told, “look I don’t have time to find a picture. Just draw a dude with a beard.”

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But who knows, maybe after a few glasses all of these things will look exactly like you.

Join me, my friend. After seeing this post you probably need it more than I do…

Affectionately and apologetically,

Melissa

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:

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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:

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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:

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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!):

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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:

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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:

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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.

Affectionately,

Melissa

Edwin Drood, and the end of a journey

Dear Charlie,

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Well isn’t this just the saddest picture… 🙁

It’s a funny thing about friends. Once you’ve made them, it’s very hard to unmake them.

I had no idea when this little project began, that I would grow so surprisingly fond of you, Charlie, in spite of the fact that you’re dead. Yes, you cheated on your wife, and maybe you weren’t the world’s greatest dad, and you were so racist as to make me want to go all Chuck Norris on you in a dark alley. But you were also intelligent, curious, observant, witty as all heck, and genuinely cared about calling attention to and righting the social evils of your time.

Having befriended you, Charlie, it’s hard to turn around now and say “alright, dead Victorian white dude, your year is up. Back into the ether you go.” You’re not going to be easy to get rid of. Not that I want to.

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Mystery and murder and opium. What a story to leave unfinished!

Maybe it would be easier if you’d actually finished Edwin Drood. As it is, however, there will always be a small portion of my brain spinning out possible endings. I really tried to remain aloof as I read, knowing that it was unfinished and not wanting to get too invested. But noooo, I had to go and get into the damn thing. Why’d you have to make John Jasper such an incredibly interesting character? I want to know what tales he’ll tell under the spell of his opium addiction. I want to know if he killed Edwin or if, like Bradley Headstone, he merely left his victim for dead. Or maybe he didn’t kill his nephew at all, or someone else did, or the whole thing is an elaborate set-up on your part (although, knowing you, I kind of doubt it). And then I start to wonder what parts the opium-selling woman and the slightly mysterious white-haired stranger would have played in the unfolding drama, and who else was waiting in the wings to add their story to the mix. I don’t even know if this was going to be a one- or two-volume story, so I don’t know how much was still to come!

Oh, Charlie, why’d you have to go and die??

aaaaMHclock1My (small) consolation is that whoever put this edition together, whatever their other faults, were clever enough to make sure that this final volume ended, not on the mother of all cliffhangers, but with Master Humphrey’s Clock, which throws us back to the 1840s, almost to the beginning of our time together. It’s definitely helping to soothe these frustrated thoughts. I’ve already been cheered by the most intricately framed tale I’ve ever read – the tragic love story of an Elizabethan apprentice as told in a story about two statues coming to life, as told by a deaf gentleman, whose manuscript Master Humphrey dug out of his old clock. Good lord, man!

But it’s nice to imagine walking into a cozy old room with a gently ticking clock, and sitting down next to old Master Humphrey to listen to a few good, old fashioned stories. I imagine that this is how you envisioned spending your old age, before all the popularity, public readings, train wrecks and infidelity made your hectic life what it became. I’m glad you got to experience it in fiction, even if you never had the chance to enjoy it in reality. Oh man, I’m getting all misty now.

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Yes, let’s just stay here, telling stories and drinking pineapple rum.

OK, on to lighter topics.

I must confess that I don’t have a plan. Stopping this blog dead seems a little harsh, especially since you now seem to pop up with great regularity on the interwebz and in reality, and I might like to write to you about things like your biographies, related books, or more ugly Pickwick pottery. And I want to post the infographic I’ve been working on as soon as it’s finished. So let’s not do anything rash and just see how this develops, shall we?

This is definitely NOT goodbye, my friend.

Affectionately,

Melissa