Going Mad for Charles Dickens

Two centuries after his birth, the novelist is still wildly popular, as a theme park, a new movie and countless festivals attest

Dickens World, a theme park in Chatham, offers an 1800s immersion. The novelist, says the attraction's Kevin Christie, "was a showman. He would have loved this." (Stuart Conway)
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In 1867, he left Ternan behind and embarked on his second journey to the United States—a grueling, but triumphant, reading tour. Mark Twain, who attended Dickens’ January 1868 appearance at Steinway Hall in New York, described a venerable figure “with gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward...his pictures are hardly handsome, and he, like everybody else, is less handsome than his pictures.” The young Regency dandy had become a prematurely old man.

Hergest leads me into the salon, with its panoramic view of Dickens’ verdant estate. “When he was here, he hosted cricket matches for the locals on the lawn,” she tells me. Today, backhoes are clearing ground for a new school building. The 18th-century manor will be converted into a Dickens heritage center open to the public. We enter the conservatory, with its soaring glass roof and replicas of the Chinese paper lanterns that Dickens was hanging here only two days before he died.

Dickens spent the morning and afternoon of June 8, 1870, in his chalet, working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Later that day, he was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage. He was carried to a sofa—it is preserved in the Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth—and died the following day. The author’s final moments, at age 58, come complete with a Dickensian twist: According to an alternative version of events, he collapsed during a secret rendezvous with Ternan in a suburb of London and was transported in his death throes to Gad’s Hill Place, to spare the lovers humiliation.

Millions around the world mourned his passing. Although he had professed a wish to be buried in his beloved Kentish countryside, far from the crowded, dirty city he had escaped, Dickens was entombed at Westminster Abbey. Tomalin, for one, finds it an appropriate resting place. “Dickens,” she says, “belongs to the English people.”

The conventional take has always been that the Dickens character closest to the man himself was David Copperfield, who escapes the crushing confines of the bootblacking factory. But an argument could be made that his true counterpart was Pip, the boy who leaves his home in rural England and moves to London. There, the squalor and indifference of the teeming streets, the cruelty of the girl he loves and the malice of the villains he encounters destroy his innocence and transform him into a sadder but wiser figure. In the original ending that Dickens produced for Great Expectations, Pip and Estella, long separated, meet by chance on a London street, then part ways forever. But Dickens’ friend, the politician and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton, urged him to devise a different, cheerful plot resolution, in which the pair marry; Dickens ultimately complied. The two endings represent the twin poles of Dickens’ persona, the realist and the optimist, the artist and the showman.

“In the end, Dickens felt [the original version] was too bitter for a public entertainer,” Newell, the film director, says in his trailer on the set. “That’s what is so extraordinary about Dickens. He has this huge instinct for literature as art, and at the same time, boy, does he bang the audience’s drum.”

Frequent contributor Joshua Hammer lives in Berlin. Photographer Stuart Conway maintains a studio near London.


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