Where fiction and reality meet

Dear Charlie,

When I went to London with my mom and sister in my early twenties, one of the highlights was visiting the Sherlock Holmes museum at 221b (ish) Baker Street. As we stood in Sherlock’s ultra-Victorian living room, I was in ecstasies, pointing to things and whispering, “look! There’s his violin! Look! There’s his pipe! Look! There’s where he shot Queen Victoria’s initials into the wall!” Finally, my sister turned to me with a pitying look and said, “you know he didn’t actually exist, don’t you?”

The weird thing was that this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm in the slightest. If anything, I returned the pitying look because she didn’t share my joy. And I still can’t explain that while, yes, I know very well that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, there was something inexplicable about standing in his living room.

I was reminded of this moment yesterday, Charlie, because I had a similar moment with one of your characters. I recently bought a book called “Lost London” by Philip Davies. It’s a collection of photographs of London streets and buildings taken in the early years of the Twentieth century. The buildings have almost all been demolished, so it’s an absolutely fascinating look into the city as you would have known it.

Anyway, I must have spent a good couple of hours engrossed in the photos, when I came across a photo taken of the back of the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. By the time the photo was taken the building had been converted to warehouses, but in this back view you can see the high, spiked fence that marked the exercise yard on the other side, and which Little Dorritt sees from her room’s window.

Many combinations did those spikes upon the wall assume, many light shapes did the strong iron weave itself into, many golden touches fell upon the rust, while Little Dorrit sat there musing.

Knowing that your own father had been imprisoned here for debt made it a very poignant photo, since he, and most probably you, spent a lot of time staring at that same high wall and those imposing spikes.

But what got me thinking back to Baker Street was that on the facing page there was a photo of Little Dorrit’s own tiny garret room! What an unexpected and amazingly timely find!

A garret, and a Marshalsea garret without compromise, was Little Dorrit’s room.

Yes, Little Dorrit doesn’t exist, but there’s something thrilling about seeing the room that you had obviously seen (maybe even slept in yourself?) and which you had given over to your character. It’s not even that it makes me feel closer to you. I feel closer to her. It was the same when I saw a photo of an old coaching inn and suddenly felt that I knew Sam Weller a bit better than I did before.

And it’s not just me. What makes us treat fictional characters as real people? Why visit Highclere Castle and pretend it’s “Downton Abbey”? Why go to New Zealand and tour the settings from “The Lord of the Rings”? Why stand in a room in Baker Street and get so excited? In the end, not even my sister was immune, since she unashamedly visited the village which was the setting for “Ballykissangel” while she was travelling in Ireland. (Although she still insists that there’s a difference between seeing something that was on tv in real life and seeing something completely made up. Potato potahto.) 😉

All I know is that finding that unexpected photo has made me enjoy reading Little Dorrit even more. I can’t explain it, but maybe I don’t have to.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

 

 

The dangers of befriending the dead

Dear Charlie,

One of the dangers of striking up a friendship with a dead Victorian author such as yourself is that, as much as you find you have in common, you will be periodically reminded of how different you sometimes are. I’ve been amazed time and again by just how much connects your time and my own, and it’s made me feel closer to you as we’ve become better acquainted.

Don’t get me wrong, my friend, I’ve come to love you dearly, but there was one article in my volume of reprinted pieces (reprinted, mostly, from your journal “Household Words” which ran from 1850 to 1859) that made me pause and question my affections.

The article in question is called “The Noble Savage,” and it doesn’t pull any punches. In the very first paragraph we have such gems as

I don’t care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth.

And

Yielding to whichsoever of these agreeable eccentricities, he is a savage – cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, monotonous humbug.

Ouch.

You don’t see that quoted on tea towels and coasters in the local gift shops, now do you?

Please, sir, I hope you’re not this unbelievably racist.

The whole article continues along much the same lines as the opening, and is so vitriolic that even now I wonder if it’s tongue in cheek or whether you actually did feel this strongly. I really hope it’s the former, because it’s hard to believe that this article was penned by the same hand that used a whole novel to persuade readers that the working class should be treated like human beings, who changed his American travel plans to avoid slave-owning states, and who felt so badly about his anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin that he deliberately changed the text when reading from “Oliver Twist” in later years. This seems mighty out of character for someone whose sympathies generally lie with the underdog.

Seriously, what’s the deal, Charlie?

The rest of the volume, on the other hand, is an absolutely fascinating mixture of journalism, short fiction, criticism and recollections that present a completely different picture of you – an enthusiastic, curious, amiable person prone to sea- and motion-sickness, fond of travelling, and ready to expose government bureaucracy and inefficiency. It was especially interesting to see the forerunners of characters and plot lines that would emerge in later novels, including one about an inventor and the hoops he had to jump through (and the money he had to spend) in order to get a patent, which I’ve just discovered appears in the first part of Little Dorrit (which I’ve just started).

Law and Order: Victorian London style

There are also several articles that emerged as the result of a series of interviews and ride-alongs with London police officers (including Detective Field, who was later to be transformed into Detective Bucket of “Bleak House”). You recount their daring detective work with a gusto that makes me think you’d be addicted to Law and Order if you were around today. I also get the feeling that when you were invited to accompany the police on their rounds you were outwardly trying to be very serious, while inwardly aquiver with excitement that you were actually walking the policeman’s local beat.

 

My personal favorite, however, is the article called “Bill Sticking,” recounting your conversation in the back of a wagon-turned-moving billboard with an ancient bill sticker. I could just imagine you, too curious to resist climbing in and sharing a pipe and some rum with a complete stranger in order to learn about the history of London advertising. It also made me realize that ubiquitous advertising is not a new invention. Again, just one more of those things that link us across time.

All in all, I leave this volume with mostly positive feelings and a new respect for your talents as a journalist and your powers of observation in these more mature ‘sketches’ of your surroundings. I just wish that your “Noble Savage” article hadn’t left such a bad taste in my mouth and lingering questions in my brain.

I still remain, however,

Yours affectionately,

Melissa

Dickens on tour

Dear Charlie,

Remember your trip to Canada? How you gazed in awe at Niagra Falls, and visited Toronto and Montreal? I was so pleased when I read that you’d visited my native land, but I admit that I was a little disappointed that you never made it closer to my hometown of Calgary.

Of course, this would have been impossible, not only because of the vast distances involved, but because there was no city to visit. Fort Calgary wasn’t constructed until 1875, and even then I’m guessing that it wouldn’t have been abundant in amenities for travelers. It’s strange to think that while you were writing about the teeming streets of London, the place I live didn’t even exist.

Ah, home sweet home in the 1870s.

Now, however, my fair city has over a million lovely inhabitants. I think that’s pretty big, but I just read that London in the 1860s had over three million people living in it! Three million!! I suppose to you I’m still living in Hicksville, aren’t I?

Look at you, all dressed up for international adventures.

But I digress.

Through the wonders of the internet, I discovered that your former residence at 48 Doughty Street, now an awesome museum celebrating your life and works, is having an exhibition starting in June called “Dickens on Tour,” and they are soliciting submissions.

What perfect timing! All I had to do was print you out (which I did almost immediately), and take you places. Since I’ve already been trundling you around for the better part of nine months, I’m so excited to be able to document our travels and share them with other enthusiasts of you and your work.

Another week of choir rehearsals brought me downtown this week, so I thought you might like to start your Calgarian tour with some of the city’s more famous landmarks.

I submitted this photo of you on 8th avenue (calling the street ‘historic’ would no doubt seem strange to you, but here we get very excited about anything that’s older than our grandparents). And the Dickens Museum posted it to their Facebook page, which I’m very pleased about. I can’t wait to see where else you visit and what adventures you have.

What better way to start a tour of Calgary than with a stroll down Stephen Avenue?

I’m very excited about this whole project, but I don’t want the exhibition’s organizers to refer to me as ‘that weird woman who keeps sending us photos’ so I’ll post other photos I take here, rather than start spamming your former home.

As well as a downtown street, I thought you might also like to see our iconic Calgary Tower up close (well, you saw this cool horse sculpture up close, but the Tower isn’t far away):

As far as the reading goes, I’ve almost finished a volume of “Reprinted Pieces,” which is mostly articles you wrote for your journal “Household Words.” I’ll chat with you about that soon, but since we’re on the subject of places to visit, I gotta say that you’re the only person I know who would take a trip to Paris and then spend his time visiting the abattoires to compare them to English slaughterhouses.

I won’t be taking you to any slaughterhouses during your visit. Let’s make that clear up front. Prisons aren’t high on my list either.

I wonder what else you’d like to see? Any suggestions?

Affectionately,

Melissa

 

A short time with ‘Hard Times’

Dear Charlie,

Verdi’s Requiem is over, and so is Hard Times. It feels a bit weird finishing one of your books in less than three weeks – I barely got to know Gradgrind, Blackpool and Bounderby before closing the covers on their adventures, so I’m left feeling a little shortchanged. Just goes to show you how quickly you can get into the groove of long-ass novels, doesn’t it?

To make up for that, though, I discovered a trio of quirky, cream-puff stories hiding out in the back of the volume. “The Hunted,” is a lovely, tiny little detective story, “Holiday Romance,” is four adorable stories told by children, while “George Silverman’s Explanation,” is a singularly strange tale of an abused child turned tutor trying to justify his actions concerning an heiress and poor student. And while they were an unexpected treat to read, especially after the heavy morality of Hard Times, they seem a touch fluffy for you, Charlie.

I don’t mean to dismiss them so lightly, my friend, but I did want talk a little more about Hard Times itself.

24th century incarnation of Louisa Gradgrind

It took me almost three-quarters of the novel to realize that Gradgrind’s daughter, Louisa, bears a striking resemblance to our old friend Edith Dombey. Or perhaps Edith’s alter ego is more appropriate, since Edith was raised to be nothing but ornamental and Louisa, Vulcan-like, was raised on nothing but logic and facts. Both women, however, have a chilling self-awareness that they lack fundamental pieces of a well-rounded character, and both enter into marriages making it very clear that their husband is getting exactly what it says on the tin. That said, compared to Edith, Louisa does manage to get herself extricated from her loveless relationship fairly painlessly, and there seems to be hope that she can yet cultivate the sentimental side of her nature, with the help of the various women in her life.

The men in Hard Times, on the other hand, could all fall down hidden mine shafts and no one would miss them, in my humble opinion. Sure, Gradgrind has a bit of an epiphany concerning his teaching methods, but not before he’s damaged his children. His son Tom is ten kinds of useless, and a selfish creep to boot, and Harthouse is even creepier. I really like what you said about him being a threat not because he has deliberately evil intent, but because his boredom and indifference to everything makes him so dangerous to anything that crosses his path (and I’m astounded that he was persuaded to leave Louisa alone by the force of Sissy’s sheer honesty, but I’ll suspend my disbelief because I like you).

And Bounderby!! What a fantastically annoying guy! He stole every scene he was in through sheer bombast. And that twist with his mom at the end was pure comedic gold. He almost feels too big a character for this short novel, but he may have overwhelmed a longer one. And the interplay between Mrs. Sparsit and him is sitcom fabulous. I love him and hate him at the same time – well done!

The only breaks Stephen gets are when he falls down a mine shaft.

It’s too bad that the ‘main’ story of poor old Stephen’s frame-up gets overshadowed by all these nefarious characters. I felt sorry for him, and I wish he’d shown a little more backbone, even though to do so would have instantly singled him out as a troublemaker. I do appreciate your efforts, though, to put human faces on the mass of industrial workers and give them meaningful, sympathetic stories in a rough and dirty environment.

And now I leave this smoky, dirty town behind in favour of some of the articles you wrote for “Household Words.” I can’t say hard Times is a favorite, my friend, but I appreciate what you were trying to do.

Affectionately,

Melissa

A miscellany of Bleak House things

Dear Charlie,

Verdi turns 200 this year!

My correspondence has been interrupted of late, but having just celebrated your bicentenary, I know you won’t begrudge similar celebrations for another genius who’s celebrating his own 200th birthday this year: Giuseppe Verdi. I’ve been rehearsing for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s upcoming performance of Verdi’s Requiem. This means that while I have a lot of time to read before rehearsals, it doesn’t give me a lot of time to write to you. But if you didn’t get a chance to hang with your Italian compatriot during your lifetimes, you should float your ghostly self to the Jack Singer concert hall this weekend and check it out. I’ll keep an eye out for ectoplasm.

So, I finally finished Bleak House, which had, I’m happy to say, a thoroughly satisfying ending, as well as a couple more unfortunate but fairly predictable deaths (but how many people can die from lawsuit fatigue, really? I didn’t even know that was a thing). And while I know that some people consider Esther a bit of an annoying goody-goody, she’s got nothing on John Jarndyce. Seriously. Let’s just put ourselves in his head for a moment, shall we?

Oh, hello young, attractive doctor returned from overseas. What? You still love Esther? Well, yes, I love her too and am actually engaged to her. But you know what? I’m pretty old and unsuitable, so even though she’s happily preparing for our wedding, why don’t I just go ahead and give her to you without talking to her about it. That wouldn’t be weird at all. No no, I’ll be fine and happy just watching you two be happy. Really.

Uh huh. Cuz that would totally happen, Charlie.

Anyway, before I leave Bleak House, I wanted to show you some of the more entertaining pictures I found on the internet while searching for images more appropriate to the civilized tone of these letters.

This has to be one of the most obscure “Keep Calm” variants I’ve ever seen:

And I’ve been saving this one for months:

This cat picture isn’t as random as it might seem. I think LOL cats would be right up your alley, since I also found a picture of a letter opener of yours (housed at the New York Public Library), ornamented with a cat’s paw:

Engraved on the handle: “C.D. In Memory of Bob 1862″

A good luck rabbit’s foot is creepy, but a well known talisman. Is a cat’s paw a similar thing? At first I was envisioning scenarios where this creature spent one too many nights howling on your fence before you pegged it with a rock, until I found out it belonged to your own beloved cat, Bob. At least you didn’t stuff all of him, like you did with your raven, Grip. I’m a little disturbed, I admit, but very happy to know you’re a fellow cat person.

Anyway, I’ve just started Hard Times. Seeing as this is the first single-volume novel you’ve written since Oliver Twist, I’m interested to see how something half your usual length impacts your style. Also, I’ll hopefully have a chance to get a little caught up with my self-imposed schedule.

Hope you can make the concert this weekend. You should find Verdi and go together. I’ll watch for two sets of ghostly footprints in the lobby. Heck, bring Bob too.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa