By David Perdue, Guest Blogger
Upon my return from London for events surrounding the Dickens Bicentenary. I received an email from a fellow Dickens Web site owner, Ritva Raesmaa, from Finland. She also attended the events, although sadly I did not meet her. She summed up the few days in London as a “once in a lifetime” trip . . . and I heartily agree!
I arrived in London on Sunday morning, February 5, and after checking in to my hotel in Kensington I made my way in the snow to The Charles Dickens Museum to collect my tickets for the Bicentenary events. The Museum is on the verge of major change as they will be closing (rather controversially) later this year for renovation. My friend, curator Dr. Florian Schweitzer, took a few minutes from his crazy, crazy schedule to chat about the upcoming events of the week.
On Monday morning I visited the Museum of London for their exhibition, Dickens and London, which was excellent! Among the items on display were many pieces of Dickens memorabilia on loan from the British Museum, the Dickens Museum, and privately held pieces. The exhibit was very well-attended. It is scheduled to run until June 10.
Later that afternoon I met a friend, author and historian Dr. Ruth Richardson, at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street for lunch. (The two of us are pictured at left.) The Cheshire Cheese, established in 1538 and rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666, was a favorite of Dickens and it is not hard to imagine him walking in at any moment. Joining Ruth and me for lunch was Jennifer Emerson from Connecticut, who is writing a novel based on Dickens’s work with Urania Cottage and was in London to do research. Ruth’s book Dickens and the Workhouse was recently published in Britain and is slated for release in the U.S. in April. After lunch Ruth took Jennifer and me on an entertaining and informative tour of West London.
On Tuesday, the "Big Day," I was early at Westminster Abbey and among the first to enter the church.
After going through airport-type security we were ushered in. I was seated very close to Dickens’s grave, behind which were seats for the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall, and other dignitaries. At 11:15 Prince Charles and Camilla were ushered in and passed within arm’s length of me!
Among the speakers was author Claire Tomalin, whose new biography of Dickens I loved. Ms. Tomalin gave a reading from a letter dated March 1, 1844, from Dickens to his sister Fanny.
The Most Reverend and Right Honorable Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, then offered a tribute. I particularly liked his quip that “Dickens’ characters were so outrageous that we think we have never met anyone like them . . . and then we think again!”
Actor Ralph Fiennes then gave a stirring reading of the death of Jo from Bleak House. I thought it was “wery good” but later overheard some saying that he hadn’t gotten Jo’s cockney accent quite right.
Prince Charles then very solemnly laid the wreath. After some closing prayers and the singing of the British National Anthem the ceremony concluded. Being in that place, with members of the Royal Family, and 200 members of Dickens’s family (Lucinda Dickens Hawksley is pictured here), is a memory I’ll always cherish!
That evening I attended the Bicentenary Dinner at Mansion House, a very posh affair! Following a sherry reception at which I met the entertainment for the evening, Sir Patrick Stewart, we were announced into the dining room. Following toasts to the Queen, Prince Phillip, other members of the Royal Family, The Lord Mayor (who was present), and “The Immortal Memory of Charles Dickens,” dinner commenced.
On the menu was roasted saddle of Cornish lamb, pressed shoulder cromesqui, rosemary scented jus and onion tatin. During dinner we were entertained with a reading from A Christmas Carol by Sir Patrick Stewart (pictured at right) and musical selections from Oliver! by the West End Kids.
I had the pleasure of being seated next to Dr. Paul Schlicke, whose scholarly writing I have long admired. He was familiar with my Web site and was very complimentary. I told him that I had worn out at least two copies of his Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens. He regaled me with stories of the history of that publication. To my left at dinner was Flick Rea, a London Councilwoman whom I found absolutely charming. She currently serves as Vice-Chair of the Trustees of the Charles Dickens Museum.
At our places at dinner we received copies of the new commemorative Dickens Bicentenary £2 coin. After dinner the history of the coin was explained by Mr. Matthew Dent, the designer of the coin. Closing remarks by the Lord Mayor ended a very memorable evening.
On Wednesday, the last day of my trip, I took the train to Windsor for a very cold tour of the castle and grounds. I had never been there and enjoyed it immensely.
It is impossible to overstate how much Dickens is still revered in Britain. Watching the news and reading the papers during my visit it struck me how genuinely proud the British still are of this favorite son . . . 200 years on!
David Perdue is editor of The Charles Dickens Page.