Charles Dickens and Cambridgeshire

Many thanks to Cambridgeshire’s library service for highlighting connections between our much loved author Charles Dickens with our county to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth.

The county’s Literature Development Officer, Helen Taylor, has chosen some very appropriate text to remind us why his writing is as relevant today as it was in Victorian England.  This is the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens written in 1859.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Helen tells us that Charles Dickens came up to Cambridge three times to give public readings of his work: 18th October 1859, when there was almost word for word coverage in the Cambridge Chronicle and Cambridge Independent Press newspapers, followed by 28th March 1867, and finally on 18th March 1869 as part of his farewell tour.

Two published Cambridge diaries from the period mention them. Josiah Chater refers to the visit in 1867 and says, “we did not go” in 1869, he says, ” to hear Charles Dickens, who gave some readings … from Martin Chuzzlewit and Holly Tree Inn. I liked it very much”.

Joseph Romilly, who often mentions in his diary that he is reading Dickens: 2 March 1850, “read loud the new No (sic) of Copperfield – the blissful day with Dora is very comic”.  He also went to the 1859 reading: “The room was quite full and Dickens was received enthusiastically. I had never seen him before, he has great power of changing the expression of his countenance. I preferred him in the pathetic parts. He amused me by prefacing his reading with saying he had no objection to the audience expressing the feelings which different parts of the reading might excite …”

The plays of the books were also fairly quick to appear and on 9th October 1844 the Christmas Carol was performed at the Theatre Barnwell, Cambridge.
Wisbech and Fenland Museum are the proud owners of the original manuscript of Great Expectations which I have seen during visits there.

And today, Cambridge University unveiled a letter from Charles Dickens to his son Henry written nearly 150 years ago.  Dickens’ son, Henry, then just 19 and the first of the writer’s 10 children to go to university, had just arrived at Trinity Hall in Cambridge, to study maths – and was provided with an a generous stock of alcohol by his father!

I have taken my son to the Charles Dickens Museum in London and loved every minute. He was a complex man whose literary legacy is hard to beat.

I wonder who our modern day equivalent of Dickens is, who is today’s writer whose prose captures the full essence of life in 21st century England, and will it also stand the test of time for centuries to come?

Meanwhile, I hope the Cabinet enjoyed their copies of Dickens thoughtfully given to them by Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt.