Friday, 28 December 2012

Dickens' house museum

27 December 2012
Mr Fezziwig's ball, an illustration from A Christmas Carol.
This image of conviviality is what we've inherited from Dickens' view of Christmas.
Yet it effectively exists only in Scrooge's imagined happy past life.
It's how Scrooge chose, and chooses to respond to this vision that matters.
The reopening of his house museum is an opportunity to evaluate Dickens’ highly idiosyncratic views on Christmas. 

Dickens didn’t invent the nineteenth century obsession with Christmas, but this year, his two hundredth birthday, it is worth reflecting on how much he popularised the event, and what it seems to have meant for him. 

While he decorated yuletide with all the trimmings, and these trimmings are what we continue to associate with this time of year, his central interest was very different, and not at all Christian, though he might have objected to this. 

He perceived Christmas as a time of ghosts, both in the form of subjects of scary stories and metaphorically as a time for remembering our past life and perhaps changing our future approach based on this consideration. The Christmas Carol accommodates both these aspects, and when haunted Scrooge returns to the wonderment and imagination of his youth, the power of this imagination rejuvenates him.  

For Dickens, then, Christmas was principally a time when the imagination could work on us, and although his Christmas stories have the conventional happy ending, as with Scrooge, there is always the possibility that its workings will have a negative effect, as when we think on deaths in the family. 

The Dickens house museum, located in one of his early London residences, reopened in December just in time to capture those wishing to celebrate both the man and his connection with Christmas. 

The house was closed in order to extend the amenities, and allow more people to experience the original house. Nonetheless over the holiday period the house was extremely crowded, which limits the enjoyment.

It also suffers from the curse of all new museums – the interactives don’t work, nor is the guidebook back from the printers yet. Oh well, those wrinkles will be sorted out. 

Otherwise, I had mixed feelings. Too much focuses on what is referred to as Dickens’ sympathy with the poor, unparalleled in his time. Perhaps Dickens felt sympathy with the poor, though it would be hard to tell from his writing about them, always external to their situation, always sentimentalising much as he did with everyone.  

Moralist critics of Dickens, starting with his mentor Thomas Carlyle, have always complained about his sentimentality. These critics may miss the point, but they are at least accurate, unlike his moralist supporters, who claim that he was a champion of the oppressed.

The upper floor of this house is dedicated to this vision of Dickens, wildly wrong as would be observed by anyone simply reading how he described his temporary confinement to a blacking factory as a child, the great trauma of his life.  
In these words, he shows no sympathy for his fellow workers, most of whom were there for much longer than he. Rather, he is concerned that nobody noticed he was destined for much better things, as indeed, he was.

He knew his genius; he followed it; and on the side, like anyone with scruples, he expressed concern for the plight of the poor, though it had nothing to do with his talent, nor was it something he focussed upon unduly.

Dickens combined a vivid imagination (natively amoral, but trained into a conventional strict morality) with a love of theatre, especially comedy, and of conviviality combined with hard work. It is this mixture that produces what is distinctively great about his writing, which has almost nothing in common with that of any writer of his time.

Some of his strengths are reflected in the exhibits here. A playbill from one of his private performances of a Wilkie Collins melodrama (and notable, a farce afterwards). A dining room where we’re told he somehow entertained 18 people, which must have been very cosy, and a feat worthy of his Pickwick.
What a pity that here, as elsewhere, what is most important about Dickens, what makes him live, is buried amongst a focus on poverty that, if we seek for it in his works, does neither the author nor his current readers any credit.

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