Dickens Day 2017
This post has been contributed by Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott, a PhD researcher studying magicians, both fictional and real, and conjuring in the nineteenth century. Find her on Twitter @beeashlell.
Saturday 14th October saw a full house gather for the annual Dickens Day conference at Senate House in London. The theme this year, ‘Dickens and Fantasy’, is very close to my heart, so as a first-time attendee I knew that many of the papers would be relevant to my research area of nineteenth-century magic. Nevertheless, I was blown away by how inspirational the day proved to be!
We began with three fascinating plenary talks by Bethan Carney, Kate Newey and Caroline Sumpter. Bethan’s opening paper on Dickens and goblins followed the origins of Victorian representations of these supernatural creatures, from art by the likes of Henry Fuseli and Richard Doyle, as well as touching on the abusive personalities which they often share with their Shakespearean counterparts. Through focusing on the similarities shared between Dickens’s goblins and ghosts, this paper showed how often these creatures serve to teach moral lessons in narratives. Kate’s talk on ‘Dickens in Fairyland’ was a captivating tour around the backstage journalism of the nineteenth century, particularly in regards to pantomime. Her paper drew on the differences between theatre and theatricality explored by Dickens and George Augustus Sala in their editorial and journalistic roles, and inspired many interesting questions for me to consider in my own research on performance magic in the period. Finally, Caroline’s paper on ‘Time-Travelling Dickens’ explored the balance between realism and romance, focusing on a figure very familiar to those of us who frequent #folklorethursday on Twitter: Andrew Lang. This paper explored Dickens’s work through Lang’s anthropological lens and his coining of the term ‘psycho-folklore’, whilst also touching on many other intriguing nineteenth-century occult figures, including Arthur Machen, A. E. Waite, J. K. Huysmans and Society for Psychical Research founder Frederic W. H. Myers.
Following a well-timed coffee break and some highly entertaining readings led by Tony Williams of the Dickens Fellowship, half of our group opted to attend the ‘Fantasy, Theatre and Spectacle’ panel. Again, all three papers were highly stimulating and covered a variety of areas. Jen Baker discussed her work exploring movable book adaptations of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and even brought along some examples for us 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 the orgiastic nature of A Tale of Two Cities’ revolution scenes and their links with classical Bacchanalian mythology, alongside how this could relate to Sydney Carton’s struggles with individuality and identity. Jennifer Miller addressed domesticity in theatrical adaptations of Dickens’s work and how endings were often adjusted for a happier domestic outcome. Highlights included 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 two more panels, on one of which I was giving a paper. As a first conference paper experience it was fortunately painless and enjoyable, and the audience were friendly and warm towards all speakers throughout the day. Where better to discuss Dickens and dragons than this year’s conference with its theme of fantasy? I was also in excellent company, with my fellow panelists Giles Whiteley and Jeremy Parrott discussing the influence of Southey’s Curse of Kehama upon Edwin Drood and the folktales of Barnaby Rudge respectively. Our panel also benefited from a particularly lively discussion of A Tale of Two Cities film adaptations in the Q&A!
Finally, Simon J. James’s brilliant closing plenary, entitled ‘The Ghost of Dickens’s Memory’, addressed the circular nature of time in Dickens’s work and the haunting nature of personal mythologies. We 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 fitting end to a highly stimulating conference. The readings throughout were also a truly wonderful addition to the day, and 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 an exciting day of discussion, particularly to Bethan Carney and Ben Winyard who were on hand throughout the day. I look forward to another excellent Dickens Day next year!