Dickens, Christmas – and a merry festive season to all!

As a further Christmas nugget to toast by the fireside of winter-dreaming, I love the touching story of the barrow-girl overheard by Theodore Watts-Dunton as he walked down Drury lane in 1870. “Dickens dead?” the barrow-girl exclaimed. “Then will Father Christmas die too?”

For so many people, Dickens is synonymous with the festive season; Mr Christmas himself…

Of course, what springs to mind first is his wonderful seasonal fairy tale A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol Folio Society edition. Cover illustration by Michael Foreman.

A Christmas Carol Folio Society edition. Cover illustration by Michael Foreman.

For me, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it; both the book – and the various sparkles of its magic conveyed through film (from The Muppets’ wonderfully rumbustious but lovingly nuanced version, to Albert Finney’s musical) or occasionally through theatre – as in the year we saw a stage production at the Bristol Hippodrome, complete with spellbinding special effects and illusions. Or the time we experienced the arresting, pared down immediacy of a Tobacco Factory Theatre production, filled with inspiration, invention and ingenuity. I see from the Radio Times listings that the version starring Patrick Stewart as Scrooge will be on TV again this weekend. Our family will gather round and watch it together for the umpteenth time, never tiring of the magic and significance of Dickens’s fable; loving the ritual of its well-known journey through Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come…

A Christmas Carol Folio Society edition - frontis illustration by Michael Foreman - 'The people who were shovelling away on the house-tops were jovial and full of glee.'

A Christmas Carol Folio Society edition – frontis illustration by Michael Foreman – ‘The people who were shovelling away on the house-tops were jovial and full of glee.’

…But perhaps less well known, hidden away in Dickens’s last and unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, gleams this beautiful bauble of words, catching both the light and the shadows of the season – and, indeed, of life:

Christmas Eve in Cloisterham. A few strange faces in the streets; a few other faces, half strange and half familiar, once the faces of Cloisterham children, now the faces of men and women who come back from the outer world at long intervals to find the city wonderfully shrunken in size, as if it had not washed by any means well in the meanwhile. To these, the striking of the Cathedral clock, and the cawing of the rooks from the Cathedral tower, are like voices of their nursery time. To such as these, it has happened in their dying hours afar off, that they have imagined their chamber-floor to be strewn with the autumnal leaves fallen from the elm-trees in the Close: so have the rustling sounds and fresh scents of their earliest impressions revived when the circle of their lives was very nearly traced, and the beginning and the end were drawing close together.

Seasonable tokens are about. Red berries shine here and there in the lattices of Minor Canon Corner; Mr. and Mrs. Tope are daintily sticking sprigs of holly into the carvings and sconces of the Cathedral stalls, as if they were sticking them into the coat-button-holes of the Dean and Chapter. Lavish profusion is in the shops: particularly in the articles of currants, raisins, spices, candied peel, and moist sugar. An unusual air of gallantry and dissipation is abroad; evinced in an immense bunch of mistletoe hanging in the greengrocer’s shop doorway, and a poor little Twelfth Cake, culminating in the figure of a Harlequin – such a very poor little Twelfth Cake, that one would rather called it a Twenty-fourth Cake or a Forty-eighth Cake – to be raffled for at the pastrycook’s, terms one shilling per member. Public amusements are not wanting. The Wax-Work which made so deep an impression on the reflective mind of the Emperor of China is to be seen by particular desire during Christmas Week only, on the premises of the bankrupt livery-stable-keeper up the lane; and a new grand comic Christmas pantomime is to be produced at the Theatre: the latter heralded by the portrait of Signor Jacksonini the clown, saying ‘How do you do to-morrow?’ quite as large as life, and almost as miserably. In short, Cloisterham is up and doing: though from this description the High School and Miss Twinkleton’s are to be excluded. From the former establishment the scholars have gone home, every one of them in love with one of Miss Twinkleton’s young ladies (who knows nothing about it); and only the handmaidens flutter occasionally in the windows of the latter. It is noticed, by the bye, that these damsels become, within the limits of decorum, more skittish when thus intrusted with the concrete representation of their sex, than when dividing the representation with Miss Twinkleton’s young ladies.’

From The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Chapter XIV – When shall these Three meet again?) by Charles Dickens.

Endpaper illustration by Michael Foreman, Folio Society edition of A Christmas Carol

Endpaper illustration by Michael Foreman, Folio Society edition of A Christmas Carol

Wherever you will be during this festive season – have a happy, peaceful, magical time. A big thank you to all Bookish Nature readers for your support; for visiting/ commenting/ following this blog during the past year – and for helping to inspire my poor old brain to toast more nuggets of thought over imagination’s fire, during the coming New Year…

Season’s greetings to all! May all good things come your way in 2013…

See you back here in January…

…And in the meantime, I leave you with some words from A Christmas Carol – and a beautiful (and haunting – in a Susanna Clarke’s gentleman with the thistle-down hair,’ tingly, silvery, fairy-tale kind of way) – performance of Carol of the Bells by Libera (from their 2011 Christmas Album) – which, to continue the Dickens connection, also happens to be the music the BBC chose to play during the trailers for their TV adaptation of Great Expectations last Christmas…

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!

“What’s today?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

“EH?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

“What’s today, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.

“Today!” replied the boy. “Why, CHRISTMAS DAY.”

– From A Christmas Carol (Stave V – The End of It) by Charles Dickens

It was 200 Years Ago today…

‘Chapter 1 – I Am Born

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show…’

(Opening of David Copperfield)

Well, it’s here – the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth. And what a difference that baby’s arrival in the world – on 7th February 1812 – went on to make to so many lives, including my own…

‘Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.’

– Charles Dickens, Chapter 9, Great Expectations

For me, that fateful arrival in the world created a first link in a chain that would definitely be of flowers, gold and many treasures – binding me only to the freedom and endless possibilities of the imagination…

This morning, at 11 o’clock, there will be a wreathlaying service in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, to commemorate the momentous event.

I wish I could be there to pay tribute. But, instead, I shall set aside some moments today to make special remembrance and thanks, light a candle…  and, most of all, to celebrate Dickens’s life by reading some of his magnificent prose. Spending time with Pickwick, Fezziwig and other companions from the teeming array of colourful characters he gifted to our imaginations, should make for a great (and very interesting) birthday party!

Dickens's Dream, unfinished painting by R.W. Buss, 1875 (pictured in John Forster's The Life of Charles Dickens, Illustrated Edition (published by Sterling)

Wishing all my fellow Dickensians a very Happy Bicentenary Day!

Happy 200th Birthday, Dickens!

Charles Dickens Bicentenary 2012

In snatched moments (between blog post preparations and some big Life Happenings to deal with) – I’ve been mentally running around trying to catch up with the current BBC Radio Dickens fest in honour of his bicentenary (thank goodness for iPlayer!). So many programmes to listen to! Every time I check the Radio Times or the BBC website, there seems to be a fresh crop.

I particularly enjoyed Frances Fyfield’s programmes on Radio 4 examining Dickens’s original manuscripts. I managed to catch the ones on The Mystery of Edwin Drood and A Tale of Two Cities – and was so moved by actor David Timson’s reading (direct from the original manuscript) of Sydney Carton’s supreme sacrificial moment, written, of course, to such superb emotional effect by Dickens (‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…’ Gets me every time…).

Those programmes led me to the V&A website to look at Dickens’s original manuscripts there. Spellbinding stuff!

Last page of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (illustration from The Life of Charles Dickens, by John Forster, published by Sterling)

Seeing what a tangle of words and crossings out Dickens’s final MS were (his compositors must have been superheroes!) I feel much better about the scrawls, scratchings out, and crazy trails of thought doing a merry dance around the page, that pass for my own creative writing endeavours! (Apparently, there were suspicions that Dickens used to deliberately leave all the muddle and crossings out, to make sure he got the best compositors assigned to his novels!) On the programmes, it was pointed out how amazing the sections are where there are virtually no crossings out (very often the dialogue) – so confidently placed on the page, fully formed. Dickens’s daughter Mamie reported that he used to act out his dialogue in front of the mirror first, and then write it all down. He must have had a remarkable ability to hold great chunks of his novels in his head before transferring them to paper.

Using the V&A website, it’s an entrancing experience to see the familiar words of Dickens’s novels in his own writing, to witness his mind at work – to spot the arresting little details that bring a sense of immediate human contact across the intervening years. On the Edwin Drood programme, Frances Fyfield and her guests were totally captivated by a coffee cup stain on the MS – a snapshot of a writer’s creative moment grounded in a small daily life detail.

Hearing Penelope Wilton read from Claire Tomalin’s recent biography of The Great Inimitable on Radio Four’s Book of the Week (still available on the archive) was also a real pleasure. I was so moved when Penelope Wilton reached the account of how that fiercely burning creative light went out. I was left feeling its loss in a very immediate way.

And yet, of course, that light still burns ever brightly in the brilliant works Dickens left us – without which my own life, for one, would have lost so many rich enhancements. I cannot overstate how much I love Dickens’s work and how much it means to me, how woven into my life his novels are.

It was wonderful to hear, on another recent Radio Four Book of the Week, Michael Rosen’s beautiful and moving account of the profound way in which Dickens’s novels have been interwoven in his own life, family and experience. As I began to listen to it, I quickly realised that I’d read the essay (from Stop What You’re Doing and Read This, published by Vintage Books) in The Guardian over the New Year – but it now seems to have disappeared from the Guardian’s web pages, due to its copyright for the piece having expired.

On TV, I gleefully enjoyed Armando Iannucci’s tribute to Dickens, Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens (an exploration of Dickens’s craft, revolving around the chosen text of David Copperfield). Apart from the other treats of the programme, it was fabulous to see someone do some detailed practical criticism of the text on screen – actually pointing to the words on the page, savouring how they work, the artistry and magic of their combination and construction. I remember from Iannucci’s previous programme on the BBC about Milton, he did the same thing. Joy of joys! Real, direct, in-the-moment practical criticism! A focus on the text! A rare thing on television, but Armando Iannucci demonstrated that, with the right, impassioned approach – it works on screen! I think I’m correct in thinking that, at one point in his life, Iannucci spent time researching for an intended PhD on Milton. Obviously, the passionate, insightful and enthusiastic literary scholar still burns in his spirit. Unleash it further please, BBC!

Dickens on Film explored the episodic nature of Dickens’s writing and its influence on the emerging art form of film. I hadn’t really thought before just how soon after the novels were written that the first film adaptations of Dickens’s work appeared (I think one dated from 1902). I discovered, alas too late, via the BBC Dickens page  and Radio 4 blog that there had been a series of radio programmes (Dickens on Location) about places Dickens mentions in his novels. The Radio 4 Extra blog post about St James’ Church, Cooling on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent – scene of the opening of Great Expectations – makes for interesting reading.

I did manage to catch the first episode of The Mumbai Chuzzlewits and have downloaded the next two, as I knew I wouldn’t catch up with them before they dropped off iPlayer. There are some interesting behind the scenes ‘raw clips of the recording of The Mumbai Chuzzlewits in India’ on the production company’s website, as well as details of an upcoming documentary (7th – 11th February) on the BBC World Service, Dickens and India – Mutual Friends, in which writer Ayeesha Menon ‘explores India’s love affair with Dickens.’

I highly recommend a recent series of Radio 3’s The Essay (available to listen again on the December 2011 archive) The Writers’ Dickens in which authors talk about various aspects of Dickens’s craft and how he has influenced their own work. I particularly loved Tessa Hadley’s exploration of Dickens’s use of material objects; his rendering them alive with metaphor and meaning (it was a treat to wander around the House of Clennam in her company, and to relive the imagery, symbolism and sheer harmony of language, detail and meaning crafted by the masterful hand of Dickens, as he unfolds for us Arthur’s return to that precariously shifting family edifice). Oh, and watch out for Tessa Hadley’s comparison of Dickens’s 19th century, and her own 21st century, use of metaphorically charged mirrors! She makes an intriguing point. Alexander McCall Smith’s appraisal of Dickens’s skilled use of the serial form (also looked at in the light of his own experience of serialising the 44 Scotland Street stories) was equally enjoyable. A. L Kennedy was brilliant – and spot on – in her sensitive and deeply insightful analysis of that passionate, troubled, dark sense of ‘something is wrong,’ combined always with a faith in the possibility of human goodness and redemption, in Dickens’s work. She got right to the heart of Dickens, I thought. Justin Cartwright’s essay on Dickens and Christmas and Romesh Gunesekera’s essay on Dickens and ‘The Orphan Eye’ were also both gems.

Still to catch up on for me is The BBC World Service World Book Club discussion of Great Expectations, with biographer Claire Tomalin and actor Simon Callow – and, today, the Woman’s Hour drama, Dickens in London  began its unfolding….

Begging to be read are the two fabulous Dickens biographies now gracing my shelves since Christmas day – the first Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens, A Life (published by Penguin) and the second by John Forster, Dickens’s close friend. Both are beautiful volumes to behold.

John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens, The Illustrated Edition (published by Sterling) is a truly hefty tome, but is a thing of such utter gorgeousness that it’s more than worth the extra muscle power involved in lifting it down from the shelf!

Full of sumptuous illustrations – all visual gifts to gladden any Dickensian’s heart – it also unwraps like a tantalising pass-the-parcel, revealing hidden treats beneath each layer:

For a bevy of more Dickensian treats, the Dickens 2012 website is a hub of all the bicentenary activity – and Warwick University’s Celebrating Dickens website looks like a fascinating destination for further exploration…

And then, of course, most importantly of all – there are the novels! Once I’ve finished my re-read of Edwin Drood – my top favourite, Our Mutual Friend, calls…

After all that…and in anticipation of more to come…do I feel Dickensed-out? Not in the least! Bring it on! I’m like a kid in a sweet shop!

A Dickens of a Lot to Do!

Do you know that feeling – when your head is so full of concerns, worries, events, demands and things to do, that you just freeze, come to a standstill, not knowing which way to go, what to tackle first – and so end up going in all directions and none?

That’s what happened to this blog over the last few months – and it lived on only as half-started posts in my notebook, good intentions and a ghostly on screen presence… the spirit of Bookish Nature Past…

Miss Havisham-like, I still feel a bit frozen and stuck, my blog all cobwebby and neglected. The clocks all stopped. But, on Sunday, some bookish progress was afoot, when I finished reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood – in the nick of time, ahead of the BBC’s adaptation to be screened… tonight!

To be precise, it was back in August when I finished reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood as it was left to us by Charles Dickens – forever suspended at the end of Chapter 23 which, so poignantly, he penned just the day before he died. Since then, I’ve been trying to unfreeze my literary critical faculties enough to write something here about Dickens’s unfinished novel, before embarking on reading Leon Garfield’s interpretation of a possible ending. The plan was to write my impressions of Dickens’s last novel and my take on where it may have been going – then to read Leon Garfield’s completion of the tale, write a separate post on that – and then conclude with a post about the BBC adaptation and how each compares… However, still being stuck in my Bookish Nature version of Satis House, that plan has remained as cobwebbed over as Miss H’s wedding cake!

But, at least now… at the eleventh hour… I’m blowing away the dust and trying to resurrect the poor neglected thing (though I doubt I’ll get my Edwin Drood posts finished in time to coincide with the screening of the television mini-series; will this blog ever be topical??? I always seem to be dozens of steps behind the signs of the times!) With an attempt to stay vaguely on track, I leapt in ahead of the BBC adaptation’s imminent arrival, and read Leon Garfield’s ending of the novel over the weekend – so this resurrected creature of a plan won’t be quite the same thing as was originally intended. But, hey, it just may well morph into something more meaningful…or meandering…or both… and go down all sorts of unexpected ways, maybe following all those probing and mysterious beams of light which, through Dickens’s (and Garfield’s) imagery, follow the novel’s brittle, edgy darkness and prise it open, pestering a reminder of truths to keep the shadows in perpetual tension; a play of light and dark upon the wall – with struggling gleams of possible resurrection and redemption being, I think, what Dickens may have most wanted the reader to keep their eye on…

So, I suppose that’s a very good note on which to also resurrect this blog. I tried in vain to write a detailed post about Edwin Drood yesterday morning and ended up still going down a thousand ways and getting nowhere (I keep hitting this problem of too much in my head, and not enough idea how to deal with it all!) I was feeling a little despondent that I’ll never get back the blogging habit. But, over the next few days (or most probably weeks…) I will attempt to bludgeon into shape all my notes and we shall try to begin again… At least I’ve managed to cobble together this post today, which is a start and makes things seem a little less daunting! And there are some nature oriented posts lurking half prepared in my notebook to knock into shape too…

Add to that the fact that the BBC’s very interesting adaptation of Great Expectations has left me longing to return to the real thing… plus the very tempting group read of Our Mutual Friend (one of my absolute favourite novels of all time) coming soon over at The Argumentative Old Git – I’d better get started on dusting off those cobwebs! See you back here soon for, hopefully, some resulting shiny new posts over the coming weeks…