Those of you who have spent the last few months up the Amazon without access to newspapers or the internet may not be aware whose 200thth birthday it was earlier this month. For the rest of us, Mr Dickens’ bicentenary has been hard to avoid though nevertheless welcome.
Since Christmas we have seen splendid new telly adaptations of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. We discovered that Ebenezer Scrooge is the nation’s favourite Dickensian character. But for those whose appetite for all things Dickensian remains unsatisfied, let’s see what Westminster Libraries has to offer.
First and foremost there are the books, roughly a shelf-full. You’ll be able to find them all, with reviews, on the library catalogue but for those of you who’ve gone Kindle (other ebook readers are available), you can get them all for free online. Go to the Books & Literature section of the Westminster Libraries Gateway to Websites and take the shortcut down to Online Books, where you’ll find several sites which offer free out-of-copyright ebooks in a range of formats including kindle and epub. Top tip – books from Manybooks.net come with a picture of a nice dustjacket which will greatly enhance your reading experience.
Of course Dickens isn’t just about the books. Let’s be honest, most of us know our Dickens from films and TV adaptations and you can also find many of these on the library catalogue. There are musical adaptations too – some, like the musical Oliver! will probably be only too familiar but why not see what else there is? On the Music section of the Gateway, have a look at the Naxos Music Library and you’ll be able to sample such delights as ‘The Passion of Scrooge’ by Jon Deak and the ‘Nicholas Nickleby suite’ from Lord Berners’ score to the 1947 film. And, thanks to the British Film Institute, you can see online the earliest surviving film adaptation of Dickens. From 1901 it’s called Scrooge, Or Marley’s Ghosts, lasts three and a half minutes and is really quite charming.
By now, you’ll be more than familiar with Dickens’ works and be keen to find out more about the man himself. Here the catalogue can again help you – Claire Tomalin’s book Charles Dickens: a life is the most recent of several dozen biographies.
But books are heavy and papery and sometimes you just want to tap away at the keyboards and not have to walk over to the shelves… 😉 The Biography section of the Gateway takes us to our old friend the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. As well as a splendid biography of the man himself (which would be 40 A4 pages should you be so wasteful as to print it out), there is a life of his son Charles Culliford Boz Dickens (apparently his grandfather got over-excited at the christening and shouted out the name Boz!) and Ellen Ternan, Dickens’ mistress. You might want to check out Hablot Knight Browne, also known as Phiz, who illustrated most of Dickens’ books and his friend and biographer John Forster .
There’s no doubt that Dickens was far and away the most famous writer of his times with crowds flocking to hear his readings (the closest we’re going to come to that is seeing Simon Callow on stage or television doing his marvellous impersonation). So it’s not surprising that he featured rather a lot in the newspapers of the day – check out the News & Magazines section of the Gateway to find out what his contemporaries thought of him (the 18 June 1870 issue of the Illustrated London News has a 4,000 word obituary of the great man, while the following week has a fine drawing of his grave in Westminster Abbey).
And when you’ve learned everything you can about Britain’s most famous novelist, why not visit the Museum of London’s current exhibition or just pay a pilgrimage to the site of Dickens’ house at 15-17 Marylebone Road (formerly 1 Devonshire Terrace) which now has a rather splendid plaque of the author and some of his most famous characters. Or the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, his only surviving London Home.
Whatever you do to celebrate his bicentenary, it’s hard not to be moved by the story of the poor boy who earned his living working in a factory at the age of 12 but grew up to be the greatest novelist of all time.