Dickens to go into the mountains! | Sunday Observer

Dickens to go into the mountains!

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

The 24th Annual Dickens Society Symposium will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah, cosponsored by the Dickens Society and Utah Valley University, the host institution, in July 2019. That means Dickens will go west and into the mountains!

The Rochester and Chatham Branch is one of the oldest and most respected branches in the Dickens Fellowship. Rochester and Chatham also have close links with Charles Dickens who spent his formative years in Chatham and later at Gad’s Hill Place near Rochester. Both connecting towns are featured in many of his novels. Rochester has two Dickens Festivals a year and Chatham is the home of Dickens World, the indoor theme park. A further connection is that the branch president Gerald Dickens is the great great grandson of Charles Dickens.

In a previous Dickens Festival Cyril Baldwin padded his waist, donned tight fawn trousers, silver buttoned tailcoat and wide-rimmed flat felt hat, and adjusted his gold-rimmed spectacles on his nose, and emerged as Charles Dickens’s most popular character – Samuel Pickwick. He was accompanied by sinister Fagin (Oliver Twist) and jilted Miss Havisham in faded bridal finery (Great Expectations). There were also about 1,000 men, women and children all decked in Victorian costume. All of them paraded through the streets of Rochester.

Happy childhood

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is one of the world’s most widely read novelists. Many of his stories are set in a London of horse-driven carriages and narrow cobblestone streets that have long since disappeared. However, the people in his stories come alive for readers and his books continue to be made into films, musicals and television plays. Although he spent a happy childhood, his family became indebted after they moved to London. His father was imprisoned when he failed to settle his debts. Young Charles, however, was determined to succeed in life. His only ambition was to be a real gentleman. As a young man he worked in a shoe-polish factory for some time. However, when his family’s fortunes increased he decided to continue with his education. With the knowledge he gained he was able to get a job as a court reporter.

In his spare time he started writing a series of humorous sketches about a country gentleman called ‘Pickwick’. They were well received by the reading public. Most of his great novels are biographical. He serialized them in newspapers before publishing them. His novels have been read by millions of readers in many parts of the world.

In the Victorian era, books were a major form of entertainment. Unlike today, books played a major role in public life. Sometimes, his novels were read out aloud to the whole household. As he matured Dickens’s writing also improved. He built up a readership not only in England but also in America. Most of them laughed or cried after reading his novels. Dickens is well known for his genial humour and uproarious satire targeted at prevaricating lawyers, callous businessmen and pompous politicians. Unfortunately, such people are still in our midst!

Journalism

By his steely resolve, Dickens forged a career in journalism which became the launching pad for his novels. At 24 he launched Pickwick Papers and married Kate Hogarth, the daughter of a newspaper colleague. They then returned to Kent to spend their honeymoon. Close to his house there was a blacksmith’s forge and a cottage recognized as the home of Joe Gargery and Pip in Great Expectations. The five tiny gravestones of Pip’s brothers are known today as ‘Pip’s Graves.’

In 1856, as a boy exploring the countryside around Rochester, Dickens often walked past Gad’s Hill Place at Higham. He found it the most beautiful house he had ever seen. His father, like Mr Micawber, told him, “If you were to work hard, you might someday come to live in it.” Later he bought Gad’s Hill Place for 1,790 sterling pounds.

Apart from being a celebrated novelist, Dickens was also a talented actor. Later in life, his exhausting performances on stage took a toll on his health. He made many friends on stage. The French actor Charles Fechter sent him 58 packing cases and a two-storey Swiss Chalet as a token of friendship. Dickens used it as his writing retreat. Today, the chalet has been moved to the grounds of Elizabethan Eastgate House which is the official Charles Dickens Centre. The Centre displays many ‘talking heads’ – sculpted figures – to revive past memories. One ‘talking head’ represents Dickens giving readings from Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield, largely an autobiographical novel. Even literary critics consider it as his greatest novel.

Marriage

Dickens and his wife had 10 children but he was infatuated with a young actress known as Ellen Ternon. While they were returning to London from a trip to Paris, their train met with an accident. Although they were not hurt, the sight of the dead and injured passengers made a terrible impact on Dickens. The haunting memory troubled him throughout his life. On June 9, 1870, Dickens died five years after the railway tragedy at Gad’s Hill Place. His remains were interred in Westminster Abbey in London. At the time of his death, he was in the process of writing his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. So far, nobody has been able to solve the mystery.

Dickens has left us many lessons to learn about life. He has shown us that even without a university education you can become a writer by self-study. He was an avid reader of literature and taught himself the art of writing novels. He worked furiously at everything he undertook, and rocketed to fame as a writer in his mid-twenties. What is more, he continued to write assiduously to the end of his life. Besides making a prodigious contribution to English literature as a writer of fiction, he edited a weekly journal for 20 years and became an accomplished performer of his own works.

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