Tag Archives: Dickens Day

Dicken’s Day 2014: Dickens and Conviviality

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard, who is one of the organisers of Dickens Day. Join Birkbeck’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies as we read Our Mutual Friend month-by-month in its original instalments.


Charles Dickens

Now in its twenty-eighth year, Dickens Day enjoys a uniquely mixed audience of Dickens enthusiasts, academics, and students at all levels of study. It is perhaps apt then, that this year’s theme was ‘Dickens and Conviviality’, as this one-day conference, jointly run by Birkbeck, the University of Leicester and the Dickens Fellowship, brought together over one hundred Dickens aficionados for a day of genial intellectual exchange.

Dickens was associated with good humour, bonhomie and sociability from the outset of his career. Before his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, had even concluded its run of monthly instalments (1836–1837), its twenty-four-year-old author had been catapulted to fame and was widely lionised, and even mythologised, as the proponent and exemplar of merry-making. Indeed, Pickwick is famously stuffed with eating, drinking and parties, dances, celebrations, picnics and all manner of sociable endeavours. Like many of his contemporaries, Dickens held that laughter possesses a unique ability to harmonise and heal. One of our speakers, Clive Johnson, observed that if Freud understood humour in economic terms as a ‘wasteful’ element in the psychic economy, for Dickens, writing in an era sharply defined by an imaginatively parsimonious political economy, this was actually a great positive.

Dickens went on to consolidate this image of himself as a master of conviviality in his own life: he was notorious for his love of parties, impromptu dinners, jamborees, skits, celebrations, practical jokes, amateur theatrics, and many other forms of high-spirited sociability. He also assiduously cultivated many friendships with some of the leading authors, politicians, artists, thinkers, philanthropists and actors of his age, and he was a notably prolific letter writer in an era famous for its voluminous epistolary correspondence.

It is as the exemplar of Christmas spirit that Dickens is perhaps most firmly lodged in the popular cultural imagination; he is even erroneously praised for ‘inventing’ Christmas in its modern, recognisable form. Even in Sketches by Boz (1836), his first published collection, Christmas is warmly lauded for stoking mutual affection:

‘Christmas time! The man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas. […] Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment, which abound at this season of the year? […] There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas. Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten: social feelings are awakened in bosoms to which they have long been strangers’.

The later image of the joyous Cratchits in A Christmas Carol (1843) remains one of Dickens’s most famous depictions of good feeling, emblazoned on our collective memory from multiple versions of this perennial classic.

However, Dickens was also deeply interested in the flipside of conviviality and it is interesting that another paradigmatic Dickensian vignette is the starving, bedraggled Oliver Twist holding up his empty bowl and asking for more. One of the day’s plenary speakers, Wendy Parkins, reminded us of the ethical injunction to care for the vulnerable, especially children, that Dickens evokes, citing the neglected Jellyby children in Bleak House (1852–53). For Dickens, hospitality, like philanthropy, is a duty of care that we all owe to those in need. Asking for more, like Oliver, is also a rebellious assertion of individual need in a system that conglomerates and marginalises the poor. One of the fascinating threads of the day was the constant slippage in Dickens between needs, desires and wants, and the interconnectedness of physical need with emotional, social and sexual needs and desires. In Dickens, ‘hunger’ operates metaphorically as well as literally. Indeed, Jo Parsons reminded us of Dickens’s own childhood experiences of physical and emotional hunger that echo through his work, in particular David Copperfield (1849–50), and which perhaps explain his wish, shortly before his death, to compose a cookery book.

Indeed, despite his reputation as a sort of literary Father Christmas, Dickens also depicted disastrous and terrifying Christmas scenes: most famously, Pip’s excruciatingly anxious Christmas dinner in Great Expectations (1860–1861), as he endures the moralising insults of the adults and awaits the discovery of his theft of food for the escaped convict Magwitch. Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), reaches a climactic point with the disappearance of the eponymous hero on a particularly fevered and gloomy Christmas Day. Despite this, Pete Orford, creator of the Drood Inquiry revealed how early reviews of Drood foregrounded the novel’s humour and compared it to The Pickwick Papers, despite its gothic themes of drug addiction, madness and murder. As Orford showed, Dickens was a master of alternating light and dark, moving swiftly between humour and more ominous, tragic tones.

Most of our speakers were reluctant to take Dickens’s representations of good-humoured sociability at face-value, with most papers focusing conversely on loneliness, isolation, poverty and want, social aping and pretension, and the feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and exclusion that may actually fuel conviviality. As Nicola Bradbury observed, Pip’s Christmas dinner is made entirely miserable by the appalling company – in Dickens, hell really is other people. Charlotte Boyce considered the hidden class dynamics of Pickwickian sociability; somebody low-paid and low-status prepares, serves and clears up all those extravagant, jolly meals. Harriet Briggs considered how Dickensian laughter may be hearty and boisterous but is rarely anarchic, often operating to dissolve discontent and smother rebellious impulses. As the day’s keynote speaker, Malcolm Andrews, observed, humour in Dickens is both social glue and a social corrective.

Dickens Day is famous for its readings and this year’s – David Copperfield’s hilariously drunken disaster of a dinner party and the sham society wedding of the Lammles in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) – further confirmed that Dickensian conviviality is often at its most hilarious when it is faked, strained, overegged – or otherwise goes horribly wrong. Fortunately, no such disasters befell this year’s event, which is already looking forward to celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2016.


History in the life and work of Dickens

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard. Dr Winyard is a co-organiser of Dickens Day, along with fellow alumni Dr Bethan Carney and Dr Holly Furneaux. Now in its 27th year, Dickens Day is a much-cherished Birkbeck institution, attracting a uniquely mixed audience of scholars, students, members of the Dickens Fellowship, and Dickens enthusiasts for a day to explore, discuss and celebrate all things Dickensian. Across its three decades, the Day has featured papers from most of the world’s most eminent Dickensians. The event is now hosted and administered by the Institute of English Studies at Senate House. This year’s Dickens Day was 12 October 2013.

This year we considered how history, in all its manifold forms, features in Dickens’s life and work. The Victorians were profoundly exercised by the idea of history: the historical novel remained one of the most popular and prestigious literary forms, sitting at the apex of a hierarchy of genres; history, historiography and archaeology were professionalised, theorised and institutionalised as objects of academic concern; and the period itself was shaped by epochal events of nation building, imperial rise and fall, and an increasing sense of historical progress and destiny. Dickens’s early career was marked by his intense desire to write a historical novel, emulating the success, profits and literary kudos of Sir Walter Scott. Dickens’s first effort, Barnaby Rudge (1841), was something of a failure, particularly in comparison to the astonishing, ground-breaking and career-making success of his previous works, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. Dickens was famous at this point in his career for his startlingly recognisable depictions of contemporary life, yet here was a novel set sixty years earlier, during an inglorious moment in British history – the Gordon Riots of 1780, a now fairly obscure moment when Londoners rioted for nearly a week.

Barnaby Rudge has been consequently neglected by readers and students alike; many readers find its baggy narrative, its cast of grotesque characters and its scenes of melodramatic intensity and sentimental excess difficult to stomach. The art critic and social commentator John Ruskin roundly criticised what he considered the novel’s ‘diseased extravagance’. Although the Gordon riots were ostensibly rooted in anti-Catholic feeling, Dickens interpreted the violence as more sharply motivated by socio- economic difficulties and the apathetic and corrupt rule of a self-serving aristocracy. Dickens was himself living through dark and dramatic times when he wrote Barnaby Rudge: the optimistic, reforming spirit of the 1830s had been supplanted by political pessimism and disappointment, while organised political movements, such as Chartism, raised the spectre of mass revolt or even revolution. Fuelling popular agitation was a sharp retraction in living standards that would see the decade dubbed ‘the hungry forties’. Indeed, across much of the Continent, the 1840s culminated in 1848­ with revolutions that saw monarchic and aristocratic rulers deposed by liberal, radical and socialist protestors. In other words, Barnaby Rudge, like most historical novels, tells us more about the historical moment of its composition than about the period it depicts.

At the other end of his career, nearly twenty years later, Dickens’s second historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), was an immediate success and remains one of his most celebrated, popular and read works. Set during the far more famous French Revolution of 1789, the novel follows the fortunes of assorted characters who gather around Doctor Manette, falsely imprisoned in the Bastille for twenty years, and his preternaturally virtuous daughter, Lucie. The novel ends with the dissolute lawyer Sydney Carton sacrificing his life in an act of Christian selflessness and atonement, enabling the Manette family to escape Paris – ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done’.

Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities are fascinatingly similar, thematically, structurally and narratively: both move between two geographically separate places (Essex and London in Barnaby Rudge and London and Paris in A Tale of Two Cities); both open five years before the main, riotous events; both intertwine the private and domestic with the public and political; both exhibit Dickens’s fascination with the psychology of repression, imprisonment, crime and guilt; both lambast the upper classes for their immortality and political mismanagement; both defend the rights of the poor and oppressed while criticising riot and revolution as engines of justice and change; both depict the destruction of an infamous prison (Newgate in Barnaby Rudge and the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities); and both novels end with scenes of public execution, rousing scaffold speeches, and the restoration of domestic happiness. In many ways, then, we might see A Tale of Two Cities as Dickens’s attempt to ‘redo’ Barnaby Rudge, or to work through and duplicate themes, ideas, symbols, characters and scenes that evidently fascinated him. While A Tale of Two Cities is usually seen as more restrained and focused, and less excessive and over-the-top, both novels are intense, dark, occasionally very disturbing, and gloriously melodramatic and sentimental. When Dickens took on historical fiction, then, he certainly didn’t stint from remaking the genre in his own, inimitable style.