The Dickens FayreCategory: Leisure
A Dickens Folk Fayre and Pageant ought to be crowded. Imagine Mr Pickwick or Mrs Gamp stepping forward to see rows of empty chairs, to hear nothing but a faint crackle of applause — a horrible picture! If the affair is to be really Dickensy, all the town must be there, eating and drinking and nodding and smiling and sweating and bustling and cheering. The Dickens Fayre to which I went last Thursday was as crowded as Pickwick Papers. Those of us who were late for the afternoon performance of the pageant had no hope of seats, and I for one did not see how I should even find standing room.
However, I followed a very determined looking middle aged man (perhaps it was Major Bagstock ) along a corridor at the back of the hall, and at last found myself among the little tables set out for tea. There I had quite a good view of the stage, though I was always in danger of putting my hand into a plate of cakes when I . absent-mindedly leaned back. This Fayre was in aid of the church, so the vicar was in charge. It was he who told us all about Dickens before the Pageant began. “One of the giants of the Victorian era,” he was saying when I arrived. When he had finished and, perspiring, smiling nervously, and making any number of mysterious signs, had taken his place below, standing near the edge of the platform, an old man with a short pipe in his mouth poked his head through the curtain at the side. This was clearly a signal for the little orchestra’ to play, for it started up at once, and after a minute or two the curtains began wobbling, drew away from one another, hesitated, then finally went creaking back, disclosing a desk in one corner of the stage, a desk with two candles burning on it and several large important volumes bound in calf. There was a figure seated at this desk. It was Dickens himself, flourishing a gigantic quill pen. We all applauded.
I found it difficult to hear what Dickens said for he had a trick of talking into his beard. I do know, however, that he talked throughout in verse, and that this verse reminded me of the old opening scenes in pantomimes, when the demon and the fairy queen used to defy one another before plunging into a duet for baritone and soprano. (And I am certain that this is the kind of verse that Dickens would have chosen himself.) Dickens would speak several lines of his bad verse. The old man with the pipe would poke his head through the curtain at the side, and the orchestra would play a chord or two or a march. Then Dickens’s characters would appear, sometimes in a little procession, sometimes in a tableau at the back of the stage. The enthusiasm of the audience was tremendous, as well it might be for everybody there was enjoying the pleasure of a,two-fold recognition. They had the pleasure of recognising various characters. They had the further pleasure of recognising their friends and relatives in those poke-bonnets and high felt hats. I was rather out of it because all the actors were strangers to me and I did not always bear what Dickens was saying. There was a number of sheepish young men in high felt hats who did not seem to represent anybody in particular, though I have no doubt they could be sorted out into Copperfields and Swivellers and Pips.
Most of the major characters seemed to have been changed a little. Mr Pickwick, for example, has apparently grown younger and younger: last Thursday he was only about thirty-five. Mrs Gamp is far- more respectable in appearance than she used to be. Mr Micawber, I regret to say, was much thinner, and in place of that smooth and shining expanse of bald head he had a rather disgusting, wrinkled, yellow crown thai looked suspiciously like painted canvas. Quilp was neither a dwarf nor deformed, but had the appearance of a young gentleman who preferred to spend his time looking for something on the floor. Bumble was not there: he was impersonated by his wife; it did not take me five seconds to discover that. Oliver Twist was there, bowl and all, and was obviously enjoying himself, but he looked strangely neat and clean and not unlike one of those page boys one sees at the big hotels. Bill Sykes had a rabbit under his coat and must have taken to poaching. Fagin and Scrooge and Uriah Heep have not changed at all, I am happy to say.
There was something queer about Sam Weller, but I did not discover what it was until the pageant proper was over and we were all strolling about in the grounds outside and the girls in their 1840 dresses (and very pretty they looked too) were being photographed. It was then I noticed Sam Weller who was wearing rimless eyeglasses and asking no less a person than Dickens himself to bring a cup of tea. The attitude, the tone of voice told me all: Sam Weller was Dickens’s wife. That was very odd. But then, it seemed tp me outside there, when all the actors were smoking their pipes, the girls giggling at the photographer, the women becoming expansive over cups of tea, old men bowling for a pig, Mr Pickwick getting in everybody’s way, it seemed to me that it was all far more like Dickens than the pageant was. The moment some of these good souls stopped pretending to be Dickens’s characters, they really became Dickens’s characters. If I had caught a glimpse of the great man himself bowling for a pig, I should not have been surprised.
That is not to say that the pageant was a failure. It was a gigantic success. There was]not a character that did not get its round of applause. Even Edwin Drood, a vague young gentleman who stood at the back of the stage, raised his arms, and looked as if he were about to be sick, was enthusiastically welcomed. As for the Pickwicks and Micawbers and Gamps, they were recognised at once and rapturously applauded. Indeed, one old gentleman standing near me stamped so hard that he became a menace to the whole building. These people were not only seeing their friends in a masquerade but they were seeing those other old friends from the vast dream-world of Dickens and were clapping their hands at the sight of them Consider what it means. You get together a few hundred ordinar; people of a small town, and all of them recognise this novelist! characters at a glance. Only recently Mr Maurois told us.tha one of the things that astonished him in England was the sight о an actor in a music-hall very successfully entertaining his audienci by giving impersonations of Dickens’s characters. It could no happen in France, he observed, for there no characters of fictioi are so well known. But if you want still better evidence of th< astounding fame of Dickens, you have it here in this Pageant am Fayre.
If there were statues of that man in every square in London this little pageant wolud still be better evidence of his fame. Strictlj speaking, there has not been a famous writer since Dickens. Every body knows about Mr Bernard Shaw, we say, and most people d< know his name, but that is only because they have seen it so oftei in the papers.’ Ask ninety-nine people out of every hundred wh( John Tanner is, and they will stare at you. Kipps and Mr Polly, Clayhanger and Denry Machiri, Soames Forsyte — who are thes people? Not one person in a hundred, perhaps two hundred, perhap five, could tell you, and yet we imagine that everybody know Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy.
I wish somebody would stand at the corner of a London stree and put a question or two about authors to every passer-by. I hav met educated people, who were in the habit of using libraries, am called themselves readers, and they did not know the names о some of our best living poets and novelists. To understand th colossal fame of Dickens you have to go outside literature altogethe now: Charlie Chaplin is the only rival worth considering. Bu is this kind of fame worth having? Of course it is, and worth mor than all the statues, titles, dedications, memorials, commentators volumes of So-and-so and His Age, put together. And here is a ques tion for those fellow scribblers who do not like these innocent remarks who are even now bridling and putting on peevish airs. Who sail that every man should sit down to write as if he had a millio: readers? Was it said yesterday by Nat Gould, or today by Ethe M. Dell? No, it was said the day before yesterday by Goethe
(From All about Ourselves and Other Essays by J. P. Priestley