This post has jumped the queue, pushing aside my notes about the joys of reading a bibliography.
This morning, I enjoyed a chat with a customer who insisted that Dickens shouldn’t be read on a bus, a train or anywhere cold. Not too seriously, we set about deciding rules for enjoying an hour or so with these classics. But first, a glimpse at the passion, the obsession almost, that lies in the heart of Dickens followers.
Some years ago, I worked in an office where a Dickens enthusiast was the quiet one. (His other interest was researching dead people in a cemetery) However, when ‘the enthusiast’ heard that we were attending a training conference in Rochester, he made sure that he secured a place. Our team of three arrived at the famous hotel in the High Street where he insisted on having the room associated that one of the characters from the books. That was the start of the difficulty. You see, ‘the enthusiast’ was convinced that the hotel was promoting the wrong room as having the literary association. Two of us backed away as he argued with the receptionist, quoting letters from journals and ‘definitive’ research by an acknowledged authority
The dispute wasn’t settled but things turned out well because ‘the enthusiast’ got the room he wanted and the receptionist didn’t have to consider moving another guest from the official room. But the argument was only our first glimpse of the depth of the enthusiast’s passion for everything Dickens. At half past six we mustered in the reception for the start of the guided walk that he had been promising for days. It was, of course, the best circumstances for a tour, three colleagues including an enthusiast who not only knew everything there was to know, but spoke from the heart. ‘The enthusiast’ shook “the Great Expectations gate” and stomped over the ground of Edwin Drood, all the time treating us to his version of the current controversies within the Dickens fan club. ‘The enthusiast’ might have been the quiet one in the office, but here was our first sight of the real man!
The point is – Dickens enthusiasts cannot rest with only the books but become absorbed into the Dickens world. I have been pleased to provide two of my bookshop customers (both Dickens collectors) with various choice editions but, over sixteen years, they have been best pleased with a domestic scrapbook of Dickens characters (from packet wrappers etc) and an old ticket to the 1951 Dickens festival.
For me, it is the magic of the great man’s writing. Last summer, Christine and I visited Portsmouth Museum (we always do when we’re down there because of the cottage pie in the little restaurant). In addition to the permanent Sherlock Holmes exhibition, visitors were treated to a Dickens exhibition, celebrating the bi-centenary. The real treasure was the handwritten manuscript of Nicholas Nickleby. Christine, knowing that I would spend a few minutes staring at this, went off to try on the Dickens costumes.
When she returned, I was still there. Forty-five minutes transfixed by this open page of handwriting in a glass case had seemed like just three or four to me
So, what are our rules for reading Charles Dickens?
Number one, we decided, was that you should read his books not to get to the end but slowly to digest his prose, reading and reading again those passages that capture you.
I said that he is best read aloud but my customer went further, imagining a Victorian family gathered around as someone read to them. Dickens should be read aloud but, better, read to an audience.
Rule number three, find your own Dickens space. The chair or corner of the room where you can settle and slip into your Dickens mood.
I guess all of this sounds like cosy sentimentality. Well, sentimentality is a charge that is often levelled at Charles Dickens. Cosy? Comfortable, certainly. But that comfort can hardly be drawn from, for example, returning to the horror of Nancy’s murder or a sense that everything will turn out well; it doesn’t. It’s about the security of knowing that you’re spending time with a man who can produce quality prose, vivid caricature and touch us with his reporting of London.
We decided on a final rule – a covenant, if you like. You should never recommend a favourite to new readers. They need to explore, and that’s where we envy them.