“The whole country seems to have gone mad with Dickens,” says A.N. Devers, writing for Slate from London, where she attended the commemorative ceremony for the Victorian novelist’s 200th birthday at Westminster Abbey.
Before it started, Devers overheard some of Dickens’ “descendants in the queue chat and catch up as if this was an ordinary family reunion” and she said that “several jokingly uttered, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ like it was the personal family motto.”
Once inside, Devers watched from the sixth row as Mark Charles Dickens, the writer’s great-great grandson and the anointed “Head of the Dickens Family” read from a private work called “The Life of Our Lord,” specifically written for the author’s ten children and never meant for public consumption. (Then again, Dickens also never wanted to be buried in Westminster Abbey.)
“My tears were becoming embarrassing,” writes Devers, as she describes listening to Ralph Fiennes reading from Bleak House. She then watched Prince Charles place a wreath on Dickens’ grave in the Poet’s Corner.
Afterwards, Devers, who runs the website writershouses.com, made a pilgrimage to Dickens’ London home, now a museum, where visitors were greeted with red velvet cupcakes. She followed the Prince of Wales’ itinerary, in reverse – he had been there earlier in the day, and, with the Duchess of Cornwall, had been given a private reading by actress Gillian Anderson, who played Miss Havisham in the BBC’s recent Great Expectations.
The Prince also delivered a written message in honor of the occasion.
“Despite the many years that have passed, Charles Dickens remains one of the greatest writers of the English language, who used his creative genius to campaign passionately for social justice,” Charles said.
Devers was impressed.
“When Herman Melville turns 200 in 2019 will the American president hold a ceremony in his honor and visit his house the way Prince Charles did this morning?” she wrote. “I’m guessing not.”
Here’s just a small sampling of other Dickens birthday related news:
• The Independent, in a piece called “A tale of two cities,” noted that in addition to the London observances, simultaneous celebrations were taking place in the author’s childhood home town of Portsmouth. The ubiquity of festivities, said the paper, offered “scenes beyond even the imagination of Britain’s greatest novelist.”
Prince Charles had a shout out to Portsmouth as well.
“It is fitting that in Portsmouth the emphasis of the celebrations is on Dickens’ youth,” said the Prince of Wales, “and I am delighted to learn of your plans to use the bicentenary as a focus to encourage literacy, creative writing and performance in schools across the city.”
To see how the BBC covered the Portsmouth festivities, click here.
• Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave his fellow cabinet ministers copies of Dickens’ works. “In what appeared to be a comment on the economic circumstances in which the coalition Government is operating, as well as Mr Hunt’s hopes for its success,” wrote The Daily Mail, “Prime Minister David Cameron received copies of Hard Times and Great Expectations.”
• “Yesterday,” writes The Telegraph, “belonged to the family.” The paper counted 160 descendants, “more Dickenses here than on an A-level reading list.” In addition to the Westminster Abbey gathering, they had an evening reception at London’s Mansion House, but the Telegraph said the real highlight for the family appeared to be the chance to catch up in a more intimate setting at the Victory Services Club. Those in attendance ranged in age from seven to 90, and they’ve spread out all over the world and into all professions. You might have even seen one of them, actor Harry Lloyd, in the recent movie, The Iron Lady. He plays the young Denis Thatcher.
“I’m thoroughly enjoying the day and love to be surrounded by the family,” said Katherine Gray, 90, the last of Dickens’ great grandchildren, “although I don’t recognize everyone and have to read their name badge to place where they fit on the family tree.”
Gray went to yesterday’s ceremony after attending a much sadder one just the day before – her husband’s funeral. But she said her husband would not have wanted her to miss yesterday’s celebration.
• Britain’s Schools Minister Nick Gibb used the day to argue that today’s children are “still blighted by Dickensian-style illiteracy” and warned that there are “still shadows of Charles Dickens’ world in our own.” He said that poor communities suffer the most from underdeveloped reading skills. “We need – if you’ll forgive the Dickens pun – much greater expectations of children in reading,” Gibb added. (via The Telegraph)
• Just imagine what Dickens – serial novelist, journalist, celebrity, activist and performer – would have thought of the Internet. It’s no surprise that he was all over the Web yesterday. You probably saw his Google Doodle:
• And of course, Dickens trended throughout the day on Twitter.
As always, there were the jokes. Andy Borowitz (BorowitzReport) tweeted: “No offense to Charles Dickens, but every single one of his books would have been better with vampires.” (By the way, author J.D. Sharpe has tried to rectify that oversight with the novel Oliver Twisted, whose cover tagline is “Please, sir, I want some gore.”)
Barry Welch (QuantumPirate) offered, “Yo mamma is so Dickensian her name is loosely descriptive of her character.” KimJongNumberUn wrote, “Charles Dickens would be one of the most beloved authors in N. Korea if reading wasn’t punishable by death.”
Michael Moore (MMFlint) got serious; it’s not hard to see why the progressive documentarian is a fan of Dickens: “Went to the Morgan Library to see original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. My favorite writer”
Some tweets by others took up the political approach one would have expected from Moore. Mark Martin (djdaddums) tweeted, “Good to see the Tories celebrating the bi-centennial of Charles Dickens’ birth by recreating the very conditions that inspired his works.” And in a reference to GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, Mike Elk (MikeElk) asked, “How bittersweet that on the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens – candidate favoring child janitors is losing?”
• Our favorite tweets, however, were those imagined by the Mirror. While the Guardian has been trying to distill the essence of Dickens novels in “digested reads” that run several hundred words, the Mirror condensed the books into tweets.
Christmas Carol: Miserly Scrooge mean to all inc Bob C who’s got sick son Tim. Spooked by 3 ghosts on Xmas Eve. Wakes changed man, buys big bird. #happyxmas!
Nicholas Nickleby: Nick’s dad loses money & dies. Nick, ma & sis have to live with horrid rich uncle. Posh ppl cruel, but Nick comes out on top #Happyeverafter
Read the rest here.
• There was an homage from Catalonia yesterday. Dickens fans posted papers and comments on a special blog, in Catalan, created especially for the occasion.
• In New York, it’s Dickens in Da Bronx. The British Council has joined the Bronx Museum of the Arts to launch a contest, called Sketching the City, inspired by the pieces Dickens wrote about his nocturnal London wanderings under the pen-name of Boz.
“Dickens wrote these gritty short stories about his neighborhood,” the Bronx museum’s Hannie Chia told New York’s Daily News, “and we thought that would be applicable to teens in the Bronx.”
The winning writing and artwork will be displayed next month at the museum.
• A bicentennial would be unthinkable in this day and age without at least one Dickens mobile phone app, and Warwick University in Coventry made one available yesterday on its website. It includes academic and biographical information. (via The Coventry Telegraph)