Charlie and Me – A Life with Dickens

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“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

It was around 7 p.m., on December 20, 1961, when my father read aloud those words from A Christmas Carol in his smooth baritone, beginning my journey into the world of Charles Dickens. He read one stave every night, finishing early on Christmas Eve, just before my sister and I scampered to bed. It was then that I first heard the power of Dickens’ language; it has been over fifty years and I still haven’t stopped reading, listening to, and watching his stories.

My father began my relationship with Dickens but I continued it on my own, reading almost everything he has written – both in school and out – allowing the stories to permeate my life. As I packed to leave home for college at age sixteen, I likened myself to Pip. I named a starving stray cat Oliver, as she never seemed to get enough food. A few weeks ago while discussing a family real estate issue wending its way through the New York court system, I asked my father whether his file had grown as large as the Jarndyce’s; then I wrote a blog post about it likening it to that famous case.

I have always loved Dickens’ characters, especially the unsavory ones like Fagin and Bill Sikes. While studying at Trinity College, Oxford, I spent hours wandering around Bethnal Green, Limehouse, and Liverpool Street, Spitalfields searching for the lost London of Charles Dickens, trying to determine where Fagin’s den must have been, and sliding down slimy river stairs to the Thames like the mudlark Lizzie Hexam would have done. I prowled old shops; I even found one called “Ye Olde Curiousity Shoppe” while seeking Angel the Articulator and Neddie Boffin, the Golden Dustman, and others from Our Mutual Friend. I went on two Dickens walking tours of London and visited his homes at 48 Doughty Street and at Gad’s Hill.

In New York, I took my ninth grade class to the Morgan Library to see the original manuscript of A Christmas Carol on display. I liked seeing the amazement in their eyes as they stared at the tiny, crabbed handwriting on ancient paper stained black with inkblots and scratched with marginalia.   It fascinated them that this admittedly short, scrawled, document became the rich story they had just read.

A few summers ago I was accepted into a writing class taught by Ian Frazier (of The New Yorker) in which each student wrote about our literal and figurative relationship to New York City. As a native New Yorker of several generations, I chose to do geographical genealogical research at the Main Branch of The New York Public Library where I learned a great deal about my own urban, blue-collar roots. I then spoke to my father about his knowledge of his ancestors and suddenly, as my family history took a decidedly darker turn, the British Victorians Dickens wrote about looked a lot closer than they had before. My paternal grandfather had been born into poverty and suffered under the influence of his own Mr. Gradgrind; unable to cope, he dropped out of school in the sixth grade. Abandoned by his father after his mother’s death in childbirth, my grandfather was forced, like Sissy, to work.

While crafting my New York essay, my mind turned to Hard Times and I recalled the first time that I read it at Columbia University. I had been researching workhouses online and met a man who was also researching them because he had recently learned that his great-grandmother had died in one.

Now, middle-aged, it seems that many of us are joined through Dickens’ stories. Who hasn’t hummed a tune from Oliver!? Or grumbled that someone is a Scrooge?   Or wondered about our own expectations in life? Yes, Dickens is everywhere, in all of us, and like Oliver, I always want more.

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