‘Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?’
Ah, Dickens and Christmas, two things that go together just like chestnuts roasting and open fires, or… I don’t know… raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens (I may be mixing up my seasonal references). The above remark from a little London barrow-girl, apparently overheard in 1870, pretty much sums up how inseparable Dickens and Christmas are in most people’s minds. And as the festive season gets into full swing, the Dickens reading group have worked ourselves into a fever pitch of yuletide excitement, with a whole host of Dickens-related events to fuel our obsession.
The first of these: a special Christmas Carol book club, which met in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street (a pub Dickens used to frequent), to drink wine, eat mince pies and talk about the book. Nearly half of our group of 12 or so were reduced to tears by it, with some of us sobbing pretty much throughout, even at Tiny Tim. One reader described it as “worse than the John Lewis adverts”. We all remarked on how strange it was to actually read something we already knew so well from film and TV adaptations, and loved that so much of the dialogue was the same – proof, if any more were needed, of how minty fresh and perfect Dickens’s writing is. We were still moved by the book’s humanist message of opening up your heart at Christmas (a time “to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures”), and its anger at complacency and ignorance (“are there no workhouses?”). We also loved how Scrooge suddenly becomes so silly and hysterical after his transformation, and how the book has such an exuberant, comic, holiday feel. But mainly, we were just so impressed that Dickens managed to conjure up this timeless fairy tale out of nowhere one night (apparently he composed it in his head while walking the streets of London, laughing and crying as he did so). I would also like to thank Dickens for A Christmas Carol because without it, It’s a Wonderful Life would surely never have existed.
Next in our festive Dickensathon was an evening discussion of A Christmas Carol with the Guardian and the wonderful Claire Tomalin, author of Dickens: A Life. Tomalin pinpointed the moment of Scrooge’s transformation as right at the start of the hauntings, where he looks back at his lonely childhood and says “poor boy” – by pitying himself as a child, he is able to acknowledge what’s wrong with him as an adult. Discussions also ranged over the persona of the Narrator, the child-wraith figures of Ignorance and Want, Dickens’s hatred of workhouses (including the fact that all domestic servants were sent to them once they were too old to work. Did you know that? Neither did I. Bloody Victorians), and the slightly unsavoury descriptions of some of the book’s women: see page 87 and you’ll know what I mean.
Which brings us to the last, and best, plum in our December Dickens pudding: a field trip to the almost indescribable wonder that is Dickens World in Kent (who had, very kindly, given us some tickets), about which we had worked ourselves up into such a state of excitement that by the time we arrived we were like toddlers after ten slices of birthday cake.
Marooned in the middle of nowhere, Dickens World is part kitsch theme-park wonderland, part a recreation of the best Dickens film set you have ever seen, with a haunted house, 4D – yes, 4D – cinema, pub, shops and, to top it all, a Great Expectations boat ride (I don’t remember this in the novel but then it’s a long time since I read it at school), and is so unreal that part of me wonders if I dreamt the whole thing. In Sam’s words:
“From an unprepossessing retail park by the dockyards, we entered Dickens World like Tiny Tim Cratchit on Boxing Day, eyes all aglow with the giant turkey (theme park) before him (us). It was utterly magical, from the roofs of Dickens's London to the costumed staff pointing you to all the delights on offer. I particularly liked screaming so loudly on the water ride that I almost blacked out. A hearty 9/10.”
I leave the last word with Becky, however: “Looking back, in the cold light of day, I am not convinced that the Great Expectations log flume was that good. However at the time, the fit of hysteria that Sam and Louise were having in the back of our log, combined with the novelty and charm of the all consuming Victorian world we had entered, made travelling at 0.5 miles an hour past an unconvincing model of Miss Havisham seem like possibly the most exhilarating thing I'd ever done. Henceforth, if I am invited to another Dickens attraction – the acclaimed Dickens Birthplace museum of Portsmouth perhaps, or the Dickens House Museum of Broad
stairs, or the great Dickens Museum of London town – I will ask: 'Does it have a flume, sir?' And if the answer is 'No, sir', then I will not go, sir!”
Louise Willder, Copywriter
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