Notes from England: Charles Dickens’s Birthday, 2012 by Thomas Glave [Part One]

February 7 was Charles Dickens’s two hundredth birthday, and a round of observations and commemorations occurred all over England, everywhere.  And how brilliant, I thought, that, in this time, 2012, in the era of iPhones and textspeak and a great deal of indifference to literature and writing, people were celebrating and commemorating a writer, celebrating and remembering someone who wrote books! – and who wrote books that are not, if one isn’t a practiced reader, particularly easy to read today.  It has been wonderful to see Mr. Dickens’s novels in bookshop windows, even as I hungrily wish that I had, by now, read more of them, devoured each of them several times over since childhood – devoured them with the utter greed for books that can drive the devoted reader insane and explode in one of the reader’s many inside places with that burning that is nothing more than the fierce joy of reading, nothing more unremarkable than that, though a joy becoming much rarer, unfortunately, as the years step forward.  I would have loved to have read by now, and still might try to read sometime later this year, The Old Curiosity Shop, Nicholas Nickleby, Bleak House, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, and Barnaby Rudge. There are still so many Londoners in them whom one – whom I –would like to know.

And how very interesting as well to see that Simon Callow – an actor who, though I don’t know his work that well, I have always greatly admired whenever I have seen him perform – has produced a biography of sorts of Dickens: Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, just published in February, which apparently takes a detailed and profound look at Dickens’s lifelong love for and involvement with the theatre.  This book sounds so fascinating that, after reading things about it online, I decided not only to buy it at some point but also to look into some of Callow’s other books, such as his memoir My Life in Pieces, which also sounds fascinating, as well as Being an Actor and the irresistibly titled Shooting the Actor – who could resist a book with such a beguiling and playful title?  As intrigued by and highly respectful as I am and have always been of the actor’s craft, especially that of stage actors, I can’t wait to read these books.  Simon Callow is also very out as a gay man, and how refreshing that is.  As for all the books, well, ah, time, time!  But they will definitely be traveled, time or no time.  And I obviously want to make time for Claire Tomalin’s evidently excellent biography, Charles Dickens: A Life.  I love, by the way, this part of the description of Tomalin’s subject: “[Dickens] developed his remarkable eye for all that was absurd, tragic, and redemptive in London life. . .set out to succeed, and with extraordinary speed and energy made himself into the greatest English novelist of the century.”) Callow wrote something online about Dickens (“In My View: Simon Callow on Charles Dickens), that I found – look at what he says.  Could one agree with him more, especially regarding the “best friend” part?

When you find a writer that you love it’s like finding a best friend. Dickens never ceases to delight me. There’s something in him which chimes with me: the energy; the scope; the generosity; the endless inventiveness of it. There is in Dickens the spirit of the medieval carnival that just deeply turns me on. That sense of the world as one big body and a celebration and embrace of all its grotesqueness, the ugliness, the smell, the sweat.

You do so get a sense of a sweating, stinking, disgusting, grotesque, fantastical, vicious, utterly unmerciful to the poor London in Dickens’s worlds.  If he was “sentimental,” as he’s often accused of and praised for being (and yes, he clearly was, sometimes extremely cloyingly so), he was also an unflinching realist with an acute and potent moral outrage that finally did make an impression upon some people in Victorian England, even as one acknowledges that so many of the social problems he critiqued then still exist here.  He was deeply political.  He was in no way – not ever – a solipsist.  When I read some of those books as a child – when I was introduced to A Christmas Carol in primary school, and came later to novels like The Pickwick Papers — I had no idea what sort of impact they would have on my imagination; I might not have any idea even now.  I couldn’t know then as an adult knows such things how much richer their worlds were making my life – immeasurably so — and would make my life to come.  Because those worlds of his are in me; they entered and impacted upon me long ago.

Meanwhile, all sorts of things go on: the Museum of London is doing a “Dickens and London” exhibit which I will be sure not to miss; the Dickens Museum in London has re-opened (it seemed as though during each of my trips to London over the past few years, it was closed); Portsmouth, Dickens’s birthplace, is celebrating its “son” with various festivals (and  how proud they must be indeed); talks are being given far and wide, such as “Dickens’s London: Bermondsey in Dickensian Literature,” at the Woolfson and Tay Bookshop in London, and “The Real Miss Havisham” (looking at the person upon whom the character was based, and at how Dickens did base many of his characters on real people); the BBC is doing this and that and everything to the point that it’s impossible to remember all of it; and Dickens’s great-great-grandsons, Ian Dickens and Mark Dickens, are reading commemorative pieces here and there.  It was very moving indeed to watch Ian Dickens in a video on the BBC’s website recently, reading a brief speech to a good-sized crowd in Portsmouth, during which he said that he was “hugely proud to see how the work of my great-great-grandfather continues to resonate with such strength and depth of feeling two hundred years after his birth.”  Simon Callow did a reading today from David Copperfield at St. Mary’s Church in Portsmouth – and how excellent, to read from the writer’s perhaps most autobiographical or at least most personal novel in the city of his birth.  Callow was quoted on the BBC’s website today as saying that he “made the strong decision to come to the place where [Dickens] was born rather than to Westminster Cathedral where he never wanted to be.”  (I learned recently that Dickens really wanted to be buried in Rochester Cathedral.)  At Westminster Abbey, Prince Charles put a wreath on Dickens’s grave in the Poets’ Corner; and the actor Ralph Fiennes did a reading from Bleak House there.  But here is perhaps the greatest Dickensian irony and joke of all: Jeremy Hunt, the present Culture Secretary, gave the problematic Prime Minister David Cameron a copy of Great Expectations and Hard Times as gifts in celebration of the day, while the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (and the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith) were given copies of Oliver Twist!


Thomas Glave is a 2012 Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University.  His books include The Torturer’s Wife (City Lights Books),  Whose Song? and Other Stories (City Lights Books), the essay collection Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent (winner of a 2005 Lambda Literary Award), and the anthology Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (winner of a 2008 Lambda Literary Award).  He has work forthcoming in Kingston Noir (Akashic Books, 2012), Love, Christopher Street (Vantage Point, 2012), Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners (Wisconsin, 2012), The Kenyon Review, and Callaloo.  Other writing has recently appeared in The Huffington Post/UK.

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