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

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. 🙂


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.



A creepy interlude

Dear Charlie,

I know I owe you a proper letter about Our Mutual Friend, and I’ve made good progress into volume two (and I’ve finally figured out who I’m supposed to be rooting for), but this evening I have a bone to pick with you.


This is the stuff of nightmares, my friend. And it’s your fault.

It’s about clowns.

Now, I’m not alone in finding clowns more creepy and deeply suspicious than they are fun and entertaining. I would cheerfully watch any number of horror movies rather than be in the same room with one. But it wasn’t until I read this article on today that I found out that you, my dear, played a part in the creepification of the clown. This saddens me deeply.

Just when you think you know a guy…

Granted, I’m pretty sure you didn’t set out to unsettle unsuspecting circus-goers when you set out to write about the most famous clown of your day, Joseph Grimaldi, but it just goes to show you how the most benign things can take on a life of their own. A damned disturbing life, as it happens.

Which reminds me of something I saw for sale on Etsy a few months ago.

I love The Pickwick Papers even more than I dislike clowns. So you can imagine my distress when a search for “Charles Dickens” on that venerable online store brought me face to face with quite possibly the ugliest piece of pottery that ever claimed kinship with your popular book. Just look what Beswick did with the wonderful Sam Weller:


Look into his dead, dead eyes and then tell me you’ll sleep absolutely soundly tonight…

The scariest part of all? The damned thing was produced from 1935 to 1973! Do you know how many of those things must be lurking about in china cabinets around the world?? It gives me the willies just thinking about it. Please, someone, buy the damn thing already and stop it looking at me.

But it goes to show the remarkable popularity of the character, that just sticking his name on something so disquieting would make it sell for frickin’ decades. I can’t think of a comparable twentieth century literary character (who hasn’t had a movie tie-in) who has such a wide appeal or such a presence in popular culture. But seeing how frightening this is, maybe that’s not such a bad thing…

All of this makes reading about bodies being pulled out of the Thames positively cheerful in comparison, Charlie. So I’ll bid you a good night and return to the stories of Lizzie and Bella and Rokesmith and Riderhood and Boffin.

But I just might leave a light on tonight…

Affectionately, except for the whole clown business,


In which I buy stuff

Dear Charlie,

I’m less than 100 pages from the end of “David Copperfield,” and rather than write you two more letters about that fantastic book, I thought instead I’d share with you some miscellaneous bits and pieces I’ve collected relating to you.

It’s kind of weird that this time last year I was completely oblivious to your charms, whereas now I can’t see anything even remotely associated with you without a) getting very excited and b) wanting to own it. The only thing preventing me from purchasing this Tale of Two Cities t-shirt while on a recent trip to The Book Man in Chilliwack was the fact that I haven’t read the book yet (I bought The Maltese Falcon one instead). I strongly suspect it’ll be in my closet by August.

One of these things is more obscure than the others…

Anyway, I went to an auction a few months ago and saw three Royal Doulton figurines of characters from your books. And having the rabid possessiveness of a new convert, I bid on them and won them. Now I can look up at my hutch and see Mr. Pickwick (yay!), Tiny Tim (yay!), and Stiggins (ya—wait, who?).

I thought he must have been a character from a book I hadn’t yet read, but no, he’s tucked away in the Pickwick Papers, being one pineapple-rum-imbibing reverend who takes advantage of, and preaches to Mrs. Weller (and whom Mr. Weller, Sr. gleefully boots into the street after his wife’s unfortunate death).

I’m guessing that The Pickwick Papers were far more popular when the series of figurines was first commissioned, since so many of them are characters from that book. However, having now read over half of your body of work, and having been introduced to a myriad of memorable characters, I can think of more than a few who should have been memorialized ahead of Stiggins. Barnaby Rudge himself springs to mind. Quilp, too, would have been fun to design, having such a distinctive look. It’s not a great photo, but you can see most of the figurines on Christie’s website, where almost the entire series sold for £576 back in 2005. Who would you have chosen, I wonder?

I was aided in the identification of Stiggins by a book I bought online, called Charles Dickens: A Celebration of His Life and Works. It turns out to be less about your life and more about listing every character in every book you wrote, complete with contemporary and modern illustrations. Not engrossing bedtime reading, but handy for keeping names straight. This ambitious project of mine, continuing after your year-long bicentenary, has enjoyed the unforeseen advantage that all of the books that came out or were reprinted for that memorable birthday are now slowly migrating to the discount shelves (I love you, but I’d rather spend $5 than $40 on books about you).

How cool is it that your descendant is also a writer? Pretty damn cool.

And speaking of discounted books, I also picked up a fantastic one written by Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, your great-great-great granddaughter and patron of the Dickens Museum in London. Written in association with the museum, it features an informative, bite-sized biography divided into time periods and other areas of scholarship like your views on religion and the poor, and it’s nicely illustrated as well. I learned, for example, that, much like David Copperfield did, you had one hell of a crush on a young lady and that the relationship, unlike David’s, didn’t progress as far as you would have liked.

But what makes this book extra awesome is that it also contains facsimiles of actual documents from the museum, such as your marriage certificate, different calling cards with your photograph, a ticket to your final reading tour, and pages of your original manuscripts. It’s not as exciting as seeing that letter you wrote, but it’s the next best thing. I’ll have to console myself when I’ve finished reading all your works by perusing these books at greater leisure.

And now I’ll get back to the final pages of David Copperfield with great anticipation. And until I write again, I remain,

Yours affectionately,




Red letter day!

Dear Charlie,

Highlights of my lunch time during the week are usually confined to whether the turkey quesadilla special is on in the office cafeteria, or if someone is playing an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in a meeting room. But not today. Today it was meeting you.

And when I say meeting you, I don’t mean that I popped over to Westminster Abbey and exhumed your body, because that would be impractical, impossible, and more than a little gross. But I did go over to the Center for Arts and Culture at the University of Calgary with my friend Blair and we were allowed to see their very early copy of The Pickwick Papers.

This image isn’t in my edition

This was neat enough in itself, since it appears to be a kind of author’s proof, and includes notes about where the illustrations are to appear and a list of errata and what looks like a newspaper clipping from you pasted on one of the first pages.

There’s a small note card describing the book that says:

This is a unique first edition, containing first of all a letter from Dickens to his publishers, Chapman and Hall. It contains all 43 illustrations by Seymour and Phiz. In addition it contains the plates originally done by Buss, which were later withdrawn from other issues. And, finally, it contains an extra set of illustrations by Thomas Onwyn.

Wait a second. A letter? From you? It’s true! For a few minutes today my hand rested where yours did 165-odd years ago as you tried to explain that a terrible headache had prevented you from putting pen to paper. I wonder if your friendly publishers were at all sympathetic? Probably not, if they had to work as hard as I did to decipher your doctor’s-prescription-worthy penmanship. Even if they weren’t, and even if it’s not your finest literary achievement, to me it’s almost like meeting you to see that fantastic flourish underneath your name first hand. Please excuse my going all fangirl on you, but it was just awesome to see a little piece of you.

We have now touched the same piece of paper! Omg!

And the fun didn’t stop there. The woman who had dug out the book had also found a huge, beautiful tome called “Dickens’ Working Notes” by one Harry Stone. It contains copies of your plot outlines, working titles and other notes on one page, and on the other the undoubtedly patient Mr. Stone has painstakingly typed them out. Since I’m almost finished Dombey & Son, I peeked at your notes for that particular work. They’re fascinating.

One page of your plan for “Dombey & Son”

And the very necessary transcription.

I especially liked seeing the questions to yourself. Things like ‘Describe Mr. Morfin here?’ and your answer  ‘No.’ I’ll have to go back when I have more time and take a more leisurely look inside your brain at work. From what I saw, though, Dombey was comprehensively plotted beforehand (and it’s a great plot, as I slowly reach the final pages of the book – but more on that in another post).

But now it’s almost time for bed. It was lovely to meet you today, however ephemerally. And in spite of your terrible penmanship, I remain,

Affectionately yours,