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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on Claire Tomalin’s biography

Dear Charlie,

If it’s true that you should never meet your heroes, then it’s equally true that you should never read their biographies.

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Charles Dickens: A Life

I realize now, my friend,  that I’ve had you on a bit of a pedestal. Sure, I knew about your affair, and sure, I knew about your sometimes odd behavior as a father, but it wasn’t until I finished Claire Tomalin’s biography the other week that I got a more complete sense of how your writings and your sometimes messy personal life intersected. And I gotta confess, I feel less like fangirling over you and more like nodding sagely and a bit sadly now that I know that you could be a pretty big jerk, as well as being a wonderful and perceptive author.

The biography itself, however, is brilliant. I don’t want to imply that my vague sense of disappointment is in any way a product of bad writing. Tomalin has done a phenomenal amount of homework, and she writes with an engaging style that conveys a wealth of detail without ever getting bogged down in it. She has a fantastic talent for weaving together your books and their significance into the larger fabric of your busy life filled with family, friends, publishers and travel. And although she never takes you out of the spotlight for long, there’s a very real sense of sympathy for your long-suffering and oft-pregnant wife, and an interesting focus on the influence the women in your life had on you.

I really enjoyed reading about your childhood and family life – I never realized just how often you moved houses as a kid. I maaaybe am revealing too much when I tell you I used Tomalin’s handily provided addresses of your former residences and Google maps to take a peek at some of the places you used to live that are still standing. I’m especially glad that Gad’s Hill is still around.

gadshill

Do I feel a bit stalker-y skulking around your former homes using Google Maps? Maybe just a little…

Part of me didn’t want to read about your relationship with Ellen Ternan, or the last years of your life, partly because of the way that Dan Simmons had already made me feel like you were quite manic and out of control. Tomalin, however, presents a much less creepy picture (thank goodness). You’re certainly busy (juggling writing and public readings while trying to keep an affair secret and battling of-course-it’s-not-gout-it’s-frostbite-no-really in your foot), but it’s a much more realistic view.

One of the most shocking parts of the bio was learning the true circumstances surrounding your “Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices.” Because I read the story early on in the year, I envisioned two very young men, excited to be out on their own and enjoying the freedoms and entertainments of youth. Instead, I learn that the trip was a rather flimsy cover for a definitely NOT young you to go chasing like a lovesick schoolboy after frickin’ Nelly Ternan, who “just happened” to be in the same area. Yeah, right. There’s my happy and innocent little vision blown to smithereens.

I’m also pissed off at you for burning your correspondence. Seriously. Don’t you know how difficult you make it to poke into your private life when you do that?

I have a funny mental image of a ghostly you, reading over Ms. Tomalin’s shoulder as she was writing your biography, wringing your hands and pulling your hair in embarrassment that she’s revealing so much about your private life. And then I imagine you ineffectually trying to stuff her into a wardrobe or trunk to prevent her from sending the manuscript to her publishers. I hope, Charlie, that death has mellowed you a little, and that you’re able to look back on yourself and realize that maybe you could have overreacted less, and done some things differently. Like finish Edwin Drood.

geranium

I wish I knew what you saw in these ugly, cheerful things, but this one is now mine. :-/

Because after all the heartache you caused in your latter years, Charlie, and your often crazy-defensive attitude to anyone who suggested you might be handling the situation badly, reading about your death was still painful, whatever the actual circumstances (and wasn’t the hypothesis fascinating, that maybe you didn’t die at home like everyone said?), and made me realize again how very attached to you I’ve become. Dammit, I even bought a red geranium at the garden center last week because they were your favorite flower. And I have hated red geraniums my entire life. I hope you appreciate the quasi-weird things I do for you.

It’s only my first biography of you and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but I feel I’ve come to know you in a much more human and comprehensive way. And Tomalin has set the Charles Dickens biography bar pretty high.

I’m afraid I’m still going to remain friends with you, Charlie, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.

Affectionately,

Melissa

A collective read commences!

Dear Charlie,

To think I was ever worried about finding material to write to you about once I’d finished my reading challenge!

I’m nearly finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of you, but I’ll save that for another post – it’ll give you a chance to prepare yourself for a sometimes unflattering account, particularly of your later life. I hope death has mellowed you a little when it comes to your personal failings or we may have a falling out.

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Our Mutual Friend originally ran from May 1864 to November 1865

Today, though, I wanted to share with you something that I wish you were alive to see. From May 2014 to November 2015, Birkbeck, Universityof London is hosting a public reading of Our Mutual Friend in its original installments. As well, each month will feature an article examining the events and themes of that installment. Reading the first article, and reading the comments, it’s clear that this will be decidedly more erudite than these humble missives.

Being now a certified Dickens groupie, I am of course participating. It’ll be interesting to observe the differences between this more leisurely pace of reading and my original let’s-read-a-freaking-enormous-book-in-ten-days timetable that, while enjoyable, was hardly the way the book was originally intended to be read.

Cocoa

Most of the ads for Victorian products are less than appealing nowadays, but I would absolutely buy all of these things because chocolate. (Also, how tragic is it that Icelandic moss cocoa not a thing anymore?)

It’s early days yet, but already it’s been a treat to mull over the first few chapters and the common elements that tie them together, even though each takes place in a vastly different setting with characters of vastly different social standing. As well, being able to see the installments in their original green covers and hemmed in by fascinating contemporary advertisements gives it a whole new consumerist vibe. This is fiction for the masses (even if it didn’t end up selling as well as everyone expected), and I’m looking forward to seeing how pairing this populist format with scholarly discussion plays out.

Added to the mix of green covers and intelligent discussion, however, is a gloriously 21st century addition to the project. A group of enthusiastic volunteers have signed up to portray each of the characters (major, minor, wooden, skeletal and stuffed) on Twitter. You can see the first installment summarized on Storify. I am absolutely signed up as one of the characters (although I can’t tell you who I am because I don’t want to give it away), and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to be notified that a fictional character is following me, or to see the brilliant blending of plot detail with anachronistic references to modern life.

You’d be as pleased as your famous gin punch, I’m sure, to watch the plot unfold through these characters’ slightly irreverent eyes.

Speaking of which, I must go and check my feed.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

A bevy of biographies

Dear Charlie,

I’m not ignoring you, honestly. I’ve just been out of your sphere of influence in my reading/watching materials lately. But I have added another book to my growing number of biographies of you. I’m now the proud owner of Claire Tomalin’s biography, bringing the total of Charles-Dickens-biographies-I-own-and-have-not-yet-read to three.

biographies

When I started my year-long reading project, I sort of intended to read at least Forster’s biography as I went along, and I did make it through the first couple of chapters, but you wrote so frickin’ much, my friend, that I quickly abandoned that plan in favour of just keeping up with your writings. So, while I dipped in to your life occasionally (I confess I resorted to Wikipedia more than once), I haven’t yet read one of your biographies cover to cover. But now that I’ve put some distance between myself and that marathon o’ reading, I find I’m missing your charming company. (That and I’m still trying to shake the creepy residue that Dan Simmons’ book left on my brain, so reading a biography where you’re NOT portrayed as a hyperactive sociopath sounds really good.)

Assuming that my next read is one of these fine biographies, which one should I start with? I’m sure that you’d rather I begin and end with Forster, whom you knew and trusted not to include anything too salacious or derogatory, but where’s the fun in that? I confess to finding the sheer heft of Ackroyd’s book more than a little intimidating. I’m leaning towards Tomalin’s book, because a) I’m trying to read more books by female authors this year, b) it got good reviews, and c) now that I’m cycling to work again, this volume would be much easier to fit in a pannier without making my bike tip over.

Or perhaps I should add to my biography collection and seek out a few more before I make my decision. Simon Callow’s, Jane Smiley’s and Michael Slater’s books also look really interesting.

What do you think, Charlie? Which biographer “gets” the real you? Where should I start?

Affectionately,

Melissa

P.S. In other news, I was feeling quite accomplished having surpassed the 100,000 visitor mark, until I started going through my blog’s spam filters. Now I suspect that half my visitors have, in fact, been soulless spam robots intent on getting me to buy viagra, fake running shoes and purses, and to watch celebrity sex tapes. There are a lot of things you’d like about the 21st century, Charlie, but spam would definitely not be one of them. :-/ -M