Dickens Day: Review

This review is conducted by Abderrezzaq Ghafsi, a PhD student at Anglia Ruskin University whose research is on Charles Dickens in Algeria, exploring three main aspects: Dickens’s publication and cinematic history, the literary appeal of Hard Times, Oliver Twist and journalism on Algerian readers, and the influence of Dickens on both Algerian literature and culture. Find more about Abderrezzaq’s research on Charles Dickens and Algeria by following the link: https://www.anglia.ac.uk/arts-law-and-social-sciences/department-of-english-and-media/our-research/research-students/abderrezzaq-ghafsi.

On Saturday 14th October 2017 Senate House in London hosted an annual conference on Charles Dickens. The one-day event, which inspired a thoughtful Dickensian community, was on Dickens and fantasy. Although my abstract on the impact of fantasy in The Arabian Nights on Dickens’s literature was rejected, mainly because the conference organizers wanted to give the opportunity for other researchers who did not present in the 2016 conference, I was blown away by how inspirational the day proved to be!


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Walid Fekih, an Algerian PhD student at West of Scotland University is inspired by Dickens!

In the plenary talks Bethan Carney, one of the Dickens Day conference organizers from Birkbeck University presented a paper titled ‘Dickens and goblins’ in which she discussed the historical representation of the supernatural elements in Victorian England. Bethan’s paper focussed also on the similarities between Dickens’s goblins and ghosts along with a number of works by Henry Fuseli, Richard Doyle and Shakespeare. Interestingly, Bethan’s paper highlighted the didactics and the morality of fantasies in Dickens’s narratives.Kate Newey, a Professor of theatre history at Exeter University, gave a talk on ‘Dickens in Fairyland’ in which she traced the use of pantomime in nineteenth-century journalism. Kate analysed Dickens and George Augustus Sala’s perceptions of theatre and theatricality in both literature and journalism. Kate’s presentation provoked the thoughts of many attendees who raised interesting questions. The final plenary speaker was Caroline Sumpter from Queen Mary University whose paper on ‘Time-Travelling Dickens’ examined the balancing between realism and romanticism in Dickens’s novels. Caroline’s paper explored Dickens’s work through Andrew Lang’s anthropological view and his coining of the word ‘psycho-folklore’, which inspired many other intriguing nineteenth-century occult figures, such as Arthur Machen, A. E. Waite, J. K. Huysmans and the Society for Psychical Research founder Frederic W. H. Myers.

After the plenary talks, there was a coffee break in which attendants had a lovely chat. Soon, half of the attendees of the Dickens Day Conference enjoyed the readings of Tony Williams of the Dickens Fellowship; while the second half attended the ‘Fantasy, Theatre and Spectacle’ panel. All three papers were stimulating and promising. Jen Baker spoke about the recent adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Jen brought some examples for attendees to examine. Her paper was an enthralling consideration of how pop-up books can impact upon reader agency and invade their space, whilst engaging with the theatre of the past through magic lanterns and optical illusions. Ahmed Dardir offered a highly informative reading of A Tale of Two Cities’ revolutionary scenes and their links with classical Bacchanalian mythology, alongside how this could relate to Sydney Carton’s struggles with individuality and identity. The last paper in the panel was by Jennifer Miller who addressed domesticity in theatrical adaptations of Dickens’s works and how the endings of the adaptations were often altered by playwrights and film directors for a happier domestic outcome. There was also a discussion of how Edward Stirling staged a production of The Old Curiosity Shop before its ending had even been published!

After lunch, it was time for the two last panels. The three speakers, Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott, Giles Whiteley and Jeremy Parrott analysed the influence of fantasy on Dickens’s novels. Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott’s talk was titled ‘Where better to discuss Dickens and dragons than this year’s conference with its theme of fantasy’? This was Beatrice’s first enjoyable experience at conferences. Giles was keen to find the influence of Southey’s Curse of Kehama on Edwin Drood, while Jeremy teased out Southey’s impact on the folktales of Barnaby Rudge. One noticed that the audience at this panel were amazed by the content, and their questions were friendly and thought-provoking as a result. This panel benefitted from a particularly lively discussion of the film adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities in the Q&A!

Finally, brilliant Simon J. James gave a talk in the closing plenary entitled ‘The Ghost of Dickens’s Memory’, discussing the nature of time in Dickens’s work and the haunting nature of personal mythologies. Audiences were also treated to a ‘ghost’ clip from Walter R. Booth’s 1901 adaptation of A Christmas Carol, reminiscent of the double exposure work of Georges Méliès. This talk was a very interesting end to a highly stimulating conference. The readings throughout have greatly contributed to the scholarship of Dickens today, and were a pertinent reminder of how much more life Dickens’s writing can take on when performed live. Many thanks to everyone involved in organising such a moving day of discussion, particularly to Bethan Carney and Ben Winyard who were helpful before and during the day. I look forward to another excellent Dickens Day next year!