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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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.