Before travelling to Minneapolis to perform ‘To Begin With’ I discovered some papers handed to me many years ago by my father. They are two speeches, and I thought it would be fun to post them as ‘guest blogs’
Back in 1993 I gave my first reading of A Christmas Carol and Dad was a huge inspiration to me. He was never short of advice and wanted me to do my absolute best. On reading this first paper, I now fully understand why!
Dad died almost ten years ago but reading his words I can hear his voice and picture his face so vividly. There are notes in the margin written in his angular hand and I am not ashamed to say that they bring tears to my eyes. It is as if he is sitting next to me. I wish he were, for I’d love him to see ‘To Begin With’.
I am sure that you will enjoy:
Dickens Was Dead: To Begin With
by David Dickens
Dickens was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. No doubt whatever, because the scene is Christmas Day in 1932. Yet here are Dickens’s voice, his inflexions, his manner, his movements. His son, Henry Fielding Dickens, is reading A Christmas Carol to the assembled family.
No! Not reading. He is giving the whole thing from memory exactly as his father had done. Henry Fielding Dickens (or Harry, or Sir Henry Fielding Dickens KC, of The Guv’nor, or Pupsey, or Pan-Pan – depending on one’s age and hierarchical status) had heard the Carol from his father – heaven knows how many times! Indeed, he had been present throughout the last series of Readings in London, including the final one, when ‘from these garish lights’ Dickens vanished ‘for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, affectionate, farewell’.
And here we are listening to the very self-same thing. Now, at the 150th anniversary of the Carol, it is almost incredible that this link still exists. How fortunate, how privileged we were! Did we realise that we were living with history? Sadly, we did not. Those of us who remember it (and there are not too many of us now) were children then. We were on duty to listen to our funny old grandfather. And we knew, having heard the performance for a good many Christmasses before, that when Bob Cratchit came back from Tiny Tim’s grave, old Pan-pan would begin to cry. Not only cry, but weep; weep with copious tears; tears that tumbled down his cheeks. Ye gods! It was so embarrassing! But worse was to come because when Scrooge threw open the window to call to the boy, Pan-Pan’s false teeth dropped out. They always did. Invariably. You could set the time by it. Such youthful Philistines were we!
There had never been a Christmas in the memory of the family but that Harry (as I will now call him) had read the Carol. It was always on Christmas Day. Whatever celebrations he had around our own domestic tables, and however far from London we lived, everybody came to Mulberry Walk in Chelsea that evening. Every aunt and uncle; every great-aunt and great-uncle; every cousin; and every second cousin-once-removed, and third cousin-twice-removed – everyone was there.
The reading of the Carol was the climax of the evening. Before that, everybody – adults as well as children – had to get on stage and do something. When it came to our turn – the grandchildren’s turn – we were nervous and shy. But that shyness was not to be indulged, because it was one of the immutable laws of the family that anyone who got on stage must do their piece with panache. To perform well in public was a family expectation.
Harry, himself, did not have the appearance of an actor. He was not a flamboyant man. But appearance was deceptive; acting and the theatre were among his greatest loves.
After all, he had first trod the boards at the age of 5, when Dickens, Mark Lemon and Wilkie Collins put on, in 1854, the first of a series of theatricals involving the children at the annual Twelfth Night party at Tavistock House. Harry played the title role in Tom Thumb (a burlesque written, as it happens, by his namesake Henry Fielding). ‘The encores were frequent’ so Forster tells us. Such instant and initial success might turn the head of any would-be actor, the more so when it was repeated the following year, and he again took the title role in Fortunio and his Seven Gifted Servants. Dickens’s flamboyant playbill, which Forster says could not have been bettered by Mr Crummles himself, included the legend ‘Reappearance of Mr H. who created so powerful impression last year!’ It also announced ‘the first appearance on any stage of Mr Plornishmaroontigoonter (who has been kept out of bed at vast expense!’)
Harry’s own memory of his first thespian fame was more modest, recording that ‘my language at this period was of such a very dubious and incomprehensible character that the audience had to be furnished with a copy of the words which I was supposed to be singing’. If his diction left something to be desired, his enthusiasm did not. In Fortunio, when he had to slay the dragon (Mark Lemon) he feared that ‘Uncle Mark must have felt the effects of it for some time after’.
The theatre was all around these children. Although they took no part in the serious dramas of The Frozen Deep and The Lighthouse, Harry at least had the important responsibility of tearing up bits of paper for snow in the arctic scenes. Whether Harry inherited his love of the theatre from his father, or whether it was acquired by example, is of no matter. It was there from his earliest years.
After Dickens’s death, Harry, Mamie and Georgina set up house together in London. because of their intimacy with all Dickens’s literary, artistic and theatrical friends they knew everybody who made the lively world tick.
In another part of London there was another family – that of M. Antonin Roche. M. Roche was French. He had married a German wife, Emily Moscheles. She was a consummate pianist and had been a pupil of Chopin. That she was musical was not surprising because her father was Ignaz Moscheles, friend and pupil of Beethoven, Director of the Conservatoire of Music in Leipzig. That same Ignaz Moscheles had been tutor to Dickens’s sister, Fanny, at the Royal Academy of Music. Emily’s brother, Felix, was an artist of some considerable repute.
Antonin and Emily had nine children. The eldest girl was Marie. There were four older brothers and four younger brothers and sisters.
So the Roches, too, were an artistic family. They, too, knew everybody who made the lively world tick. The nine children were themselves lively – a close, loving family of enormous enthusiasms, the greatest of which was their love of the theatre. They were forever putting on plays. Their dearest friend was Charles Fechter, who was not above helping them in their youthful productions. The play of his that they enjoyed most was Fanfan La Tulipe in which he brought his horse, Minerva, onto the stage and did a cross-talk act with her. The children loved that horse, and they had, too, a particularly high regard for the kindness of Mr Charles Dickens because when the run was over, Minerva was given the sanctuary of the paddock at Gad’s Hill in which to live out her days.
Henry Irving; he was another particular friend. When the children had put on their version of Irving’s play, Charles I, which was drawing full houses at the Lyceum he, himself, came round to maison Roche to supervise their efforts, and to make suggestions, such as that two saucepans banged together were perhaps not an adequate rendering of the sombre striking of the clock so necessary for the dramatic conclusion of the piece.
That two such lively and similar families as the Dickenses and the Roches should meet was only a matter of time. A certain Lady Wilson got up theatricals each year among her circle of friends. That theatrically-talented young Mr Henry Dickens was much in demand as Director and Actor. In 1875 Marie Roche was thrilled to be invited to join the company. When, next year, Mr Dickens was asked if he would give his services again, he replied ‘Yes – if Miss Roche acts’. They acted together. The piece was A Husband in Clover. They married the same year.
If ever a prophecy came true this was it. No husband ever lived in such clover as Harry. For the next 57 years he was loved and cosseted and fussed over by Marie. He was the sun of her life. They were as devoted a couple as ever walked together in the world.
When Harry and Marie married they made a conscious and explicit vow that if they had children they would do their best to give them a happy childhood and youth. That was not difficult for Marie because her childhood and had been energetically happy in a large rumbustuous family. Harry, who seemed to have been a happy child despite the break-up of his home (he was 9 at the time), may have looked back to the childhood that once had been, so aptly described by FR and QD Leavis ‘….Dickens filled his own children’s lives with acting, jokes, dancing, singing, parties, travel, seaside spells, and all kinds of happy nonsense,…..he liked to describe scenes of joviality as well as to show the horrors of such family life as that of the Clennams, the Wilfers, the Snagsbys, the Gradgrinds and the Murdstones, among others such as Esther’s childhood home.’
Harry and Marie were unanimous about the way in which they would bring up their children. ‘All kinds of happy nonsense’ would be the keynote. And the family did grow up happy. Not only happy, but inexpressibly lively, with a wide range of enthusiasms and artistic talents. Marie was the quintessential earth-mother (her affectionate nickname by her grandchildren became, in fact, ‘Gaïa’, although that developed from the mispronunciation of ‘Grandmere’ rather than from any classical allusion. She was more generally known as ‘Mumsey’). Such a role was in the very foundation of her character, and she was used to it, having been the little mother to her brothers and sisters. Harry, by all accounts, was more like a brother to his children, so unlike the stern paterfamilias of the period. He was a placid man. He seemed by nature to be placid and happy (which perhaps explains why he, unlike Plorn, survived Gad’s Hill). With Marie in command on the bridge; with Marie driving the ship from the engine room; with Marie at the helm, Harry could live his life in the state of placid happiness that suited him, and devote his considerable intellect to the practise of the law.
Marie, by contrast, was always up and doing; always bustling and commanding; always organising and overseeing. The remarkable thing about this English family (and what could be more English than the name of Dickens?) was that it was, in fact, French. Marie was born in London, and lived all her life in London, but French she was, and was ever determined to remain so. She spoke only in French. She raised her children in French. Everything about the household was French. She conversed with Harry in French, but in this he teased her. He affected, in public, not to understand her. If he did essay a few words in reply he made sure that he spoke with the most excruciating accent, as only an Englishman can. And she, if she condescended a few words in English, would likewise mangle it. It was a running joke throughout their 57 years. Of course Harry spoke French perfectly well. His father was a great Francophile. The family had been on holiday for years in France. Harry, himself, had been to school in Boulogne. Of course Marie knew and spoke English perfectly well. But she was determined to be French and that was that.
If Harry was ‘a Husband in Clover’ at home it must not be forgotten that he was pursuing a distinguished legal career. He was called to the Bar in 1873; took Silk in 1892. He became Common Serjeant in 1917 (sitting as a Judge at the Old Bailey) and was knighted in 1922. He remained as Common Serjeant until his retirement at the age of 80, in 1929.
Given the theatrical backgrounds and enthusiasms of Harry and Marie it was not surprising that their children (there were seven of them) should clamber up onto the stage as soon as they could walk and talk. The first family play, The Fir Tree, was put on in 1884. With the actors aged between six and two (that play has been performed by every subsequent generation of the family, the actors being, as far as possible, of the equivalent ages of the originals.) Thereafter there was scarcely a time when some play or other was not in rehearsal or performance in the Dickens household.
At about the same time Harry began to work-up short readings for the entertainment of the family. As the children grew older he extended his readings to include his father’s repertoire – Doctor Marigold; The Child’s Dream of a Star; Mr Chops, the Dwarf; Boots at the Holly Tree Inn; Richard Doubledick; The Cricket on the Hearth. In doing this he copied his father exactly using Dickens’s own prompt-copies, the very same scripts and stage directions. For the performance, like his father, he never referred to the book, knowing that the success was to keep his eye on the audience. He went on to longer readings including the Carol and David Copperfield. He even made his own version of Great Expectations, which Dickens had never done. So Harry became an experienced and accomplished reader in the Dickens style, and the tradition of a performance by him at family gatherings was set.
Among the many interests and influences in the lives of the family, Charles Dickens was one, but not the only one. He was a fact of their lives. They took him for granted. They were proud of him, of course, and proud of their relationship. But Harry and Marie were determined that the children should not live in his aura, or perhaps it was his shadow that they feared. Harry knew how difficult it had been for his brothers to find their own identities and live their own lives. Equally, his children must not bask in reflected glory. They must look forward, and make their own way in the world. Such success as they might find must be their own, as Harry’s had been. Aura and shadow were both to be avoided.
That having been said, it cannot be denied that Charles Dickens was everywhere around. The house was full of his things. The Children grew up familiar with his stories. And then there was Georgina (always known simply as ‘Auntie’) and Kitty (never called Katey) – two people who had known Dickens intimately.
Georgina attached herself to Harry’s family. After Mamie died she always lived close by. When they moved house, she moved house. Old photographs show her always present at family parties and picnics. Far from being a shadowy figure from the past, she was a very vital – and very loving – presence. At the time of her death, Harry’s children were between their thirties and forties. ‘Auntie’ had been as much in their lives as she had been in those of the previous generation.
Kitty, too, was a very vital – but really rather a frightening – presence. Handsome, positive, imperious, she was anything but a soft touch. After the death of her beloved Carlo Perugini she became sad and depressed. But she was always around. Even we grandchildren knew her, for she lived until 1929.
And so we come back to Christmas Day in 1932, and my childhood memory. The house at Mulberry Walk is all a-bustle with excitement, it is seething with Aunts. Many Aunts we see only from year to year because they are French or German. They talk – as my cousin Monica recalled the same scene in her autobiography An Open Book – in thick guttural voices and manufacture a lot of saliva. They kiss us juicily and hug us painfully against the zareba of their stays. The noise is deafening. The Dickens family en masse exudes a colossal confidence. They are absolutely sure of themselves. They are perfectly content with their place in the world and do not care a fig for the opinion of society or anyone. They are just a bunch of gregarious, warm, loving, articulate (in several languages), energetic, outgoing, artistic, lively people, happy in themselves and in the ambience. They come together now, at Christmas, as they have done for every year of their lives, and they mean to enjoy it in the Dickensian way. Beloved old Harry and Marie, old Pupsey and Mumsey, old Pan-Pan and Gaïa, are their Christmas star.
The entertainment takes place in the Billiard Room. It is the largest room in the house, but even so, with a full-size table, a grand piano and Marie’s museum of Dickensiana, it is crowded to suffocation. We grandchildren creep under the table for survival and try to identify the passing Aunts by their legs. The show begins – the dreaded moment. This year my brothers have elected to do an apache dance to mouth-organ accompaniment. Harry makes a moue of distaste. My brothers are the apaches ; I am dressed as the gangster’s Moll to be thrown violently from one to other. I do not enjoy it. I do not think the audience does, either, but it is a family audience, and we are applauded. Well – that is over, thank goodness, and now we can sit back and watch our cousins in the agonies of their party pieces.
When all this nonsense is finished, the little old man comes on stage. Oh! He is so bird-like and frail. He is the honoured patriarch. And is still the actor. His presence dominates……the room falls silent.
‘Marley was dead: to begin with’.
We are listening to Charles Dickens.
But that was the end of it. Before another Christmas came round Harry was dead – victim of a road accident, and dying on 21st December 1933, at that very time – of all the good times in the year – that he loved above all. His proudest boast was that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge. And so he did! God love it, so he did!
‘To Begin With’ continues its run at The Music Box Theatre until March 8. If you want to book tickets time is running out, so book now at: