New Year’s Eve

Tonight’s December thirty-first,

Something is about to burst.

images-1The clock is crouching, dark and small,

Like a time bomb in the hall.

Hark, It’s midnight, children dear,

Duck! Here comes another year!    

Ogden Nash

As the end of another year approaches, what happens to you?  Are you instilled with the remaining fervor of the holiday spirit? Are you complacent observing the folly of others making resolutions?  Are you depressed pondering things undone?  Charles Dickens offers an old tale, written in the nineteenth century and set in Italy – The Chimes.  If you are a fan of “The Christmas Carol,” you will note the similarity in tone, and enjoy the possibilities of the ending.

 The Chimes was one of five in a series of Dickens’ Christmas stories. Appropriate for New Year’s Eve, the moral of the story focuses on the choices we make and their consequences. Like “A Christmas Carol,” a ghost guides the way.

The story opens with the chiming of church bells. After Toby, a messenger, delivers a letter to Lord Bowley and and receives the response – to imprison the man mentioned in the letter, he accidentally bumps into a man carrying a little girl. An apologetic exchange follows, during which Toby discovers this to be the very man to be imprisoned. Toby invites the two home for the night, but he continues to be disillusioned.

He finds  his daughter, Meg, seated by the fire drying her eyes about her apparently aborted marriage plans. When reading his paper,  he comes across the account of a woman, driven from her home by poverty and misfortune, who has killed her child and herself.  He falls asleep convinced of “the inherent vileness of his class.”

The Goblins of the Chimes appear and spirit the sleeping man to the bell tower. His dream takes him on a journey to the future, revealing the dire consequences if he continues to believe there is no purpose for his life or the lives of those around him.  In the end,  Meg wakes Toby from the dream. It’s New Year’s Day. Neighbors enter with greetings and congratulations and a happy party ends the story.

You can read this short tale as you ponder your own resolutions, while waiting for the clock to chime twelve tonight.  Keep your spirits up… images

Dickens Online – The Chimes 



9781101593417_p0_v1_s260x420Although Gary Blackwood’s historical novel – Curiosity – is targeted for middle-schoolers, this tale of a young chess wizard has adventure and intrigue appealing to adults.  Like Brian Selznick’s story of Hugo Cabret and the famous Automaton, Blackwood uses a mechanical figure, Otto the Turk, as the key character.  Otto resembles the Swami who changed Tom Hanks from boy to man in the movie “Big”; in his prime, Otto played chess, with the help of twelve year-old Rufus.

Rufus could be a character in a Charles Dickens novel; he is banished to the House of Refuge when his father, a defrocked minister who dares to preach evolutionism, loses his position and is sent to debtor’s prison.  As he is trying to make money to buy food and blankets for his father (this is the mid 1800s in Philadelphia), Rufus’ talent for chess is discovered by an unscrupulous carnival man, Maelzel, who owns an exhibit of automatons.

To escape the orphanage, Rufus agrees to conceal himself inside the cabinet below Otto the Turk and play chess against ticket-paying customers. Rufus secretly works the chess board, as Otto seems to beat all challengers with Rufus’ amazing skill at the game.   Although Rufus is promised a small salary with which he hopes to help his father get out of prison,  he must always remain hidden to avoid the secret of the Turk being discovered. He can never go out, and he struggles to get enough to eat, to not be beaten, and to find a way to survive.

Blackwood includes a wild cast of supporting characters based on real people: Jacques, the legless mechanic who brought Otto back to life; the author, Edgar Allan Poe who is determined to reveal the ruse; P. T. Barnum appears in a minor role, with his fledgling “Believe or Not” business.  Historical details lend realism and offer glimpses of a world with cholera and without electricity – when machinery was a curiosity rather than a means of making life easier.

The real “curiosity’, however, is the narrator, Rufus, with his hunched back and brilliant mind.  As he tells the story – a character dealing with the scorn of being different and the physical pain of his deformity – Rufus emerges as a hero.

Full of suspense, mystery, and drama, Curiosity has rightfully been mentioned for this year’s  Newbery Award possibilities.  Don’t worry if you are older than twelve; the book is still worth reading; it’s a great story.


The Devil in the Marshalsea

9780544176676_p0_v8_s260x420Finding Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea in Heathrow terminal was the bonus to my recent trip.  This historical thriller has elements of Zafon’s swashbuckling Prisoner of Heaven and Charles Dickens’ attention to detail, with characters who actually lived and survived the horrors of  the eighteenth century debtors’ prison in England.  The hero, a handsome rake who has strayed from his family’s upstanding and wealthy status, finds himself in debt from gambling, and confined to the debtors’ prison in the Marshalsea.  The prison is more of a city community with the poor suffering horrible conditions (chained to dead bodies for punishment the least of them) and the rich who can afford patrons with money to buy daily necessities and comforts enjoying a better, yet still confined, existence.  All are in prison, nevertheless, and at the mercy of the turnkey (warden).

Hodgson’s research brings the time and place to life, creating a murder mystery and thriller as Tom Hawkins, our handsome hero “with great calves” finds himself confined within the infamous debtors’ prison as the roommate to the “devil,” Mr. Fleet, a well-connected former spy, who supposedly killed his former roommate, Mr. Roberts, who now roams the halls as a ghost.  Tom enters into a pact to prove how and who killed Roberts, before he becomes the next victim.  The story twists and turns, maintaining the suspense, while revealing horrors and conditions that are based on real happenings and people. Even the ghost is based on historical data.

Hard to believe conditions were so miserable, yet Hodgson proves her research in an afterward.  The book reads like a thriller, while educating the reader.  Perhaps most pointedly, Hodgson manages to convey, through the connivance and betrayals, that people back then were the same as some today.

As an added bonus, the book offers an invitation to a book club – The Richard and Judy Thornton Book Club – through WHSmith, with lists of books and discussions.  I found some enticing titles.

The Invisible Woman – the book and the movie

9780804172127_p0_v1_s260x420In Claire Tomalin’s biography – The Invisible Woman – Charles Dickens could be a cliché  – the successful middle-aged man in his forties with a wife and children whose eye wanders to the young blond eighteen year old beauty.  In his self-directed movie, Ralph Fiennes brings the book and the author to life.  Although Charles Dickens was merely a man, his prodigious talent and personal power sustained an overpowering aura of Victorian ideals, until his relationship with Nelly Ternan was revealed to tarnish his self-promoting image.  For Dickens aficionados, Tomalin’s book has more than the inside story of Dickens’ fortitude and ambition, loves and secrets, inconsistencies and talent.  Tomalin manages to get inside his head – with the help of letters and a year from his diary that escaped the obliteration of the rest of his annual recordings – to reveal “a man intent on a split life.”

He believed strongly in his own ability to wrench the world into the shape he wanted, the stage manager of real events and lives as well as imaginary ones. ‘I know my plan is a good one {Dickens stated} – because it is mine!”…In his dealings with his wife and in-laws, he behaved as a man who never doubts that what he wants is what is right and will surely be brought about. He was not often defeated…”

The movie successfully incorporates many of his practices documented in Tomalin’s book – long walks, parlor games, amateur theater, fastidious dress.  In addition, small but important moments are reflected in the movie: Charles Jr. accidentally coming upon his father and lover on a long walk, Catherine (Dickens wife) delivering Nelly the birthday present mistakenly sent to her, Dickens denying Nelly as his companion on the train that wrecks, Nelly’s purple gloves.

While the movie shows Nelly pregnant and delivering a still-born child, Tomalin’s narrative only speculates the possibility of illegitimate offspring – possibly more than one – who did not survive.  In true Hollywood style, Nelly’s mourning of her lost child becomes the catalyst for a confession and rebirth into a new life for her.

His stressful life wore on Dickens –  the divided days and weeks and the train rides between his personal life with his children at Gad’s Hill, his professional life traveling to deliver readings, and his secret one with Nelly in Slough, caused him sleeplessness, faintness, and small strokes. He kept up the frantic pace with his readings and a last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, until his died of a stroke at 58, thirteen years after beginning his life with Nelly.

The movie begins with a flashback of an older established Nelly, purposely walking the beach and remembering her time with Dickens.  Following the book, after Dickens’ death, Nelly married a clergyman who opened a school for boys, and in the movie, she is directing a school play – the same play, “The Frozen River,” in which she first connected with Dickens.  Nelly effectively erased her years with Dickens, and moves on to an established life, making herself 28 years old when her son is born (when she is actually 40), and later giving birth to a daughter.  The movie ends on a note of conciliation with George, her husband, and following Tomalin’s last chapter, titled,”Nelly Tells,” her confession of her past life to her local parish priest.

The movie ends with Nelly believing her secret is safe and the promise of a good life; however, Tomalin continues beyond the Hollywood “happy ending” to note that the clergyman later reveals her confidences to a Dickens biographer.  After her husband becomes ill and they lose the school, Nelly becomes the family breadwinner by taking in boarders, supplemented by her small income from Dickens and her tutoring.  She becomes a playwright in her seventies, before she dies and leaves her papers and letters to her son, Geoffrey, eventually revealing her true life story to him.  Geoffrey is ambivalent, and a little ashamed of his mother; the details stay hidden for years.

Tomalin strays from the biography to include important background about the lives of women in the theater at that time – not considered a respectable Victorian womanly past time, yet one of the few occupations that gave a woman independence and sometimes management experience in a world that had women quietly embroidering, awaiting the fate their fathers and husbands created for them.   She also follows Dickens work, and focuses on books that may offer a hint of Nelly’s influence.  In both the book and the movie, Nelly’s mother and sisters, especially her mother Fanny, the true theatrical talent, appear noncommittal, sometimes supportive, grateful for their new opportunities and comforts, while delicately avoiding the truth that Nelly’s virtue is being compromised and offered in exchange for the monetary support that Dickens offers them.

Tomalin credits her assumptions about Dickens life with Nelly through pages of research and credible resources; however, she carefully concludes that her conclusions are speculative.  Many Dickinson authorities today still question this relationship of the middle-aged man with the young protegé, steadfastly believing that Nelly was no more that a second daughter, a contemporary of Dickens’ daughter Katy.  In true Dickenson style, Tomalin pursues the tale like a well-documented detective story, following the money, which leads to incontrovertible evidence.

In this case, I saw the movie before I read the book.  I’ve known of Tomalin’s biography for a while and have meant to read it, but seeing the movie was the catalyst I needed.  Immersed in Tomalin’s conversational tone, I found it rewarding to follow her research and relive the events of the Victorian era.  Dickens was a rock star of the times, and revealing his secrets only makes him more human and possibly more popular.

The movie is slow-moving.  At one point the two prospective lovers gazed at each other so long, many in the theater thought the camera had broken.  If you enjoy period pieces with beautiful expansive scenery and costumes, you might appreciate the elocution of the actors and the cleverness of the scenes, and disregard the lack of surprises in the narrative, as I did – a movie made for PBS.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is 200 Year Old

Charles Dickens had his day and now Jane Austen with the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice.

200px-Pickering_-_Greatbatch_-_Jane_Austen_-_Pride_and_Prejudice_-_This_is_not_to_be_borne,_Miss_BennetPride and Prejudice was first published in 1813 and has never been out of print since 1832  when its copyright was sold to another publisher.  Poor Jane Austen had signed away the rights for a paltry sum and never profited from one of her most successful stories.

Celebrations for followers (Janeites) and those who may have only seen the movie(s) are being held on both sides of the ocean, and one close to my old hometown.  Goucher College in Maryland owns the American archive of Jane Austen’s works that include first editions, letters, documents, pictures and drawings – even a lock of hair.  If you are in the area, stop by for some tea or champagne.

9781441145543Goucher professor and Austen scholar Juliette Wells has a new book about Jane Austen – Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination.