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.
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.
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
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.
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
I 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.
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,