REVIEW: Dickens Day 2016: Dickens’s Days: Heritage, Celebrations and Anniversaries

Abderrezaq Ghafsi is a research student at Anglia Ruskin University, having studied for his MA in English Literature at Biskra University, where he specialized in Anglo-African literature and culture. He is in receipt of full scholarship from the Algerian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Currently, Abderrezaq’s research focuses on the influence and reception of Charles Dickens in Algeria. 

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On October 8 2016, the Institute of English Studies hosted Dickens Day Conference 2016. Dickens Day turns 30 in 2016, so, in a mood both retrospective and celebratory, the interest was about time, memory, narrative and biography in Dickens’s work; the multiple, complex and sometimes contradictory ways he narrates, commemorates and celebrates time’s passing; and the different ways in which Dickens, in his turn, has been commemorated and celebrated.

The conference was dedicated to the memory of Barbara Hardy. It included some interesting readings organised by Tony Williams (President of the Dickens Fellowship) and given together with various topics such as Dickens and time, Dickens’s life narratives, celebrating Dickens, and Dickens’s understanding of memory. These were given by academics and researchers who found the conference a great opportunity to receive feedback before publishing their papers.

In the first plenary panel, Steven Connor (Cambridge University) gave a paper on Dickens and the date. He maintained that Dickens lived his writing life subject to the relentless tick of the hours and the days, keyed in as they were with columns of type and printed pages. Dickens’s novels were not only written by numbers, but the monthly parts were themselves known as ‘numbers’, just as turns in the music hall would later be. We know that Dickens began to develop a kind of internal time-sense in his writing, so that his sentences and chapters were not so much subject to the clock and the calendar as themselves meting them out. The fact that there are so many Sundays and Thursdays, Mays, Novembers and Januarys in Dickens’s writing is a proof of the novels’ worldly secularity, but fiction tends to recoil from actual, historical dates, because they seem to belong too much to the deathly, entropic one-thing-after-another order of chronos rather than the order of chairos, sacred or significant time. Furthermore, November is in fact the month that is mentioned most commonly in Dickens’s novels, being the richest in associations of dreariness. In American Notes we meet ‘four morsels of girls (of whom one was blind) [who] sang a little song, about the merry month of May, which I thought (being extremely dismal) would have suited an English November better’. In Bleak House, much of the action of which seems to occur in an arrested November, the smoky and explosive associations of the month for English readers are also drawn on, for example in narrating the arrival of the guy-like figure of Grandfather Smallweed in ‘a group at first sight scarcely reconcilable with any day in the year but the fifth of November’.

In the second panel, Caroline Radcliffe (Birmingham University) presented a paper entitled “‘The Song of the Wreck’: Dickens’s Autobiographical Spectres and the Stage’. Radcliffe asserted that on 24 May, Dickens wrote to Collins, “I have written a little ballad for Mary –‘The Story of the Ship’s Carpenter and the Little Boy, in the Shipwreck.’ The words were set to a tune composed earlier by George Linley to Charlotte Young’s ballad ‘Little Nell’ (c.1844, based on The Old Curiosity Shop). Dedicated to Dickens by Linley, it had become a favourite song of his daughter, Mary, singing it to him ‘constantly since her childhood’. Dickens changed the title to ‘The Song of the Wreck’ and the ballad was sung by Mary (Mamie Dickens), who played the role of Phoebe during the performances of The Lighthouse. Dickens wrote the ‘Song of the Wreck’ to fit the same rhythmic structure as ‘Little Nell’ so the words to the ‘Song of the Wreck’ are interchangeable, easily fitting to the melodic line of the music. ‘The Song of the Wreck’ was reconstructed by Radcliffe and performed in 2013, probably for the first time since 1855. It is unique in providing us with an aural realisation of Dickens’s work. After the presentation of her paper, she provided a performance of the song on piano.

Radcliffe’s paper was followed by Emily Bowles’s “‘You know as I am of a convivial turn’: The Convivial Remembrances of the Dickens Family, the Boz Club and the Dickens Fellowship”. Bowles’s paper explored the changing ways of remembering Dickens, exposing the shifting attitudes to Dickensian conviviality and the problematic role of families in shaping biography. From the publication of the Letters (1880) to Dickens and Daughter (1939), Bowles discussed Georgina’s early attempts at control, the response of Dickens’s children, and the move towards convivial commemoration of Dickens being removed from family control through the Boz Club and the Dickens Fellowship. The kind of convivial image of Dickens that his daughter Katey famously railed against in the above letter to George Bernard Shaw owed much to the decades of biographies and reminiscences that had appeared since the inimitable death in 1870, many by his close friends and family.

In the third panel, Hadas Elber-Aviram’s paper titled ‘“Like a marble image on the tomb of the man’: Stuffed Ravens, Living Monuments, and the Gleam of Connection in Dickens’s Life and Fiction” expanded upon different points to examine the social, political, and literary issues at play in Dickens’s conceptualisations of pathological and desirable modes of negotiating the past. She wrote that on 12 March 1841, Dickens’s pet raven, Grip the First, unexpectedly died. Dickens responded with a characteristic mixture of genuine grief and wry irony. ‘He behaved throughout with a decent fortitude, equanimity, and self-possession,’ Dickens wrote of Grip’s final hours, ‘which cannot be too much admired.’ Thus, where Dickens embraced commemoration by way of treasured possessions, such as Grip’s mouldering cheese, he eschewed the conventional trappings of mourning. And where he indulged in the borderline-grotesque practice of embalming his pet, he emphatically objected to the establishment of an official monument to his memory.

In the final panel about topicality, Abderrezzaq Ghafsi (Anglia Ruskin University) explored the connection between Dickens and Algeria by analysing Dickens’s Algerian life narratives and historical accounts. This conference paper was entitled “Exploring Charles Dickens’s Connectedness and Canonisation through his Algerian Historical and Life-Narrative Accounts”. In the first part of the presentation, Ghafsi tried to find Dickens’s positivist attitudes of Algeria and how this has impacted Algerian readers’ reception of his literature. He also engaged with criticism of Dickens’s journal accounts such as about Algeria. Despite the fact that many critics maintain that these accounts had commercial purposes, Ghafsi argued that the Algerian narratives published by Dickens in his Household Words and All the Year Round aimed to link between world cultures, happenings, histories. More importantly, they created a Dickensian community among Algerian readers and audiences.

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