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Dickens at two hundred

By Jenny Hartley

Charles Dickens loved birthdays and always celebrated his own in style. So, in the face of those who are complaining about being Dickensed-out already, my view is that we can’t party enough.

One of the earliest letters we have in Dickens’s hand is an invitation to his friend and fellow journalist Thomas Beard to his twentieth birthday party – a “chosen few” friends and family are summoned to “join in a friendly quadrille.” I wish I’d been there, or at one of the outings he would devise later in life: his thirty-second birthday, say, when “unless it should rain cats, dogs, pitchforks, and Cochin China poultry,” he is rounding up half a dozen of his friends to go walking with him in Kent (his old childhood beat). They ended up with dinner at Wates Hotel in Gravesend; Dickens wrote ahead to order iced champagne and a good fire ready to greet them.

Family birthdays also got the Dickens treatment, with all stops being pulled out for his eldest son Charley, who had helpfully arrived on Twelfth Night (6th January). Charley’s sixth birthday was a real show-stopper. Not content with merely laying on the Magic Lantern show currently fashionable at parties for privileged under-tens, Dickens jacked up the excitement to fever pitch by buying up the stock of Hamley’s toy shop and coming out as a conjuror.  He had practised for hours on his own and was a great hit, with his tricks of flying money and burning handkerchiefs, although I imagine the patter must have been the best part of the show. As late as 1857 he was devising a birthday treat for his wife Catherine: the occasion of their first stay at Gad’s Hill, the country house he had bought in Kent. A year later, almost to the day, he was ejecting her from the family home.

Dickens felt birthdays intensely. He feels for his childhood self who works at the blacking factory and celebrates his birthday by screwing up his courage to go into a pub in Parliament Street and enquire, “‘What is your very best – the VERY best – ale, a glass?’”  In Bleak House we see him feeling for those who do not know when their birthdays are, like illiterate Jo the crossing sweeper, or who have unbirthdays, like illegitimate Esther Summerson. “‘Far better, little Esther,’” her godmother tells her, “‘that you had had no birthday; that you had never been born!’”

So it’s good to see the world stepping into its global glitter gear for him this year, with a myriad of festivities, including a dinner at the Mansion House in the City of London, and a reception at Buckingham Palace. Plenty of exhibitions too, radio and TV shows galore, theatrical performances and shelf-fulls of pleasant kitsch. I warm to tributes with an accent on the collective. On publication day, Dickens’s novels arrived into a sphere of sociable merchandizing. While you were reading the novel in its nineteen monthly parts you could also be dancing along – to even the darkest novels, with the Little Dorrit Polka and the Little Dorrit Schottische (think polka but slower). So I’m enjoying the Dickens board game which my son gave me for Christmas. And I like the sound of the British Council’s “Sketching the City” initiative, a world-wide invitation to us all to document our own city, as Dickens did London with his Sketches by Boz. The BBC TV’s Arena programme “Dickens on Film” took us on a journey which had both communal and individual resonance. We could sit beside our childhood selves drinking in those formative earlier film and TV adaptations, that very particular Sunday teatime moment for those of a certain age.

Sunday teatimes aside, it’s urban and night-time Dickens which is coming out strongest in the festivities. Less of the plum pudding and jokes; more darkness, grit, and mystery. The Dickens and London exhibition at the Museum of London ends with a brilliant film essay by William Raban, entitled “The Houseless Shadow”. Inspired by Dickens’s 1860 essay “Night Walks”, Raban filmed night-time London over five months, blending into his surroundings with his equipment in a supermarket bag, his tripod strapped to a luggage trolley. Catch it if you can; the exhibition is on until June 10th .

Jenny Hartley is Professor of English Literature at Roehampton University. Her most recent book, The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens, published this month. She is also the author of Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, two books on British women’s writing from the Second World War, and The Reading Groups Book, a pioneering survey of reading groups. For the last ten years she has been a leading member of the Prison Reading Groups project.

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