Tuesday 7 February 2012


I've been aware for some time that Charles Dickens's ACTUAL 200th birthday happens to fall on the day when I'm blogging at The History Girls. This is, however, such a momentous occasion that I am not blogging today but instead joining together with my fellow History Girls to invite all our readers, young and old, to a virtual birthday party in the proper Dickensian style. We have the perfect venue for our party. One of our number, Michelle Lovric, lives practically IN the River Thames. Her most beautiful flat has a balcony overlooking the river

and the whole place would both enchant Charles and also remind him of many of his walks in this area. This

is a view of the building the flat is in from London bridge and he can sit on the balcony and gaze at how transformed the city is, and how unchanged also. Later on, there will be readings (some favourite bits from the novels which you are to imagine being spoken aloud to you) but we are starting off with a procession of presents. These will be listed under the name of the giver. And no party is complete without a cake. The recipe for the Dickens Birthday Cake is in the post just below this one and anyone who would like to is encouraged to make it and tell us how it turned out.

With a drumroll, then, may I present our gifts:

One: a copy of Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess to highlight the fact that cooking has come a long way since What shall we have for Dinner? was written in 1851 under the pseudonym Lady Maria Clutterbuck, ostensibly by Catherine but also, it seems, by Charles. The cookbook caused a sensation with recipes for giblet soup, lamb's head and cold custard pudding. Nigella licking chocolate spoons could give a whole new meaning to cold custard!

Two: Since I live a 2 minute walk from St Luke’s, Chelsea, I’d also send him a photograph of modern-day St Luke’s to remind him of happier times when on April 2, 1836 he married Catherine in this church. Though he might be alarmed by the uprooted gravestones that have made way for astroturf soccer fields.

I think my birthday gift to Dickens would be a string of modern pedicure or chiropody appointments and a pair of extremely comfortable boots. So much striding about for miles can't have improved his poor feet or therefore his temper - especially with his nearest and occasionally dearest.

A copy of Joyce’s Ulysses. To see what his greatest heir got up to.

I'd give him a bus pass and an invisibility cloak so that he can eavesdrop on modern Londoners to his heart's content.

My birthday present to Dickens would be a memory stick - perhaps disguised as a chunky cravat pin since he enjoyed fashion - because it might amuse him that all his novels would fit on it with room to spare.


I'd give him the DVD of The Muppet Christmas Carol. One of the finest interpretations ever.

For Charles Dickens, who is probably the main reason I am a writer, I'd like to re-gift him my very worn copy of A Tale of Two Cities which was the first 'real' book I read as a child.

This was in our local library which allocated a tiny room in a large Victorian house to the children's section and as I read my way through the collection alphabetically (I was a librarian before I became a writer) Brazil, Blyton, Buckeridge, Crompton, I came across this writer on the bottom shelf whom I felt sorry for, as his books were stuck together indicating no-one borrowed them. I picked the slimmest and went away to read the most arresting opening line I'd ever read in in my little life, and tumbled into a story that enthralled and scared the wits out of me, to finish with an equally brilliant closing line. It was unlike any other book I'd read previously and did something for me that I still can't properly explain. So I read it again, and again. And then pestered the life out of my mother to actually buy me the book which she did. As our family was almost as large as the author's own, this must have involved some kind of sacrifice. Maybe I won't actually gift him the book. I'll get him to sign it and then sneak off with it while he's opening all those other interesting presents from the History Girls.

I will give him a real woman. Not a harridan or a doll, not a dolt or a caricature but a living, breathing equal partner, who is not dying or impossibly pious. And I'll also bring an amicable divorce from Catherine and a Dear John letter from Ellen, so he can enjoy her.
And I speak as one one who has read all Dickens and adores him!

Mary Hoffman's real woman is a much better present than what I intended to give originally: divorce papers and the PR services of Max Clifford for Mrs Dickens. So I withdraw that and instead offer Dickens a birthday Kissogramme presented by Simon Callow jumping out of an enormous cake - said cake to arrive at the high point of a banquet for his friends and admirers at the Albert Hall with Dickens as guest of honour. God bless us everyone!

My gift for Dickens would be a computer with Google Earth so he could visit modern London via the satellite images, and explore the street-views. I think he'd be utterly fascinated.

It seems rather impertinent to give the Great Man something of a personal, even intimate nature, so I would give him a digital camera to record what he sees on his nocturnal walks and I would like it to be linked to a device so that he can stream the pictures to us now.

Let me be first to bring him an appointment at Relate.

A magic porridge pot so that there would always be more.

I would give him a boxed set of Cagney and Lacey to show him what women can really be like - but also a huge bouquet and thanks for transcending his sexism to be the most wonderful surrealist writer ever.


Boxed sets of all the BBC adaptations of his books (he'd like that!)

A boxed set of the complete Sopranos.

I would perhaps like to invite him to see the welfare state in action (while it still exists!!): take a tour with him of an NHS hospital and a state school, say. Or - with a little bit of time-travel - I would like to take him to see Trevor Nunn's original RSC production of 'Nicholas Nickleby', with Roger Rees as Nicholas & David Threlfall as Smike. It was astonishingly good and I think he might approve.

In the same spirit as Mary Hooper, I would like to give Dickens a course of parenting classes. Although he was deeply wounded by his own experience of being sent away from his family to work in a shoe factory as a child, he packed several of his younger sons off to a boarding school in Boulogne when they were eight, not even allowing them home for Christmas. He was constantly disappointed by his children - possibly because he never really bothered to get to know them. He said himself that he had only wanted three children, and his response to having ten seems to have been to send them as far away as he could as soon as he could: one was packed off to Australia, another to India, another to China. Or on second thoughts, perhaps some instruction on contraception might be just what he always wanted!

I’ll give him the best present any writer can ask for – a re-read of all his books. I’ll be celebrating another birthday at the same time, as my prized Dickens Centenary edition is 100 years old today…’

But I'd also like to add a big hug as a thank-you for having been the unconscious inspiration behind so many of my books. I’ve already written about this on the fabulous normblog - http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2011/10/writers-choice-324-louise-berridge.html - but it was the seminal moment when Nicholas Nickleby turned on Squeers with the words ‘I will not stand by and see it done’ that gave me the idea for the character who became Andre de Roland.’

My gift for Dickens’ birthday would be a copy of Charles Palliser’s The Quincuncx whose narrator is John Huffam – which ‘just happens’ to be Dickens’ middle names.

The book is a wonderful homage to Dickens which gave me many sleepless nights when I simply couldn’t put it down. I think – I hope – the great man would enjoy it too.

Mary’s appointment with Relate is a good idea, but I would go further as I’m pretty sure he was bi-polar and would benefit from a regular prescription of Lithium. I hope I'm not being too cruel.
But if, as Mary suggested, Mr Dickens were to find himself a real woman, I feel he would appreciate a year’s supply of condoms (large size, of course, nothing average). He had never wanted a big family and he certainly would not want to add to the ten he had already co-produced. But as this is his birthday, I feel that the condoms should reflect the party spirit and so they would be in packs of seven with a different colour for each day of the week. It would please him, I think, if the packets were customised in a literary way and labelled Great Expectations.

As I live in his old stamping ground of Borough, I’d offer him a cup of tea and a piece of cake. He’s being pretty thoroughly celebrated in Southwark Cathedral on the day, so he might like a quiet ten minutes at mine. I could also show him my etchings … of Southwark during his time. [You are indeed hosting the party, Michelle! Thank you!]



Until my mid-thirties, I am ashamed to say that I had read only two of Dickens' works: A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities. I decided, belatedly, that this simply would not do, and, being lucky enough to have in the house a set of his complete works (extra-precious, since they had once belonged to my grandpa - a grandpa who died long before I was born), I put myself on a medicinal course of Dickens' novels. What an addictive treat it was! I fell in love with them, utterly. Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are particular favourites. The passage from Oliver Twist that leads up to Bill Sikes' death stands out as a candidate for my 'best bit'. However, to award that accolade (of no very great value, I realise, to anyone but myself) I must return to my first love, and my first experience of Dickens: A Christmas Carol. I adore the opening - the whole of 'Stave I', in fact - in which Scrooge's character is established, and he is visited by Marley's ghost. But my favourite little nugget of all - just one sentence - is a moment early in Stave II, at the arrival of the first of the three spirits:

"The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow."

It's silly, really, to love this little authorial trick so much, when there is so much that is more majestic, more artful or incisive or important in Dickens' works. But I do love it - I have always loved it.

I would like to send you the description of London river, from Pip's flight with Magwitch in Great Expectations, because it's such a vivid and detailed description of the port.. Chapter 54:

"Again among the tiers of shipping, in and out, avoiding rusty chain-cables frayed hempen hausers and bobbing buys, sinking for the moment floating broken baskets, scattering floating chips of wood and shaving, cleaving floating scum of coal, in and out, under the figure-head of the John of Sunderland making a speech to the winds (as is done by many Johns) and the Betsy of Yarmouth with a firm formality of bosom and her nobby eyes starting two inches out of her head, in and out, hammers going in ship-builders' yards, saws going at timber, clashing engines going at things unknown, pumps going in leaky ships, capstans going, ships going out to sea, and unintelligible sea-creatures roaring curses over the bulwarks at respondent lightermen, in and out - out at last upon the clearer river, where the ships' boys might take their fenders in, no longer fishing in troubled waters with them over the side, and where the festooned sails might fly out to the wind."

My favourite Dickens passage is the opening paragraph to The Tale of Two Cities

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven,we were all going direct the other way-- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

Charles Dickens on America, "We are now in the regions of slavery, spittoons & senators - all three are evil in all countries, but the spittoon is the worst." (written in Washington, D. C. on 13th March 1842)


Finally, I'm putting up here the passage which started me off as a Dickens fan. When I was about 11, we read A Christmas Carol at school. The description of Fezziwig's party made a huge impression on me, especially this extract which seemed like a vision of heaven in a boarding-school environment. It's "there was cake" in particular that got to me every time!

"There were more dances, and there were forfeits and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince pies and plenty of beer."


Anonymous said...


I'm with Harriet - the welfare state and the RSC Nicholas Nickleby, which was the most amazing piece of theatre I've ever seen - I walked the streets of London afterwards puzzled that there were no horse drawn carriages or Oliver Twists roaming around me!

Happy Birthday Dickens! Your rage at injustice and your love of all humanity makes me (almost) forgive the child-bride heroines. :) Hey ho, I'm sure your Victorian public would not have loved you nearly as much without them.

Juliet (Dickens geek, despite Esther and Agnes)

Stroppy Author said...

Wonderful! I think I'd give him a decent fountain pen (don't think he'd like a word processor) and a bottle of Tippex as his MSS seem to be very full of splodges and crossings-out.

Linda Newbery said...

What a BRILLIANT idea, HGs! Should be touted and tweeted widely. That would be my present, I think - a Twitter account.

Linda B-A said...

Wonderful birthday party for dear Mr Dickens, Adele. Thank you for inviting us.

adele said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adele said...

It's the guests who make the party, Linda B-A. Thanks for coming. I removed last comment as it was factually incorrect!

H.M. Castor said...

Thank you so much, Adele - great party, great cake ("there was cake" indeed!). And that boxed set of 'Cagney and Lacey' - inspired, Leslie!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Brilliant post. I'd send Dickens a text. Can you IMAGINE Dickens being able to text? He'd be manic.
But seriously, as a huge fan of his work and everything he did to make this planet a better place - and his warts and all life - I'm delighted to be alive and aware on his bi-centenary!

Kit Berry said...

What a brilliant idea for a birthday blog! I agree with Miriam above - just imagine Dickens on Twitter. Surely he'd oust Stephen Fry as king?

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Such fun Adele! And thanks for the wonderful cake recipe too. I wonder if there was one in Mrs Clutterbuck's book?

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

This was a wonderful idea, Adele. It's all so exciting - so may wonderful presents and the cake recipe sounds delicious! I can't wait to try it. Thank you.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for the celebration party. Adele & Michelle, and for the cake.

Hope that somehow the virtual Charles is enjoying this profusion of very apt virtual gifts.

Though some might send him strolling the streets again . . .

Elaine said...

Please do check out a wonderful guest post by Helen Rappaport over on my blog


Happy Birthday Charles. I would give him a laptop - just think how many more books he could write in half the time.

I have loved Dickens since I first read a Junior version of David Copperfield at school which ended with him living with Aunt Betsy. I was simply delighted when I found out there was more (Please Sir I want some more) and read the entire book and that was it, I was off and running.

Mary Hoffman said...

I'm enjoying the party! I'd follow him on Twitter.

And, um, by the way, Roger Rees was my first boyfriend.

michelle lovric said...

Hey, Adele, we're running out of cake. (The history girls have abandoned their diets for CDBday). Can you whip up another cake please? I'm just stepping out for another pint of milk.

frances thomas said...

I'd have sent him off for an angiogram then at least he might have lived to finish Edwin Drood . And I'd also like to show him some of the films of his works, especially the old Great Expectations

adele said...

Gosh, has that cake nearly gone already? I have been sending people to the party all day long....I am virtually taking another out of the fantasy oven even as we speak!

Leila Rasheed said...

Happy birthday Dickens! I think I would give him a big hug to say thank you for being my best friend when I was a teenager.

michelle lovric said...

Party now getting a bit out of hand. Which History Girl used my photocopier to make pictures of her reticule?

Theresa Breslin said...

Wonderful Adele. You hosted this party beautifully and organised the gifts in a way that CD would envy. xx

Jean Bull said...

What a wonderful birthday party! I would give him a ticket for a place on one of the boats sailing down the Thames for the Queen's pageant. Then he could view London from the water and see all the changes, as well as celebrating with Her Majesty!

michelle lovric said...

Sorry chaps, just had to nip across the road to Southwark Cathedral to hear that nice Missis Tomalin giving her talk. The dean had his say too, observing that he had taken Oliver Twist on holiday (hastily adding “Oliver Twist, the BOOK”) and had read it on the beach in Spain, and that it was ‘much, much better than Dan Brown”. The biographical talk was, of course wonderful, illuminating and touching. And the Cathedral even offered a walk-on part to its own perfect Dickensian character – one over-officious and aggressive lady-usher with a mean line in stage whispers. NO one was standing in the right place in the whole of her cathedral, and all must all be reshuffled in a shower of sniffs, snorts and jerky gestures. Dickens would have swooped upon her with delight.

Oh Adele, you shouldn’t have! ALL the washing up? As well as the cake?

Astrid Holm said...

great post and party, I'm with Mary Hoffman on sending him a sensible woman, oh and perhaps a beard trimmer...

My daughter performs in 'Oliver' at her school tomorrow! He was a great man who has so much influence over our culture even now.

adele said...

Just putting the last of those dishes into the machine. It's been a terrific party and THANK YOU to all of you for writing such wonderful comments, sending such perfect presents and all in all making it a memorable day. I did enjoy the whole thing. I've just watched the News and it was quite something to see all the celebrations, nation wide. Good on you, Charles! And thanks to all the History Girls for sharing this post with me. And for so nobly tweeting it all over the place.

adele said...

A lady called LORRANE HOSSINGTON wrote to me to say how much she wanted to comment on here but wasn't able to. I said I'd copy and paste her message about the party:

"I want to say I loved it. I am a big fan of his works and love a Christmas Carol. I first read the book Oliver Twist, whilst in the musical Oliver in secondary school.
I would give him a set of dvds of all his books that have been turned into films.
Definitely agree about a muppet christmas carol. One of the best adaptations of his novel.
It would be great to interview him. Imagine what he could tell us about his own ideas and writing.

Just wanted you and the ladies know how much I enjoyed the comments. And now I know about the blog I will definitely be going back and reading.
Thanks for all the comments. "

Birthday Gift Ideas said...

Great post and party,What a brilliant idea for a birthday post!

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