03 February 2012

An old curiosity: Discovering Dickens

Charles Dickens
(7 February 1812-9 June 1870)

“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is!” Merry Wives of Windsor, III.ii.

The strongest recollection I have of studying Charles Dickens at school is the fact, shared by our battle-weary English teacher, that this revered, serialised, Victorian writer was paid by the word. This, she added, was the reason his novels were so lengthy and exhausting. From that moment, my admiration was tempered with more than a little resentment.

My resentment has cooled over the years, and due to some recent discoveries, my view of Dickens, whose bicentenary is being celebrated this month, has shifted considerably. I have found that there is much to admire about Dickens, beyond his being the hand that penned A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations.

Dickens was a great lover of Shakespeare. And, like so many tourists and literary lovers today, Dickens first came to Warwickshire (in 1838) in search of Shakespeare. For Dickens, Shakespeare was “the great master who knew everything,” whose plays were “an unspeakable source of delight.” Dickens’s novels are full of quotations, references and allusions to Shakespeare.

Dickens’s appreciation of Shakespeare went well beyond the page, however. In 1848, Dickens busied himself with the London Shakespeare Committee – a group instrumental in the purchase of Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Almost unimaginably, the Shakespeare family homestead was put up for sale in 1847 for the sum of £3000 - a princely amount that would have the spending worth of over £300,000.00 today. This priceless property caught the eye of American entrepreneur and showman, P.T. Barnum, who had serious intentions of buying the property – and having it shipped to the United States. Dickens and his chums rallied the great and good of Victorian society to keep Shakespeare’s birthplace as a national treasure in Warwickshire.

Dickens' letter from the Shakespeare Archive.
Reproduced with permission from the Shakespeare
Birthplace Trust
The Library and Archive that Dickens helped to establish holds a number of items revealing his lifelong dedication to Shakespeare. One is a poster for an amateur production of Ben Jonson’s comedy, Every Man in His Humour, presented at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, in May 1848. The play was produced in aid of endowing a perpetual curatorship for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection. Dickens directed and stage-managed the production.
The other is a letter, dated April 1864, bound in a collection of The Letters of the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, 1863-1864

This bound volume is a virtual Who’s Who of Victorian leading lights united in the Shakespeare cause. Dickens’s note, written in a florid and spirally hand, is in reply to an invitation to attend a banquet in Stratford-upon-Avon. The committee, having accomplished their great mission, was celebrating its remarkable success. Dickens was unable to attend, but his dedication to the committee and its efforts was undeniable.

As a Shakespeare scholar who has virtually worn a path down Henley Street to the Library and Archive at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I cannot imagine life without that wonderful place, and all that it holds and means. I shudder to think it very nearly became a roadside attraction in Idaho! Clearly, I owe Mr. Dickens a debt of thanks. 

No comments: