A Child's Journey with Dickens by Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin (Nabu Press, 2010. Originally published in 1912.)
Kate Douglas Wiggin would become well-known as the author of the children's novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But in 1868 she was a child of eleven, longing to see her idol, Charles Dickens. (She and her family had named "almost every living thing" on the farm "after one of Dickens's characters.")
When he came to America, her mother went to hear a reading, but Kate wasn't allowed to go. She did go to town with her mother, but the tickets were so expensive ("there was a general feeling in the community that any one who paid it would have to live down a reputation for riotous extravagance forever afterward") that no one even thought of taking her along to the reading."If any martyr in Fox's 'Book' ever suffered more poignant anguish than I, I am heartily sorry for him," Wiggin writes, "yet my common sense assured me that a child could hardly hope to be taken on a week's junketing to Charlestown, and expect any other entertainment to be added to it for years to come."
Can you imagine? I think our cultural philosophy about children and pleasures has changed considerably since then -- fortunately for the children!
Anyway, little Kate had the last word in that situation, because on the train to Charlestown . . . guess who she ran into? And ended up sitting next to, and had a wonderful conversation with?
This charming book, written in 1912 (perhaps in honor of Dickens's centennial?), is very short -- only 32 pages in my edition, which is a "reproduction of the original edition." I can honestly say I read it from beginning to end with a huge smile on my face. Wiggin recalls effortlessly, and delightfully, what it was like to be an adoring little fan meeting her idol, and finding him just as warm and sympathetic as she would have expected. (As far as I know, the story is all true; Wiggin notes that it got a couple of mentions in newspapers at the time. It would have been nice to have a new edition with notes and all that, to confirm all of this, but a lot of the dates and details seem accurate and there doesn't seem to be any reason to disbelieve it.)
I just have to share a few of my favorite quotes with you:
- ". . . There was a moment of thrilling excitement when my mother, looking up from the 'Portland Press,' told us that Mr. Dickens was coming to America, and that he was even then sailing from England. I remember distinctly that I prayed for him fervently several times during the next week, that the voyage might be a safe one, and that even the pangs of seasickness might be spared so precious a personage."
- "They say, I believe, that his hands were 'undistinguished' in shape, and that he wore too many rings. Well, those criticisms must come from persons who never felt the warmth of his handclasp!"
- "I remember feeling that I had never known anybody so well and so intimately, and that I talked with him as one talks under cover of darkness or before the flickering light of a fire. . . . The little soul of me came out and sat in the sunshine of his presence. . . ."
- "'Do you cry when you read out loud?' I asked curiously. 'We all do in our family. And we never read about Tiny Tim, or about Steerforth when his body is washed up on the beach, on Saturday nights, or our eyes are too swollen to go to Sunday School.'
"'Yes, I cry when I read about Steerforth,' he answered quietly, and I felt no astonishment."
- "He had his literary weaknesses, Charles Dickens, but they were all dear, big, attractive ones, virtues grown a bit wild and rank. Somehow when you put him -- with his elemental humor, his inexhuastible vitality, his humanity, sympathy, and pity -- beside the Impeccables, he always looms large!"
And there's a hilarious passage where she tells him about the "dull parts" of all his books, while "he chuckled so constantly . . . that I could hardly help believing myself extraordinarily agreeable."
Small wonder that Kate Douglas Wiggin remained a Dickens fan all her life. When she died in 1923, it was during a visit to England for a meeting of the Dickens Fellowship.
Just a few quotes aren't enough -- I urge you to get your own copy. If you love Dickens, I can safely say you will love this book.
(Review copy obtained from Amazon.)