A Canadian Dickens fan in London: Part 2

Dear Charlie,

It’s high time I wrote to you to tell you about Dickens Day, which was the justification for this year’s trip to London. Although it’s an annual event (its 28th to be exact), I stumbled across it on Twitter for the first time earlier this year. The theme for 2014’s event was “Dickens and Conviviality,” and since “convivial” pretty much sums up our friendship to date, I felt compelled to submit a paper proposal.

So on the morning of Saturday, October 11, 2014 I arrived at Senate House, University of London. It looks like this:

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But when you’re giving a presentation to a bunch of people who probably know a heck of a lot more about you than I do, and you’ve never given a presentation as long as twenty minutes before, it bore a striking resemblance to a certain supernaturally afflicted apartment from Ghostbusters:

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Intimidating building aside, once I found the registration table my nerves were calmed by the warm welcome I received from the event’s organizers, Ben, Bethan and Holly (who, unlike me, actually remembered to take pictures and put them on Twitter). Also calming was learning that my panel was to be in the smaller of the meeting rooms, and that my husband, aunt and second cousin (or maybe first-cousin-once-removed) and her husband were in the audience to lend moral support. You can read my presentation here – it wasn’t nearly as scholarly as the other papers, but it seemed to go over well, and I think I answered the questions directed to me afterwards mostly coherently. 🙂 Go me!

You can read about the other presentations at this far more coherent account of the day, but as a newcomer to the event, my impressions were these:

reference– There’s a scene in The Avengers where the team is sitting around a table in the fancy S.H.I.E.L.D. ship and Steve Rogers, who’s been frozen since the 1940s, finally understands a pop culture reference. Sitting in a large room filled with strangers who got all the Dickens jokes and references I had the very strong feeling that I had finally found my people. After spending more than two years in relative solitude (Twitter notwithstanding), it gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies to be able to look around at a room full of people who share the same kind of affection and interest in you that I now have. I wanted to hug them all, or put them all in my pocket and take them home with me, or at least invite them to my house for a party. Seriously. Drop by whenever. I’m sure I could do a little better with a meal than David Copperfield did. (See? They’d all totally get that.)

– Speaking of David, I loved the two dramatic readings that ended the morning and afternoon sessions, one from David Copperfield and one from Our Mutual Friend. The three readers effortlessly assumed all the characters’ identities, and brought each episode richly to life. Even my husband and aunt, neither of whom have read Dickens, were laughing. The readings are such a good idea – after stretching our brains with some really interesting interpretations and ideas during the panels, they bring us all back to a collective appreciation of the source material in such an entertaining way. You would have loved it, Charlie, I have no doubt.

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Look! Look at all the Dickens people! 🙂

– And the people! I’m deeply, deeply envious of all the people I met who live in and around London and who have such instant access to all these Dickens-related sites and events and conferences. However, they’re all so friendly and welcoming that I can’t hold it against them. I was so glad that there were a number of breaks to give me a chance to track people down. Meeting fellow newcomers to both Dickens and the conference, like David, and fellow presenters like Katie was so wonderful, as was finally getting to meet Twitter friends face to face like Pete (who also gave a really interesting presentation on the often overlooked humour in Edwin Drood) and Emma, who organized the Our Mutual Friend online reading project and who assigned me my character (I didn’t reveal my secret identity to anyone though). I also met a very nice man who’s name I’ve completely forgotten but whom I think maybe runs the Dickens Fellowship and who made me feel I’d be welcome at Gad’s Hill which was SO awesome, even if I didn’t have time this trip to take him up on the offer. Sir, if you’re reading, I’m sorry I forgot your name.

– So. Many. Ideas. Every presentation made me think about the works they covered in new ways, and made me very aware that reading your works is one thing, Charlie, but I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the wealth of scholarship out there. Every paper I heard made me want to go back and re-read those chapters they mention and dig for new meanings and interpretations. I think it’s time to start easing myself into the contemporary scholarship and see what I can find.

My only complaint was that a day just didn’t seem long enough, and I wanted to be able to clone myself so that I could attend all the panels I missed. Also, had there been a Dickens-themed book table with recent publications, or other stuff for sale, Dickens- or conference- or college-related, I absolutely would have bought all the things, because I like souvenirs and it would have been cool to buy a book by one of the attendees or a collection that would introduce a newcomer to the scholarship side of things. Just a thought. 🙂

There’s nothing for it but to keep an eye out for next year’s topic and see if I can’t make this a more regular occurrence (as well as finally make it to Rochester).

As days go, Charlie, it was right up there among the best.

Yours convivially,

Melissa

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